You know what's kinda weird? The infantilization of animals in our culture. We have these amazing, wonderful animals in our lives, but instead of giving them the respect they deserve as individuals, we reduce them to "fur babies" and treat them as if they don't want or need any of their own autonomy. Have you ever stopped for a minute to think about just how weird that is? Especially considering how, at the end of the day we also don't really treat them like human children. They're something else. They're somehow even lesser.
And the weirdest part to me is that it's not just a role that they're assigned that they already happily fall into. It's something they're forced into. It's a part of the way that they're treated. 
Animals are people to me, in the same way that humans are. And as such, I really like to draw comparisons between their experiences. I find the idea helpful in rooting out social biases that I might hold that I might not even realize. For instance, let's look at the experience of a dog in a human home from the perspective of how a human in the same situation would fare. 
One day, a human child is born. It might be on a farm, it might be in a home. Whatever the case may be, a new life exists in the world. They open their eyes for the first time, look around, and see their loving parents, their siblings, their family. This is, of course, not an experience they're likely to remember, but at this moment all sorts of fascinating things are happening in their brain. They're learning how to exist, how to move and orient themselves and how to interact with the world around them. In the middle of that process however, something changes. Out of the blue with very little warning, they're snatched up from that family and suddenly, they're somewhere else. No longer are they surrounded by other humans, they're in the middle of a totally new type of creatures. Another kind of beings incredibly unfamiliar to them. Maybe they'd seen them before, but it was hardly a priority as they figured everything else out. For the sake of clarity, let's call this other species... Blorps. 
So, this human is suddenly in a brand new place, a totally new environment, and they're surrounded by blorps. The blorps are seemingly very excited about having a human around. They feed them, take care of them, and give them lots of affection. Sure, the human may have lost their family, but at least these blorps don't seem too bad. There are a few issues though. These blorps are nothing like humans. They act different, unpredictably. They do things that don't make sense, at least to the still very young human. In fact, it doesn't even seem like they perceive the world in the same way. 
The blorps allow the human to live in their domicile. It's cozy enough. Warm and safe. There are times when the blorps get angry with the human, usually the human doesn't really understand why, but they do their best to learn. There are rules to follow, things that they can and can't do. There are also, past just the rules, certain norms. Things that the blorps seem to like and things they dislike. As people do, the human adapts, learning how to keep the blorps happy.
And, they even leave the domicile sometimes! They go out and walk around a small area nearby. The human has to be on a leash, of course, because the blorp world is dangerous and complicated and there are just things that the human could never understand. But still, sometimes the human gets to look at interesting things, or hear interesting noises. It's scary, but it's also exciting. Sometimes, the human might even run into other humans! Of course, they seem strange and unfamiliar to some degree. They look different than our human main character does. Most are large and intimidating to our tiny human. Some have different kinds of hair, some have different colors of skin. Some of them even talk, but our human is still learning how all of that works. After every outing, the human is returned home and left to their own devices. 
Time goes by, and the human is exposed to more and more of the blorp world. They're taken places with no control over whether or not they want to go, they're exposed to things that they have no understanding of. But, that's life at this point. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it is what it is. 
Slowly, over time, the human starts to grow up. Things start to change. They get larger, to start with. They also start having a lot of new feelings. They want to see more of the world, they start to get more excited about seeing other humans. They might even start feeling a new urge in a place they hadn't before. Our human is coming into their own. In more scientific terms, they're going through puberty. They're in the middle of a biological process to take them from childhood to adulthood. The blorps don't seem to like this. Any of the new desires the human has seem to inconvenience these blorps, until one day they go again to a new place with a new blorp. The human doesn't really understand what's happening, but the blorp sticks something into their skin and the world goes away for a while. When they wake back up they're home again, but something's different. There's an ache in their body. They try to feel what happened, to figure out where they're hurt. But the blorps have wrapped the human's hands up so they can't feel. Who can say whether or not the human feels any different, but regardless they are different. That process of maturation has been stunted prematurely. There are neurochemicals in the humans brain that are no longer being created. A lot of the drives and desires that were beginning to motivate them no longer have as strong a pull. They seem less important. 
And yet, time goes on. The blorps take off the hand wraps at some point, the human is free to do as they will.
