One day I watched my little dog Mary lean over the edge of the bed as far as she could without falling off. She was dangling an old rag of a toy, which had once been a stuffed monkey, just above the head of my African Grey Parrot Cosmo. She wanted Cosmo to grab it. Cosmo was trying her best to grab it, but she wasn’t tall enough. The toy fell on the floor.
Another day, when I was preparing to take my dogs for a walk, I watched Mary and Cosmo play “go for a walk.” I had already leashed up Mary, who was jumping up and down in anticipation of going outside. While I was leashing up Kaylee, Cosmo grabbed the end of Mary’s leash in her beak. Mary immediately stopped jumping and led Cosmo slowly down the hall. Mary was allowing Cosmo the pleasure of taking her for a walk. They proceeded for about 5 feet before Cosmo dropped the leash.
Cosmo and Mary are friends. In my household, Cosmo the 15-ounce parrot, Mary the 12-pound dog, Kaylee the 20-pound dog, and I, the heavier human, are all friends. We compose a community. We cooperate with each other for the happiness and well-being of all.
My favorite essay about cooperation is “The Land Ethic,” written by Aldo Leopold more than 70 years ago.
Leopold said when people different from each other realize we are dependent on each other, we cooperate. We humans once cooperated only with humans who looked like us, spoke our language and shared our values. That was our ethical community then. We believed we did not need to be nice to those outside it.
Gradually, we realized that cooperation, such as commerce, with fellow humans from groups different from our own would benefit everybody. So we expanded our ethical community to include those other humans. Eventually, we expanded our ethical community to include all humans in the world. The concept of universal human rights exemplifies this.
Leopold argued that when humans realize we are dependent on “the land,” we will include our natural environment in our ethical community.
Seventy years later, we see how right Leopold was. We now have legislation — not enough, in my opinion, but some — protecting endangered ecosystems and endangered species, and prohibiting cruelty to animals. We are gradually expanding our ethical community to include animals and our natural environment.
I think about Leopold’s essay when I watch animals of different species play together. My American Eskimo dogs Mary and Kaylee could easily eat Cosmo if they wanted. But they don’t, because Cosmo is part of their family. Cosmo could easily attack them, but she doesn’t, because they are part of her family. And all three could gang up on me, but they don’t. The four of us have formed an ethical community, like mixed households everywhere.
When an individual, human or non-human, forms a friendship with a very different kind of individual, he or she must be able to recognize a “personality” — or a “soul” or a “self” — in the other individual.
Actually, those of us who have dogs, cats, birds and horses as friends already understand this. We certainly see our pets as having personalities. When we name them, we are treating them as part of our family, part of our ethical community. When we refer to them, we use the pronoun “who.”
We tend not to name the squirrels, possums, raccoons, skunks, armadillos, deer, hawks, crows, blue jays, finches, frogs and fish “that” live outside our homes. And when we don’t name them, we may possibly not treat them as part of our ethical community.
But they have personalities too, and probably the capacity for friendship, within their species and beyond.
By the way, I am a meat-eater. But I do hope that we can find ways to improve the lives of the animals we raise for our consumption. We don’t have to name them to include them in our extended ethical community. Cows, sheep, pigs and chickens have personalities, whether we know them up close and personal or not.
My friends Dana, Javier, Eliot and Guillermo have a bearded dragon named Cleo, who shows interest in what they’re doing, nuzzles their hands to get them to stroke her head, and watches them while they prepare her food. She has a personality. They are her friends.
I recognize that not all of us human and non-human animals on Earth can be friends with each other. We all get hungry, so we look around to see which creatures among us would be delicious. With a few exceptions — animals that on occasion eat their young — we don’t eat our own kind.
Maybe I should reconsider my last statement. Cosmo loves to eat chicken. And hard-boiled eggs.
• Betty Jean Craige is professor emerita of comparative literature at the University of Georgia and the author of many books, including “Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot” (2010). Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Cosmo’s website is www.cosmotalks.com.
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