People and Other Animals

So much has already been said. An English writer wrote, "The more I know people the better I like my dog." Mark Twain wrote: "If you find a wounded dog and take it home and look after it, it won't bite you. That is the difference between dog and man." There are hundreds of statements about dogs being better creatures than man.

But the idea that has been preoccupying me for some time is the extent of our connection to the rest of the living world, and its profound significance for the human soul. Recently an elderly dog which had lived with my sister's family for some fifteen years, died, and the house is in mourning. Well-meaning people say, "It's like losing a member of the family," but in fact it's a different kind of grief. Our relationship with a dog or a cat, a horse or a bird, is not the same as between two human-beings, and the family sorrow reminded me of past impressions.

Once in the 1960s in the United States I saw a picture in one of the popular magazines, showing a man who died of a heroin overdose. It was a shocking and gloomy photograph - a heavyset man was lying prone on a filthy mattress in an empty room in which even some of the floor-boards had been ripped out - probably a condemned building. But on the wall hung a poster of a beautiful landscape, with woods and a lake. The picture prompted my thoughts to go beyond the epidemic of hard drugs which has spread throughout the Western world; beyond the impact of these drugs on society and on the people who become addicted to them; beyond the continuing commerce in the drugs, despite the massive resources invested by governments to stop it. It struck me that even in the lower depths, when there is little left of the personality - the drug has consumed all the thoughts, wishes, aspirations, feelings and personal relationships - there still remains an impulse, a longing for nature. I thought that even in the most poverty-stricken streets I had ever seen, in northern lands as in the tropics, where people literally exist from one day to the next, in a ceaseless struggle for survival, they still keep a little bird in a cage, or a goldfish in a bowl, or at least a potted plant on the windowsill, and whenever they can they go to a park and sit under a tree. The lucky ones who live near a river, lake or sea shore, go to look at the water or bathe in it.

During the 1960s psychology was all the rage. In the US Freud was king and psychoanalysts made a fortune. There were other schools of psychology - the devotees of Adler, Jung, Erich Fromm - but the Freudian doctrine reigned supreme. In the midst of all these arose the radical behaviourism of B. F. Skinner & Co., which declared that we are primarily the product of positive and negative stimuli and reinforcements, rewards and punishments. The study of simple creatures like pigeons led the followers of this doctrine to project onto human beings an expanded version of Pavlov's famous salivating dogs. There were also some incredibly arrogant psychologists at large, such as Rudolf Bettelheim, who claimed to cure autistic children and blamed their mothers for their condition. There was Thomas Szasz, who stated that there was no such thing as mental illness, only people who refused to behave themselves, and R.D. Laing, who argued that mental illness is a metaphor and a reaction to a sick society.

Between them these psychologists thought of everything - the subconscious, Oedipus and Electra, toilet training, sibling rivalry and attraction, archetypes, genetics, hormones and reflexes... Everything, except what stared them in the face wherever they turned - the deep need for contact with the rest of nature, if only in the smallest way. This they failed to see.

Things have obviously changed since them. You might say that the subject has been broached and is almost taken for granted. Today everyone knows that a dog or a cat can improve people's physical and mental health. Autistic children are taken to swim with dolphins and adolescents with social and emotional problems are sent to farms where they are taught to look after animals. Here in Israel the attitude towards animals has changed for the better - people put out bowls of food and water for street cats, and there is a widespread love of pets. You no longer hear mothers warning toddlers not to touch a cat - "It's dirty!" - or pat a dog - "He'll bite you!"

But, as Roman Gary said in his magnificent book "The Roots of Heaven", cats and dogs are not enough - humanity needs elephants and lions, tigers and whales. Already in the 1950s, before the spread of ecological awareness, before the fears of species extinctions, Gary saw the place of the human being in the world, our basic connection to the nature of the planet, and the disastrous effects of its severance. In "The Roots of Heaven" (1956), a Frenchman named Morel, who had been a POW in a Nazi camp during the war, goes to Africa to save the elephants. His campaign attracts various individuals, each an outsider in his or her society, as well as some African leaders fighting against the colonial rule. But despite their unusual tactics and the media interest, they are unable to stop the slaughter of elephants, which continues as a sport and a source of ivory. Some things have indeed changed since those days - hunting elephants and other "big game" is strictly banned. Whales are protected by international treaties, and the two-three states which continue to hunt them have to keep trying to justify their actions. The few remaining tigers, gorillas, orangutans and rhinoceroses are officially protected, but the chances are that children born today will only seem these animals in dioramas or old movies.

It's not only the animals - the forests and lakes are also disappearing. Not only have humans left nature and moved into cities, which have grown beyond all forecasts - nature is leaving us. You can discern the beginning of this process in the early industrial revolution, and Western literature revealed the symptoms. In the course of the 19th century in Europe literature moved from the country to the city. Emil Zola, Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky and many others began to describe the life of the lumpen-proletariat in the cities, and their descriptions exposed the growing spiritual decay of people who were not only economically deprived, but deeply damaged by the removal from nature.

I first glimpsed this idea in 1956, when I saw the towers of Le Corbusier's "Cite Radieuse" in Marseille. He called them "machines for living", and I thought they were monstrous - concrete warrens built by a giant for dwarfs. If you think of people as ants, and calculate exactly how much space and basic services each one needs to exist, you get something like these towers. Their roofs offered access to sunlight, and around the buildings were lawns and some trees, but the complex as a whole manifested the same alienated arrogance expressed by those psychologists who diagnosed and classified everything - except the crying human need for contact with nature.

Why did it take so long to comprehend? - After all, the earliest works of art are the beautiful cave paintings which have been found in Spain and France. We have no idea what caused those prehistorical humans to paint them, whether they had a purpose, but there is no mistaking the passion with which they painted the animals they knew and probably hunted. And we know that in all the ancient civilisations, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Indus Valley and the Americas, gods often took animals forms. The gods of Olympus also sometimes assumed animal guises, and the Nordic creation myth describes the entire world as growing from an immense tree named Yggdrasil.

Finally, a negative proof of this primary human need. Studies of some of the worst criminals, serial murderers notorious for their horrific acts, have found that in many cases these people in their childhood and adolescence tortured animals. Today this behaviour is flagged as a danger signal for social workers and psychologists to spot before it is too late.

Here in Israel we live in a very small country, which lost its natural forest cover hundreds if not thousands of years ago, whose only river has been harnessed for our water needs, and the streams have become so polluted that the animals which used to live in them have long ago disappeared. Though we've planted many woods and orchards, the overall damage is plain to see and the prognosis is poor. I won't go into the evil done by the settlers, who cut down trees and destroy sown fields - it is a malicious extension of the prolonged damage done thoughtlessly over the years. In my distant childhood there were still water-buffaloes in the country, donkeys and even camels passed through city streets, and the streams harboured otters, not to mention fish. Today all these are gone. We live between concrete walls, with here and there a few trees and shrubs for decoration, and lavish love on dogs, cats, hamsters and budgerigars, which remind us of the world to which we are viscerally attached. In these we have to take comfort.