Does your pet love you, and why do you even care?

What does our devotion to animals - or lack thereof - says about us, wonders Anna Hartford

17 November 2019 - 00:00 By Anna Hartford
Humans are forever giving animals human-like attributions, for example, Grumpy Cat - the late cat who spawned a thousand memes.
Humans are forever giving animals human-like attributions, for example, Grumpy Cat - the late cat who spawned a thousand memes.

"Does my cat love me?" I found myself typing this into Google the other day. (I've googled sadder things). It's hard to know what I was looking for.

As it transpired, I found an article on some dubious blog that assured me that if my cat liked my company and showed me his belly, and perhaps especially if he blinked slowly while appraising me, that I could be relatively assured of his affections. My cat does all of these things, but I still closed my laptop unsatisfied.

After all, these well-meaning bloggers were in no real position to answer my question. I may as well have asked "Do cockroaches appreciate sunsets?" "Do dassies worry about their weight?" "Do flamingos ponder the afterlife?"

Anthropomorphism is considered an innate part of human psychology. We attribute a human personality to anything at all – a tractor, the façade of a house, a bowl of fruit – provided it vaguely resembles a face.

And we're especially prone to attribute human traits to animals: we imbue them with moods, emotions, beliefs, desires, values, intentions and aspirations. The evidence of this is everywhere: our myths and fables, our children's books and movies, our memes (hello Doge, hello Grumpy cat), are filled with speculation about the inner lives of animals.

A massive genre of YouTube videos, of which I'm a particular connoisseur, marvels at the ways in which animals' subjective lives might intersect with our own; my favourite involves the rapt attention that cows show to live music (charging from the horizon to gather reverently around an accordion player).

WATCH | Grazing cows rush to listen to accordion music

We are, and always have been, fascinated by the minds of animals: What do they perceive? What do they know? What are they thinking? And perhaps even: what do they think of us?

Precisely on account of its prevalence, this tendency has been looked upon with suspicion. In the first place there's an empirical suspicion, championed by the scientific minded, who view anthropomorphism as naïve or irrational, and something we really ought to guard against. Pavlov, with his famous bell, wrote that we should appraise animals without any "fantastic speculations" regarding their subjective states, and this purely behaviourist approach has been hugely influential. The cockroach runs away, fine, but it isn't "scared". The dog's ears droop, granted, but it's not "guilty". Cows respond to sound, sure, but they don't "love music".

It's a presumption, of course, to think that we could know anything about the inner lives of animals. And sometimes the enormity of this presumption is made flagrant, even comic. The whole joke about the late internet star, Grumpy Cat, after all, was that she probably wasn't grumpy, even if we couldn't help seeing her that way. And I don't think many of the people serving their cats a glass of Pinot Meow after a long day genuinely think their pets care about sundowners.

But sometimes we're less in on the joke, and the work of our presumptions is subtler. Which animals we find adorable, and which ones we find hideous, often emerges from anthropomorphic projections. We are delighted by dolphins' smiles, even though they're not actually smiles, and our moral convictions about which animal lives count - which conservation efforts, which extinctions - seem beholden to these aesthetic considerations. The charmless blob fish, lest we forget, is also endangered. Indeed, it's the mascot for the Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

But many of our anthropomorphic presumptions are less superficial than that. Is it really a stretch to attribute fear or happiness or anxiety to an animal? It seems like a far more dangerous presumption not to (like those people filled with the strange conviction that "fish don't feel pain"). It's true that we can never know for sure, but only in the same way that we can never know about any subjective experience except our own.

Philosophers call this "the problem of other minds", and the biggest problem is that it applies to you and me as much as it applies to other species. It feels like something to be you, but it's impossible for me to know what it feels like. It's impossible for me to tell that what I mean by love - internally, subjectively - is what you mean by love, even if we're using the same words. And if our extrapolations about the psychology of our fellow humans are nevertheless justified on the basis of shared neurological traits and evolutionary histories, then a similar story can be told about ourselves and other animals.

Increasingly the Pavlovian vision is receding, and individual animal consciousness is being acknowledged in scientific and biological research (in 2012 a gathering of prominent scientists signed the "Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness", to recognise the emerging consensus on the question). And what we have always known anyway - that animals are individuals, with individual personalities and experiences - has now become a legitimate aspect of scientific study.

The other sort of suspicion - the deeper one - is not epistemic, but moral. Our relationship to animals offers a unique vantage on our contradictory and selective moral psychology. How much do we care about animals? When all's said and done - barring a few fits of sentimentality - we don't seem to care at all. We are, by and large, the absent-minded tormentors of animals everywhere: we kill billions of them every year, for almost any reason, and we have successfully decimated 83% of all wild mammals.

But there's also no denying that on other occasions animals seem to have a far more direct route to our compassion than we ever manage to muster for each other. For all the horror we saw unfold in Game of Thrones, it was the fact the Jon Snow snubbed Ghost (after everything he'd done!) that we just couldn't handle. What was it about the pain of this computer-generated mythical wolf that affected us so deeply? And how might some of the people who so desperately need our compassion lay claim to just a little of what we had to offer him?

We are suspicious of "animal people". We are suspicious of the hundreds of billions spent annually on pets, and the frenzies that surround certain animal causes. We wonder about the moral priorities, and even agendas, that such frenzies reveal: that while we may be capable of humanising on one front, we are equally capable of dehumanising on another.

Increasingly this debate has taken the form of a dichotomy, where human interests are pitted against animal interests, and any claim to care about animals carries with it a tacit disregard for the suffering of people. When it emerges in these strictly "either/or" terms, as it so often does, I feel saddened.

I feel saddened by our eagerness to make enemies of our few good impulses, and to ignore the ways in which so many crucial causes (human, animal, economic, environmental) beautifully intersect. I feel saddened at the vision of compassion that this dichotomy presumes, and I hope that the vision is wrong.

Are there those among us who care about animals at the expense of people, or who disguise their contempt for certain people beneath the love they bear certain animals? I'm sure there are. But is this some sort of intrinsic feature of caring for animals, and endeavouring to nurture this care in the world?

I suppose that all depends on what compassion is, and its essential nature. On whether it is something that must always be strictly limited and finite - which must be guarded and conserved, which must exclude at the exact rate that it includes. Or whether it is capable of being something far more expansive, profound and powerful than that.