Barbara Ehrenreich reviews a few books on the inner lives of non-human animals and our longstanding relationship with them:
In the last decade, human vanity has taken a major hit. Traits once thought to be uniquely, even definingly human have turned up in the repertoire of animal behaviors: tool use, for example, is widespread among non-human primates, at least if a stick counts as a tool. We share moral qualities, such as a capacity for altruism with dolphins, elephants and others; our ability to undertake cooperative ventures, such as hunting, can also be found among lions, chimpanzees and sharks. Chimps are also capable of “culture,” in the sense of socially transmitted skills and behaviors peculiar to a particular group or band. Creatures as unrelated as sea gulls and bonobos indulge in homosexuality and other nonreproductive sexual activities. There are even animal artists: male bowerbirds, who construct complex, obsessively decorated structures to attract females; dolphins who draw dolphin audiences to their elaborately blown sequences of bubbles. Whales have been known to enact what look, to human divers, very much like rituals of gratitude.
The discovery of all these animal talents has contributed to an explosion of human interest in animals — or what, as the human-animal gap continues to narrow, we should properly call “other animals.” We have an animal rights movement that militantly objects to the eating of nonhuman animals as well as their enslavement and captivity. A new field of “animal studies” has sprung up just in the last decade or so, complete with college majors and academic journals. Ever since the philosopher Peter Singer’s groundbreaking 1976 Animal Liberation, one book after another has attempted to explore the inner lives and emotions of nonhuman animals. Bit by bit, we humans have had to cede our time-honored position at the summit of the “great chain of being” and acknowledge that we share the planet — not very equitably or graciously of course — with intelligent, estimable creatures worthy of moral consideration.
But it will take more than a few PETA protests or seasons of the Discovery channel to cut humans down to size. Contempt for animals is built into our languages: think of the word “bestial” or fressen, the German word for the distinctive way animals are thought to eat. In the great monotheistic religions, human superiority is as much taken for granted as the superiority of God over humans. Nonhuman animals were created in the service of humans, as if the deity wanted to leave us with a fully-stocked refrigerator. They offer up their flesh, their pelts and often their labor, and that, as Immanuel Kant saw it, was their mission on earth.