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There is a fine line between empathy with animals and projections of our own desires onto them – how do we love animals while also respecting their autonomy?

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The author’s dog, Spirit. Image: Supplied

When I was eleven I saved up my birthday and Christmas money to buy a Furby. The original kind. One of these. When you turned it upside down it wailed in a warbly voice, No, no, please, don’t, and some other words about being scared. The pronunciation wasn’t completely clear, so you had to do it a few times to figure out what it was saying. I felt, and still feel, uncomfortable about doing this.

Furbies are toys built with technology, incapable of feeling fear or pain – but this programmed response confused me. Was I supposed to find it amusing? Was I supposed to feel guilty? Was it supposed to activate my empathy? Was I supposed to hold it upside down repeatedly?

I certainly did it more than once – in part to understand what it was trying to tell me. But it was also pretty clear that the Furby was in distress, and would like me to stop, please. I showed my family what I’d learned, and my sister (who’d also bought a Furby with her savings), turned hers upside down too. We laughed. It was funny, sort of. And it was just a toy.

For centuries, humans have dissected and experimented on animals in order to better understand them. Mostly, we’ve used them as a means to better understand ourselves. Even today, despite new models of testing, we continue to use animals as human substitutes. They are substitutes in testing only; one animal life is not generally accepted as equalling one human life, and it is on this basis that the research can be conducted.

In 1637, French Philosopher René Descartes introduced his Bête-Machine doctrine – the theory of animals as machines. These days we acknowledge that animals can feel pain and emotions, but Descartes and many others did not. Although interpretations vary, Descartes either believed that animals felt no pain (because they had no soul), or that they did feel pain, but only as a mechanical response to stimuli. Animals were not considered sentient. Whimpering and barking were like the beeps of washing machines, microwaves and smoke detectors. Animals were automatons.

If the warbling voice of a Furby saying No, no, please, don’t makes for uncomfortable reading, this is good. No, please don’t is a phrase rarely expressed cheerfully. A distressed human might say it to another human who is curiously and cruelly exploring their capacity for fear. Sometimes it’s a phrase not said, but thought – we might feel we don’t have any control over what other people do to our bodies or boundaries. And though we can’t speak to animals in any language we have a firm grasp on, the plea of no, please don’t does not require an exact translation – yelps, whimpers, and side-eye are good enough.

The inclination to own, control and train has created many ethical problems throughout human–animal history.

My partner and I care for a rescue dog named Spirit. She came to us through an animal rights organisation who’d rescued several dogs from an animal hoarder. She had been physically abused, kept outside in a cage with no roof, was terrified of new people, and averse to other dogs. Spirit enjoys pats and attention, but only after trust has been established – this sometimes takes several meetings in which she gradually moves closer to the stranger, using tables and chairs to shield herself from perceived threats and excessive eye contact. Engagement during one visit does not guarantee it at the next. Despite explaining her unique way of soliciting affection and her need to receive it on her own terms, people consistently ignore my instructions. And it’s easy to understand why. The desire to reach out and touch what we find interesting, and believe we are owed access to, is strong. We frequently impose the reasoning of I want onto other living beings. The inclination to own, control and train has created many ethical problems throughout human–animal history. It is uncomfortable, and complicated, and continues to morph into familiar shapes.

The shape of a man on the street, for example, who felt compelled to give Spirit an abrupt and lingering full-body hug. She squirmed away from his touch, lips twitching over teeth. Or the shape of a man who listened to me talk about her boundaries even as he pushed them, patting her head over and over while she attempted to move out of his reach. He insisted that if he did it enough she would like it, ignoring every sign she was sending him in the moment – which I might roughly translate as not now, and perhaps not you. It is all too easy to confuse what we would like (to touch), with what our prospective companion might like.

A beekeeper once said to me that ‘bees want us to take their honey’. Views on the ethics of beekeeping vary, but to suggest bees want to be sedated so they cannot protect their hive, and have their food repurposed for the benefit of an entirely separate species, is a bit of a stretch, even if this is an encroachment you don’t feel particularly moved by. Recent research indicates insects may have emotional lives of their own. It’s not a huge leap in logic to assume that these emotions are unlikely to be centred on fulfilling human desires. But if even animals as seemingly insignificant as insects have feelings, what are our obligations? Research like this is disruptive because it directly conflicts with the guiding principle that allows us to take so freely in the first place; the belief that certain animals want and feel nothing is as pervasive as it is presumptuous. The idea that animals exist to fulfil our needs is self-serving projection at best.

Enjoying the company of women, being surrounded by women, or loving one’s own mother does not automatically make one a feminist. Likewise, enjoying the company of animals might make one an animal lover, but not necessarily a believer in their reasonable autonomy. When our pleasure collides with another’s discomfort, we are often willing to project our own desires onto them (‘she likes it’), or deny the capacity (or right) to feel altogether. It is worth asking what love means in this context.

The dismissal of another’s capacity to feel reveals a number of potential subconscious beliefs; ‘you don’t matter’, or ‘you are an extension of me’, or ‘you are outside my circle of empathy’. Though many of us are passionate about animals and include them as members of our family, empathy extends beyond enjoying the way they make us feel. How do we make them feel? How do our industries and practices make them feel?

The idea that animals exist to fulfil our needs is self-serving projection at best.

It’s unlikely animals are mulling over these concepts themselves, but it doesn’t take philosophical thinking to understand what being denied autonomy means on a basic level: you are safe within limits, limits that others decide. A strange person need only move too quickly or pick up a shovel for Spirit to demonstrate what she has learned about the precarious nature of safety.

In recent years we’ve discovered that animals can suffer from their own versions of obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalised and social anxiety disorders, and depression. We’ve studied their ability to solve problems, learn from one another, use language, and commit information to memory. Through decades of research we have discovered that there are many similarities between humans and animals. These studies, though extremely useful, still frame intelligence through the lens of human ability. That animals have their own strengths (some more developed than humans’, some less), is an idea that has only recently been given weight. Animal worth as inherent is rarely considered.

When drawing connections to the oppressions experienced by humans, I want to be clear; comparisons to animals have been used to justify heinous acts and microaggressions against people of colour, LGBTQI people, people with disability, and women. Similarly, those who commit heinous crimes are often referred to as ‘animals’ themselves. These comparisons assert that to be animal is to be worthless. While this does explicitly put animals in a vulnerable position, the animal rights movement should be careful not to reinforce the messages of other oppressions. This is especially important if we have no personal connection to the comparison we are making. Words like slavery, holocaust, ‘moral schizophrenia‘ or ‘All Lives Matter‘ are painful reminders of the way identity is and has been used to dehumanise those around us. The case for animal rights can be made without appropriating the suffering of other peoples.

We are more complicated, feeling, and finite than machines. My Furby, as emotive as it may have been, did not experience fear when I turned it upside down. When I turned my childhood guinea pig upside down, the evidence of her fear left marks – and fair enough. Though our perception of animals has changed since Descartes, we remain reluctant to admit that an animal’s emotions mean anything, let alone warrant a significant change in our behaviour or beliefs. Animal agriculture continues; circuses, petting zoos, and parks that feature animals as entertainment continue; puppy farms, backyard breeding and the mass euthanasia of abandoned or trauma-affected animals continue; horse and dog racing continue; animal experimentation continues. We cling to product labels that promise ethical treatment in systems that turn their profit from the idea of animals as things, as though these words reflect a change in direction, and not our discomfort with what we already know. Our belief in human supremacy tells us that we are above our humble animal origins, but we are not alone in our complexity, sensitivity or individuality. We are not separate. We never have been.

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Spirit and friend. Image: Supplied