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Be Kind to Animals Week


Be Kind to Animals Week, which started yesterday, was created by the Humane Society in 1915, the second year of the Great War, when kindness of any sort was in short supply. I’m all in favor of kindness to animals, but it does have a downside. The word gets around. Just reach down to pat a puppy in the street and within a couple of days, your mailbox will be stuffed with appeals from animal charities: The Humane Society, The ASPCA, Alley Cat Allies, Friends of Animals, World Wildlife, Save the Puppies, Save the Whales, Save the Welsh, and dozens more, some genuine and some bogus. I must be on every animal-related mailing list on the planet. They want not a pat on the head and a kind word, but money. Most animals would be embarrassed to ask. Their human representatives are not.

Yet kindness to animals is a measure of civilization, and the sheer number of animal charities tells us that we score pretty high on that scale. But it doesn’t have to break the bank. I can’t afford to save all the ill-treated animals on the planet, but I can be kind to animals by recognizing them as fellow creatures and talking to them.

Not all animals appreciate this. Dogs will usually take an intelligent interest in my remarks, but cats are likely to walk away with their tails in the air when I am in the middle of a sentence. The squirrels and chipmunks who cross my path on my daily walk always get a kind word from me, and I hope they appreciate it. The more intelligent animals are, the better they understand human talk. Chipmunks, for example, are rather skittish and unrewarding company, but you can have a very good conversation with a pig. Winston Churchill had a special fondness for pigs. “Dogs look up to us,” he said, “cats look down on us, but pigs treat us as equals.”

Talking to animals may seem eccentric, but most of us do it when nobody is looking. Everyone talks to their own domestic pets, giving instructions to their dogs and suggestions to their cats, and it has a deep psychological effect. The animal “it” is recognized as a fellow creature with feelings, and we feel quite differently about them. It’s a connection and, the more scientists learn about the minds of animals. the more it seems that that connection may be real, and not just a sentimental illusion.

The dangerous thing about talking to animals is that they might learn to talk back, and the talk may turn into a conversation. The first question a pig might ask, for example, would be about vegetarianism. What can we non-vegetarians mean when we claim to be animal lovers? The pig would certainly win that debate, and it’s uncomfortable even to think about it.

We’ve made a lot of progress since 1915, but our attitudes towards animals are still seriously mixed up. But this week at least we should try to be kind to our fellow creatures and talk to them nicely. Who knows, with enough practice, we might learn to talk to each other nicely and be kind to ourselves.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.