Book review: 'Being with Animals' by Barbara J. King

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Why We Are Obsessed With the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World

By Barbara J. King. Doubleday. 258 pp. $24.99

Animals are an integral part of our lives and culture. We can find them in children's books as talking characters, in our living rooms snuggled up on the couch or on our dinner plates next to a heap of mashed potatoes. In "Being with Animals," anthropologist Barbara J. King explains how this unique relationship came to be by tracing it back to our earliest human ancestors.

Today, as they have since the beginning, King writes, "Animals give life to humans through milk, meat, and wool, enhance human life through labor and companionship, [and] ward off the unknowability and danger of the wild by bringing it closer or under human influences." The details she provides about the origins of domestication are particularly fascinating. Despite our success in domesticating dogs, goats and cats, humans tried and failed to tame raccoons, gazelles and moose. This has led some anthropologists to conclude that domestication works only when there are rewards for both species.

But humans and animals do more than help one another subsist. Animals are central to human rituals and religious beliefs that span continents and millennia -- evidence, King argues, of a deeper, soulful bond. Ancient Egyptians worshiped cats and mummified them before burial, while Islam, Christianity and Buddhism all value a sense of compassion toward animals. The Eveny people in Siberia believe their shamans can turn into reindeer, while the Runa people of Ecuador perform ceremonies on dogs to make them understand human speech.

King also writes about animals' potential to affect people on an emotional level: "When we experience something special in the space where animals and humans relate, our reverence for the world may become supercharged. If we are religious, we may feel moved to pray in order to connect with our God. If we are not religious, we may feel a heightened 'oneness' with the natural world." While the rest of the book is grounded solidly in scientific and historical evidence, this notion that there is a spiritual or supernatural component to the bond requires a leap of faith from the reader. Still, King presents some striking anecdotes, like one about a dog that started acting differently shortly before his owner returned home from business trips, even if the owner was not on his typical schedule and even when no humans in the house knew his arrival time.

King delves deep into the positive and constructive relationships humans have had with animals, but treads rather lightly in examining the flip side. Animal cruelty, animal testing and big agriculture's sometimes deplorable treatment of livestock are certainly not examples of reciprocal, heartwarming human-animal interactions. If the premise of this book is that humans benefit from showing consideration for animals, then how do we explain so much human neglect and abuse of animals? Exploring this question in depth would have allowed for a fuller understanding of the human-animal relationship.

-- Sarah Halzack

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