My thinking on this question has evolved.
I grew up with a succession of three small family dogs: Lucky the cocker spaniel, Skippy the wire hair fox terrier, Adolph the dachshund. We knew next to nothing about the breeds of the dogs we bought (yes, bought–back then we never even thought about adopting a homeless dog). Thus we knew nothing about the kind of behavior to expect from each one and whether that behavior would be a good match for our family. We got the dogs as puppies and we based our buying decisions on the cuteness factor of each pup.
Our dogs spent most of their time outside in a fenced yard and slept in the garage at night. They got cheap canned food and minimum necessary vet care. (Spay or neuter? Nobody did that.) We had male dogs because they couldn’t get pregnant.
Back then the dog training we knew emphasized punitive measures like rolled up newspapers and blasts from a garden hose, and when we employed such disciplinary measures we thought we were properly teaching our dogs how to behave.
Lucky and Skippy and Adolph were sweet pets, and we cried when each one died. But they were dogs, not people, and we thought them capable of only very basic thought and feeling.
I was an English major in college, and as a graduate teaching assistant I taught English 101, an introductory course for freshmen. One day we were discussing an essay that claimed humans were the only beings who could understand that they and those they loved would die some day, and thus were the only beings capable of grieving. No members of the animal kingdom could do that.
Discussion followed. The freshman boys sat mostly silent and bored, but some of the freshman girls argued quite strongly that animals could understand death and thus did grieve, using as examples elephants gently caressing the bones of dead elephants they encountered, or chimp mothers refusing to give up the bodies of their dead babies, or old and weak prey animals going off by themselves to die, so as not to endanger the rest of the herd.
No, I countered gently, that wasn’t possible. Only human beings could feel impending death and grieve at the death of others.
I believed the essay’s author and I had the truth. The young women believed they had the truth. I don’t think any minds were changed.
After years of amateur study of animal behavior, behind-the scenes encounters with zoo animals, volunteering at homeless animal shelters, and living with a succession of eight cats and four retired racing greyhounds, I know the college girls were right, and the essay author and I were wrong. Animals are sentient beings. They have intelligence. They have souls.
I’ll share more on this topic in later posts.
But I’ll end with this declaration. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing god, and I don’t believe people go to heaven or hell when they die. But I believe there is a rainbow bridge and a kitty cat lane. All dogs go to the Rainbow Bridge, where they are young and spry again, with all their illnesses and injuries gone. All cats go to Kitty Cat Lane, where they too are young and healthy again, and the sun is always shining, and all the mice are slow and fat.
Thank you for reading my blog.