Thoughts on Animals


Immanuel Kant: “He who is cruel in his dealings with animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

Albert Schweitzer. “By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.”

Ghandi: The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

People often confess shamefacedly that they love their pets more than they love their fellow human beings. A good number of French would have to plead guilty to this as well. It is one of the reasons I like them. I remember being  scandalised when I was told as a child that there would be no animals in heaven because animals do not have souls. “Heaven” said I then – as I say now “is no place for me!”

Abraham Lincoln said “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”

Some suggest that a consuming love of animals is a sign of misanthropy. If that is the case then I am misanthropic. I do not understand fully why my emotions are so aroused by the terrible plight of most of the non-human animals on this planet. It may be that I was taught as a child to appreciate them, or it may be a psychological identification with them. Whatever the case, I am a passionate devotee of nonhuman creatures great and small.

When we consider the human discourses and skills, animals do not seem to know much that we know, but what they do know they know perfectly. The (in)famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that his dog was the only being who really knew him and did not confuse him for some mistaken, projected fantasy.

The question often discussed by philosophers and animal-lovers is whether or not their animals are “persons” i.e. do they have souls. Another way of posing the question is to ask does a nonhuman animal have a “personal identity”, a “me” and hence all the longings, desires, and even morals that seem to go with that structure. I cannot imagine why we would want to afflict them with souls what ever we may understand “having a soul” to mean. Having a soul is the source of a great deal of suffering. Nietzsche calls man “the suffering animal”. When someone says of a pet “He is a real character!” I am sure they are not speaking metaphorically. The animal concerned is a “person”.

When animals become involved in our lives (for purposes other than eating and servitude) we invest them with a cultural soul or a “personhood”. They get this in virtue of their association with the creatures who invented the phenomenon: ourselves. The soul is a narrative structure, a man-made explanation for our perplexing intuitions of subjectivity and spirituality. It combines historical circumstances and moral imperatives. If animals have similar souls then they get those souls from us.  You have only to type “guilty dogs” into You-tube and you will see the souls of dogs exhibited. Whether one believes in God or not, all we know about him/her/it, we have devised for ourselves. We have developed the notion of the soul to explain how we are connected to God, or as a philosopher like Plato would put it, to explain how we might participate in the substance of the divine.

In these terms we can ponder the question about animals having souls. We tame them, train them, and in the most arrogant, exploitative and disrespectful way we oppress them with our demands and then, if it suits us, we will eat them. If one of them tries to eat one of us it is executed immediately.

For the last forty years the French Philosopher Derrida has been one of the world’s most famous and controversial philosophers. He caused a scandal in the philosophical world by being the first philosopher to be rich and bold enough to drive a Rolls Royce with personalised number plates. It was a real paradox because philosophers like to think of themselves as being rather austere and not really interested in material things. Derrida died in 2004.  He devoted some thought to this problem of whether or not we can think of animals as “persons”.

He commences from the position that “personhood” is something we get from our society. He wonders if it might be useful to think of the prohibition regarding killing as a place to start delineating personhood. Perhaps “persons” are those we are not permitted to kill. If we will not kill an animal perhaps we consider it a person. When a criminal is executed he must have forfeited his personhood.

Derrida was forced to abandon that position because, of course, humans kill each other all the time regardless of whether or they think their victims might have “souls.”

Next, he draws an analogy between the rules and rituals that surround human eating practices and the notion of “personhood”. In many countries it is the routine for men to eat first and best, then the children, and last of all, if there is anything left, the women may eat. This is indicative of a certain hierarchy of persons. Here, the men might be considered the fully-fledged “persons” while the women are not. In these terms then, the societies that nurture their animals as carefully as they do their children would accord those creatures the status of “person” and it would be morally reprehensible to allow them to go hungry, to kill them or to eat them.

Personhood has several facets: psychological, juridical, political and ethical identity for example. According to Derrida a ready-reckoner as to the status and power of the person would be to regard those who eat “well” as having been granted the status of subject. “Well” is used here in a dual sense; e.g. to follow the society’s rules about eating is to eat well, and to eat good quality food is to eat well.

Another interesting remark Derrida makes is that once we have imposed personhood upon these creatures, i.e. given them a human-made soul, it is almost impossible to strip them of it without gross cruelty. We cannot simply turn tame tigers out into the jungle. If we abandon tame dolphins to the wild they will still beg for food from the fishing boats. It is the same with tamed wolves. Even though they are perfectly capable of fishing and hunting for themselves, breaking bread with humans has become more important to them than simple survival.

We humans can learn a great deal from animals both tame and in their natural state. For example: we would do well to emulate their stoicism, pragmatism, simplicity and their purity. If I see an animal living without interference, or even one well cared for and contented, I am imbued with some of their contentment. In the United States the prison authorities permitted a study in which homeless dogs were allocated one each to long term and recalcitrant prisoners. Men and women who were not motivated to try to improve their own situation by obeying the prison rules were happy to negotiate good behaviour for privileges for their animals. When a cat, normally wild and frightened, sits on my lap and trusts that I will not harm it I can catch a glimpse of good in our species.

If the English have a reputation for devotion to animals then the French cannot be far behind.  Yet, there is still the paradox of hunting. Many people in both countries continue to hunt. If I could believe that the hunting was only in order to provide food then perhaps it would not seem so repulsive. But the pleasure the hunters seem to derive from what they call a sport does little to ease my misgivings. It is hard to think of a creature that takes more pleasure in killing than humans do. Other creatures will kill but it is mainly for food or out of fear. The fox in the hen house springs to mind but the fox does not know any better. The fox cannot sit down with his peers and talk the matter over. The fox is still driven by instinct whereas we humans have the rare distinction of being able to rise above instinct.

