Friday, May 4, 2012

Pets Vs. People: Would I Rather Spend the Day with an Elephant?

"What's your favorite animal?"

It was an odd, random question, but as ice-breaking inquiries go, that one is a lot better than "Top or bottom?" or "Is it true what they say about black men?" I'll allow the question, I thought to myself.

My response: "It would have to be a three-way tie between dogs, seals and penguins. When I'm in Australia, I add possums and koalas, and after my recent trip to Chiangmai, I'm more into monkeys and elephants than ever."

Him: "My favorite animal is the human."

His announcement came across like the only correct answer to what had been a trick question (though that was probably just my own insecurity getting the best of me). Now why hadn't I thought of that? Maybe because as glad as I am to be a human being, people don't necessarily fall anywhere near the top of my must-love list.

As I wrote that last sentence, I was reminded of an interview I once read with staunch animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot. "People make me sick with their petty little lives," she said, explaining why she loves her pets more than she does humans. I understand where she was coming from (I've been known to have a short fuse myself when it comes to human behavior), though I don't think it's necessary to put one above the other in that regard.

I also get that animals elicit a very strong reaction in some people, which is why I let patience rule when someone overreacted to the Facebook photos of my recent elephant ride in Chiangmai. Her scolding commentary was something along the lines of "How can you do that? Don't you know how those animals are mistreated?"

Do you? I wondered. She was basing her disapproval entirely on second-hand knowledge she'd received from God knows what source, not an actual visit to Thailand to see for herself. The mahouts at the conservation center I went to in Chiangmai treated their charges formerly filed under "pachyderms" like members of their immediate families. I got the distinct impression that Deng could spend all day with his elephant Oz, just the two of them, and not want for human company.

While I'm fully aware that elephants aren't treated well everywhere, I wasn't interested in hearing a sermon about a place this person had never been to from her pulpit on the other side of the world. As I read her opening and closing arguments, I wondered the same thing I do when I see photos and videos of PETA activists dousing animal-fur-wearing passersby with red paint: Does their peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-animals rhetoric apply to ones with whom they can have two-way conversations.

I'm not criticizing animal-rights crusades -- or crusaders -- in general. Somebody needs to speak up for animals that don't have their own voice, but extremism in all forms and close-mindedness both vex me, especially when the extremists and the close-minded are not willing to consider dissenting points of view, or the fact that grey -- in all of its many shades -- is probably the most common color in the world.

One can do a lot worse than being a knee-jerk activist for what is basically a good cause, but people who maddeningly cling to black-and-white worldviews are just one of many reasons why I can't embrace the human race in general. I've met far more people in my life whom I dislike or feel indifferent to than ones I like. I adore my friends, but I simply have no interest in knowing most people -- regardless of how many "friends" I might have on Facebook!

It's not that I'm a misanthrope, though I'm far more a loner than I am a certified people person. But look at it this way: When it comes to penguins and koalas and Jack Russell Terriers, if you love them, you love them all the same. I like a Jack Russell Terrier because it's a Jack Russell Terrier, not because of special individual qualities. When I see a bunch of koalas dozing in trees, I don't like this one and this one, but not that one. One love fits all. My appreciation of humans is far more complicated -- and limited. I don't love all of them, just the ones I love.

Also, humans have a distinct advantage, which can actually put them at a disadvantage. To a large degree, they're valuable to me because I can communicate with them using oral language. A baby doesn't have to say anything to make me think he or she is adorable, for me to fall in love at first sight. But with the gift of speech comes the responsibility of communicating effectively. I wouldn't want to be around a grown up who never says anything -- or one who only makes barking noises or elephant squeals.

Then again, I've never had a pet, so I don't know to what extent I could grow attached to a non-human animal. I'm pretty sure, though, that I could never fall madly in love with a monkey, and I'm certainly never going to go to bed with one. I like to think I'd do anything twice, but bestiality is one thing that will never find its way onto my bucket list. So yes, I can love people with an emotional and physical intensity that's reserved strictly for humans, but I'm far more selective in my appreciation of them.

"My favorite animal is the human" was a good answer, one that definitely made me want to continue the dialogue, one that made me think enough to write this post, but it's also one that I can't quite adopt for myself. My love of people is too conditional, and the ones I can do without outnumber the ones in whose presence I delight by too great a margin for me to play favorites in favor of the human.

I'll take an elephant to go, please.
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