And With Thy Spirit

BenvenutiI grew up with pets. In a house with three boys, an aging mother, and no husband, my mother seemed to know instinctively that animals were a way to engage children. She herself had grown up with animals, although not really from a farming family. Living with animals leads to conclusions scientists fear to make. That’s one reason I find Anne Benvenuti’s Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations so important. Not only do animals remind us of who we are, they are who we are. Benvenuti has the scientific credentials to make her case, although, I have to admit, her anecdotes of interactions with animals were my favorite part of the book. We may be told that animals don’t think or feel. Nature, however, proves that wrong for anyone who actually pays attention to animals. Unfortunately, humans are often the bullies of the planet just because our animal brains developed the way they did and our thumbs migrated to a position where we could easily manipulate objects. It’s time to bring animals up to the table with us.

For years I have suggested to my students that animal behavior has the rudiments of what we call religion. I’ve always felt like a voice calling in the wilderness here since both proponents of and opponents to religion think it is uniquely human. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise, but human knowledge often comes at the cost of evidence. It is refreshing to read a book—perhaps the first I ever have—that makes this idea plausible. The “spirit” of Benvenuti’s title is literal, in a sense. She argues forcefully that animals have souls and with this I would agree. The main problem is that we can’t quantify souls and therefore we don’t really know what they are. We know one, however, when we feel one. I’m not sure they’re much different than minds, or maybe they’re the feeling side of the thinking mind. Whatever they are, we are not the only animals to have them.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we don’t like to admit animal souls (or animal religion) is that such belief ratchets up accountability. Stockyards start to become detainment camps for innocently condemned creatures. If we dare address the moral issue, we have to ask what gives us the right. To kill for food is natural (although I’m happily vegetarian) but to keep animals in miserable conditions their entire lives and then heartlessly kill them and process them as if they were mere objects is immoral. As Benvenuti notes, even farmers who spend time with their animals know they have personalities. Spirit Unleashed is a book full of wonder and awe. Not so much at human superiority, but rather at how much animals really are like us. How they communicate with us if we’ll listen. And how we all have, even if we can’t define the word, souls.

4 responses to “And With Thy Spirit

  1. Maybe it is not so much a matter of “Human-Animal” as it is one of “human animal” relations.


  2. I fully agree that animals have souls. They are conscious, feeling, understanding beings, that know things that astound us in ways we never imagine. Growing up we bought a puppy, (cocker spaniel). We loved him trained him, fed him and lavished human attributes to him as he grew up.

    He lived in a human house, and I can tell you that our dog had human interactions with us. He learned words. He knew time. He felt. And He communicated with us in ways only that we understood. He knew the size of the yard, he learned the dimensions, and where the invisible lines were that he knew not to cross.

    At Christmas, we bought him a stocking, and we hung it at a height that he could get to. He knew what it was. And on Christmas he got gifts like we did. It was amazing what he could do and how he listened, and obeyed, it was simply miraculous.

    He was the smartest being I knew during those years.

    He knew as a puppy, how to get his way, and we always acquiesced to his language when he chose to communicate. My father loved that dog probably more than he loved his children. One day, he decided to step over the invisible line and was killed. That just about killed my father. He was inconsolable, as we all were. We never had another pet like that, he was one of a kind.


  3. I’ve just come back to reread this, and want to say thank you, Steve, for this soulful review. 😉


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