Well, sort of anyway. Free to do as they will in the blorp's house. Most days, the blorps all leave, off to do something somewhere. Our human, however, stays inside. It might be hours that they're alone. They feel comfortable in the house, they feel safe. But, the house very rarely changes. It's the same sights, the same smells, day after day after day. Typically, the only breaks to this are those walks, usually along a very similar route each time. Sometimes, if the human is lucky, they might get to go somewhere else. Maybe a different route to see new blorp streets. Maybe to a human park, where they can interact with other humans in a confined space. Maybe if they're really lucky they even get to go on adventures from time to time to see more of the world. Typically, humans aren't that lucky, but hey there's no harm in optimism. For the vast vast vast majority of that time though, the human is stuck in the same house in the same place. 
There's very little enrichment in this experience. Much like being in a prison cell, there's a lot of time with the human and their thoughts and not a lot else. When the blorps are around it's better. Sometimes they give the human attention or affection or acknowledgement. But also, a lot of the time they're around they also just stare at boxes or walls. Clearly there's something engaging them, but our human doesn't really understand it. They can tell it's a thing, but whatever way they're experiencing it was designed much more for them than it was for the human's senses. 
This is the rest of the human's life. Pretty much every single day. Wake up, eat, walk, blorps leave, lounge around doing nothing, humans come back, walk, interact for a bit, sleep. Years and years and years go by. And that's it. 
Now, let's say that hypothetically we took that human and a random human that exists within our world with friends, a job, a family, etc, and we put them side by side and we ran through a series of tests to judge them on different things, what do you think the results would be?
Which human would be more responsible?
Which human would be a better communicator?
Which human would be smarter? 
Which human would be more capable?
Which human would be more mature?
It might sound like I'm being somewhat hyperbolic here, but for a lot of dogs that's it. They're physically denied maturation, given extremely little opportunity to socialize, no ability to see the world, are afforded no autonomy, and extremely little enrichment. To then go on to refer to them as babies isn't just weird, it's downright disrespectful.
When animals are treated this way, it's no wonder that humans can see them as objects, as things lacking any kind of personality. Way too many people in the world, some that even have dogs in their lives, don't believe that individual animals can have personalities. It's just species. It's just breed. It's just a dog. Even with dogs that exist in the kind of environment I described that's definitely not true, but the current way that society allows pets to be treated certainly tries to make it seem that way. 
It also explains why some people are so eager to accept pop-psych like the whole "dogs have the intelligence of two year olds" line. The study that comes from was testing dogs on how many human words they could memorize, and then comparing that as an IQ score rated against human children. But words aren't the way that dogs communicate. Realistically, that should be obvious. So obvious in fact, that the scientist that ran that study has actually come out and tried to clarify. And yet, most humans think so little of the dogs in their lives they hear that and think "Well yeah, that checks out. They're fur babies after all." 
This treatment of animals doesn't come from a place of hatred. Typically not at least. It comes from social perception and misunderstanding. Humans don't like to question their beliefs, and the common social belief is that dogs are a certain way. To realize that they deserve more respect than that would be challenging, not just because it goes against what's commonly understood, but also because it causes a lot of follow up questions to be asked. Is it wrong to spay and neuter animals? Am I giving my animals enough enrichment? Should I be more focused on giving my animals more in their lives? All of those questions are things that seem to come at the detriment to humans. Not in any real, meaningful way typically. But if you don't spay or neuter, suddenly you have to deal with your animal having hormones. Oh no, this person I own is a person! If you realize your animal needs more enrichment you have to learn about what animals like, and how to incorporate that more into their lives. Oh no, I have to treat this person kindly and thoughtfully! If you realize your animal deserves more than just the tedium of every day life, suddenly you have to take time out of your life to provide for their needs. Oh no, their experience of the world is as real and as important as my own!
This isn't every animal owner. I know some great people, both zoos and non zoos, that really do try and give the animals in their lives as much autonomy as possible. And, if you're reading this, chances are you're a zoo and you already think about the best way to treat your partners. But I really do think that as part of our goals as zoos we need to care not just about what the world thinks of us, but also what the world thinks of animals. We need to help change the minds of the public, and show that the infantilization of animals is harmful, and antithetical to the respect that animals deserve.
Article written by Tarro (July 2024)
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