Healthy and beautiful, nonhuman animals abound at every turn in La France Profond.  It is possible to draw all sorts of conclusions about a society from the way they treat animals and, hunting aside, the French must be among the most enlightened people on earth. They are a people who will not smile at one another with out a very good reason, but they will beam and melt at the sight of a dog.

10962174115_0145f83731_z(1)Meeting for a chat on Saturday morning.


In our area of France they have a multitude of horse and donkey shows.  In beautiful, spacious stable yards the animals are assembled for exhibition and judging. Their human admirers scatter about the periphery seated in the shade. The donkeys look exactly as if they have dressed themselves up in donkey costumes that are way too big for them. They are as friendly as can be and walk up to you (even the babies) and butt you gently with their heads to get a scratch. The various categories are judged at a wonderfully leisurely pace. Measured carefully, examined meticulously, observed in their walking and trotting gaits, their forelocks curled and whiskers trimmed they are perfectly aware that they are the essence of equine beauty.


On one occasion we were given a showing of “Princess“, a blue/black draught horse of huge, huge  proportions. Since that time we have gotten to know her very well and often stop to give her a piece of bread.  She has a fine head and long curly mane, tail and feathered feet. She is a really pretty giant and her handlers treated her so gently and respectfully – as if she really were a Princess.

As we drove past in the morning the stables were in the full swing of preparation for the afternoon show and we saw “Princess”  being groomed. One fellow brushing her feet and another dealing with her mane and tail – all of which had been crimped. No wonder she has a good opinion of herself and of her handlers. She is beautiful. We saw several other handsome and expectant faces peeping out over their stable doors.

I saw a YouTube  video of those lovely horses in El Caballo Blanco. They are mostly draught horses and stallions. The history of the thing goes that they used stallions because the Spanish army would not come in and confiscate them for war purposes. The stallions were too naughty and willful. (Isn’t that the way of the world). So they trained up the stallions to dance – confident that they would not be dragooned into the army. They showed footage of them doing “Piaf” which is prancing on the spot. It was a technique used to warm up the horses before battle. These great big dills looked so wonderfully silly. I marveled at their luxurious forelocks and manes that were all curled and fluffed up into ringlets.

I saw a little girl at the coffee shop and she too had her hair in curls and ringlets in just the same way. I puzzled about how we have decided that curls are the height of beauty in little girls and in those huge animals. What can we be thinking of? How do curls improve the look of a horse? They do though in a rather strange way. It shows how treasured and petted they are. Perhaps that is what links the two: little girls and gorgeous horses: they are treasured. When we cherish creatures we curl their hair.

It is a very serious business and the horses, donkeys and mules are all meticulously and painstakingly judged and certified so that they can continue breeding. The place was full of babies. All very naughty, trying to escape, propping and refusing to walk on halters. The mothers are serene and lovely.8983528411_d48381713d_z
A  12 month old draft-horse colt was being judged. He was a giant: as tall as I am at his shoulder and much taller than Davis at his head.  He kept whinnying and glaring urgently out through the gate. I asked what was stirring him up out there and one of the judges turned to me and said “Il appel sa Mere!” (He is calling his mother.) It was moving to see this enormous creature calling for Mother.  Mothers are so important. I had looked at him before and told Davis that I thought he was young because his gaze was so soft and silly, but he was just so big it seemed impossible.
After the judging of each horse and donkey the judges read out over the microphone what was good and bad about the animal. They thought this young colt was “big for his age. Perhaps too big!” There was also a massive donkey stallion leaning out to observe proceedings. He was very annoyed about the whole business because he found himself severely neglected. He had his curly face out over a stable door. He called repeatedly and raucously till his minders went over to tickle him to assuage his sense of injustice.  Ignored for a while – he decided to kick the stable door down (as you would) and we could see it shaking and bending with each thump. Soon as someone was there talking to him he’d shut up.
They had a mother and child category and about a dozen mothers and their babes came out. It was a sight for sore eyes with the mothers all standing quietly as long as they could see their babes and the babies playing up. The long coats are to keep them from the weather: warm in winter and cool in summer. These coats are considered things of great beauty and are much admired in aesthetics of the world of donkeys.  When one Mother with an especially long coat of dreadlocks was lead out there was a collective gasp from the audience as if a super-model had walked on stage.
8983526857_8b50da18e2_zCalm and contemplatative
It makes me happy to see that all these people are dedicating so much of their lives to preserving these animals that would otherwise be extinct. They used to be working animals in the fields and of course they fought in 2 world wars. They are incredibly strong. Now that we humans have no further use for them they would become extinct like all the other species we are robbing of habitat. But these people just adore them.  They are as proud of them as if they were children.
We met Princess again the next day in the fields and it was drizzling with rain. She had her nose pressed firmly against the gate about half way up the field to let her handlers know that she wanted to come into the stable out of the rain. Her companion in the field, a rather fine donkey, came up to us immediately when we called. Just for a chat, she declined the piece of bread we offered her, but let us stroke her nose. However, we called and called to Princess and other than turning her mild gaze upon us for a moment, she was letting nothing distract her from getting her way about the stable. When we drove by later, Princess was gone and the Donkey – all alone and palely loitering.