I am, as most of you who read me regularly have likely gathered, an animal lover. There is a theory among non-animal lovers that those who connect with animals do so because they feel a disconnect with other people. The most negative view of animal lovers is that they are lonely and socially removed from humankind, forcing them to be more in tune with other creatures. The bird man of Alcatraz, for example, loved his pigeons, but killed people.
My problem however, is not a lack of connection, but too much of one. I have, and have always had, an overly developed sense of empathy. If I see anything suffering, human, or animal, or even inanimate objects (this has happened), I feel deeply upset. One night driving to the cottage, we turned onto a side road to find a gas station and my father pointed to an abandoned house and commented that it seemed lonely. I burst into tears. The next year, at Christmas, a family had moved in and the house dazzled under hundreds of twinking lights. I was overjoyed. Since as a six year old I once felt emotion for a house at the side of the road, it is understandable that in adulthood my sense of empathy easily extends to all creatures with thoughts, emotions, and the ability to feel pain.
Anyone who has had pets knows that animals clearly have the ability to feel emotions, and that they must have some sort of thought process. But what exactly is going on in their minds? It is likely not the emotions that we understand and recognize most readily, since those emotions are a human construct, and may not exist in the animal world. I try hard to connect with my cats on their level, and not to anthropomorphize their behavior, which is one of the reasons why I’m good with rescue animals (my cat Pichu was considered unadoptable by the humane society). But I am definitely guilty of projecting on them the emotions I understand, and hope that they share.
A fantastic program on the dilemma between wanting to connect with other animals, and our inability to comprehend their true thoughts and emotions was recently produced my RadioLab. For animal lovers like me, it is a must listen.