He, she or it

Working with animals every day, as I do, provides an insight into their lives that most people don’t have. I’ve come to know the individuals in my flock and the others I work with (dogs and llamas) personally; each has his or her own personality with likes, dislikes, and ways of being in the world that are unique to them. In many cases, this knowledge and understanding has grown deeper and we have become friends. There is a bond that is hard to describe to people who have not experienced it for themselves.

There are a lot of people — including some in my family — who insist that I am anthropomorphizing the creatures in my care. When my family members say this to me, I humor them; I agree that this may be the case in many instances and so I rephrase my previous statement. Rather than describing what I have observed in my animals’ eyes and mannerisms — obvious signs to me that they are feeling — I instead fall back on descriptions of the physical behavior that led me to my conclusions. I figure that my family can’t argue with the facts of the behavior; their quarrel is with my conclusions. So I let them know what I saw, and then I let them draw their own conclusions; almost always, when faced with the same descriptions they will reach the same conclusions that I did. So this is how I humor them. It’s a dance we’ve been at for a long time and know well.

Recently I purchased a book online that resonates with me and speaks directly to this issue. It’s called Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell, and the more I read, the better I like it! I haven’t gotten very far into it yet (I just finished the section on ants!), but it uncovers some profound truths about animals and their way of being in the world — and it addresses some of the issues that I have encountered in speaking to my family and in writing this blog.

One of the big issues comes when I am discussing an animal. I was taught in school years ago that when you discuss an animal, you should use the pronoun it. Yet when I write about Olive prancing across the field to greet me or nibbling on the tips of my fingers after she already knows that all bits of cracker are long gone, well, it just seems silly to call her an it. You will notice that throughout that sentence, I used the pronoun her and she — and that’s exactly how I think of her! A book and a rock — both of them unthinking and unfeeling — are each an it, but thinking and feeling Olive must be a she!

In the aforementioned book, the author has decided on a compromise that makes perfect sense to me: use he/she pronouns when discussing a known individual (like Olive), but use the more general it when speaking of an individual who is not identified or specified. For example, if a sheep got out of the field one day but then happily returned under the fence as I watched, I’d likely say “it returned as I watched” if I didn’t know exactly which sheep it was or if I didn’t have any insight into their state of mind. This approach makes sense to me and has resolved my struggle in deciding on which pronoun to use as I share my particular experience!

The larger question — whether animals actually do have thoughts and feelings — is much more than the use of pronouns, however. Working with our flock every day is a privilege and gives me insights into their lives that I otherwise wouldn’t have. They have accepted me as part of their group, despite the fact that I’m basically a predator: eyes forward to more easily chase and catch my prey and sharp incisors and canine teeth for easy biting and tearing. As humans, we are at the top of the food chain — and my sheep know it. There is no question that I am more like a wolf than a sheep — and yet these friends come to lie next to me in the field when I sit in the sun and read; or they bring their young babies to greet me when I enter the barn each morning. Even when I show them at a distance that I have no crackers with me, I still am met by a greeting committee of ewes, eager to say hello and touch base before returning to their grazing. How else can I explain these behaviors if not that we have developed a friendship, these sheep and I?

Yes, I feel a kindred spirit with author Virginia Morell. She has reached her conclusions as a result of scientific study, which (particularly to my family) has more credibility than my own observations of my flock. Yet she and I have come to the same place: there is something profound happening inside these creatures we call “animals” — something more than most of us give them credit for. In this blog, they will continue to be called he or she based on who they are — and I make no apologies for that!

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