DEAR DR. FOX: While walking with my grandchildren in one of our local parks, they wanted to pet the squirrels. They both asked me why the squirrels always run away because they wanted to be friends with them.
I did not know quite what to tell them, other than that the animals were afraid of them, which made them feel bad. How would you have replied? -- B.K., Washington, D.C.
DEAR B.K.: Children may wonder and ask why most wild animals flee when they see us and are obviously fearful. We should be honest and tell them that it is an instinctual reaction because we humans, and our humanlike ancestors before us, have been killing animals or driving them away for close to 3 million years. Children should never be encouraged to try to pet wild animals -- or unfamiliar domestic animals -- because of the potential risks of injury and disease such as rabies.
Also, explain to children that many wild animals flee because they are prey/food for other animals called predators, such as foxes that kill rabbits and hawks that kill squirrels. This is all part of what is called the balance of nature, as predators are fewer in number than their prey, whose numbers they help regulate. Humans upset this balance because there are too many of us to continue to live as predators.
Many animal species, when taken in by humans soon after being born, will become emotionally attached to us, dependent and trusting. Such trust enabled our ancestors to begin to domesticate them for various purposes, beginning about 10,000 years ago with dogs, sheep, cattle and horses. In many instances and relationships, we betrayed that trust. Animals captured from the wild, such as wild horses and elephants, have their spirits broken before they will serve us.
All these purposes and our relationships with other animals, including wildlife being "harvested" by hunters, trappers and fishers, need to be examined by all who feel affection and concern for animals. Fortunately, there are individuals and organizations dedicated to improving the care and welfare of animals domesticated and wild, and advocating for their rights, protection and conservation. The belief held by many that "God created animals for man's use" needs to be put to rest since it is the essence of speciesism -- ultimately part of the same currency as racism and sexism.
Loving concern is the antithesis of the common sentimental attitude toward animals. Many people who keep animals as pets will not think twice about eating other animals, or even wearing fur. Yet they will still claim to have a sentimental attachment to wildlife. As Black American writer James Baldwin wrote, "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel -- the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty."
Gratitude and loving concern toward all creatures great and small will help us break away from our ancestral past as animal exploiters and killers. This will enable the blossoming of our humanity -- of compassion, empathy and respect for all living beings.
Children need help to grow up in a culture of violence toward nature and other species. They must learn how they can make a difference and not become desensitized and accepting of the cultural norms of inhumanity, speciesism and racism. Several universities are now offering courses in humane education. One of these programs -- offered by Antioch University in partnership with the Institute for Humane Education -- includes online degree and graduate certificate options. The creator of these programs, Zoe Weil, is also the author of "The World Becomes What We Teach." (Details: antioch.edu/academics/education/humane-education-ma.)
To realize that we are all part of the cosmic miracle of life and consciousness puts the significance of our individual existence in the broader dimension of awakening our sense of kinship with all life necessary to transcend self-centeredness and anthropocentrism. Empathic sensitivity and ethical sensibility may then arise spontaneously, reducing the need for moral instruction and law enforcement.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)