Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/May 1893/The Cultivation of Humane Ideas and Feelings

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By Prof. WESLEY MILLS, M. A., M. D.,

THE main object of every society for the prevention of cruelty to animals I take to be the establishment of right feelings toward our speechless fellow-creatures. But feeling, to be correct, strong, and abiding, must be based on sound conceptions of the nature of that toward which it is exercised. So long as any individual believes that another wishes to injure him, so long will he find it most difficult to entertain kindly feelings toward the man that he deems his enemy; but let it appear that he has entirely misunderstood the motive and actions of the individual in question—that instead of an enemy he proves to be a friend—and the whole current of feeling is changed. Thus would it be, in my opinion, with thousands of people if they could be made to see animals in their true light.

Glancing at historical and national views of animal life, we find at all periods widely different conceptions, and consequently feelings, in regard to some of our domestic animals. A certain animal regarded as a fit subject for contempt by some peoples has been an object of worship, or something akin to it, by others; hence it is not surprising that the lot of such animals has been very different in some parts of the world as compared with others. To illustrate this we need go no further than the universally distributed dog and cat. In the East the dog is rarely other than a homeless, despised outcast. In Europe generally he is a member of the family. But it is to Great Britain especially that we look to find all our domestic animals in the highest perfection, and cherished with feelings of peculiar regard. In Britain it is contrary to law to hitch a dog, however large and strong, to a cart to draw even a small child, while in Germany dogs may be seen used as beasts of burden in all the large cities. In no part of the world are the good qualities of dogs so appreciated and valued as in Great Britain; hence it is not at all inexplicable that cruelty to the dog and other animals is there comparatively rare.

It may safely be said that never before in civilized countries were animals—and especially our domestic animals—treated so well, because never before were they so thoroughly understood. To what is this to be attributed? Not alone to the spread of kindlier feelings and better principles generally, but largely to the advance of science. There was a time, well within the recollection of persons not yet old, when man, we were told by those to whom we looked for light and guidance, stood utterly apart from all else in the universe as the one being in whom the Creator specially, and we might say solely, delighted, and for whose benefit every other object, animate and inanimate, existed. How natural, then, for man to believe that animals, as such, had few if any rights!

The one test to which many persons naturally enough brought every animal was just this: Is the creature of any use whatever to man? If not, then it was held that it simply cumbered the ground. People, it is true, admitted that man was an animal; but they did not realize what this expression meant, or did not accept it in its full significance. To them man was an "animal," but not like the others. He was too exalted to have any more than the common principle of life. Men could not realize then as now that mind and body are so closely related that for every mental process there must be a corresponding physical correlative. But this once being admitted it became possible to understand that animals below man may have minds whose processes are akin to ours. The question then became, not have animals minds, but what sort of minds. Wherein does animal intelligence in the widest sense differ from human intelligence? As soon as man himself became better understood it was plain that his feelings were, on certain planes, parallel with groups of animals much lower in the scale generally. To them pleasures and pains were just as real as they were similar to those of human beings.

I suggest that these most important advances are owing chiefly to the progress and the diffusion of scientific knowledge and the scientific spirit. The doctrine of organic evolution published by Darwin over thirty years ago at once offered to man a broader kinship than he had previously been able to comprehend. In my opinion the importance of this conception will, for a right understanding of the relations of man and other animals, outweigh all others, because it will bring us to see that, with a common origin, there must always remain numerous similarities of nature.

But, without taking advantage of the doctrine of evolution, it has become apparent that the claim for man of a nature entirely distinct and different from that of other forms of life is baseless. Gradually, from many different quarters, this conception of similarity of nature is spreading among the masses; and the friend of animals can not do better than encourage people to dwell upon the resemblances rather than the differences between the highest and the lower grades of animal life. It will be readily perceived, then, that my conviction is that we shall best advance the cause we have at heart—the humane treatment of our animals—by spreading sound views of their nature, and in that keeping prominent the resemblances to man rather than the differences from him, many of them questionable, at all events as to kind.

Inasmuch as science has done more than all other agencies in dissipating man's prejudices and freeing the mind from erroneous and enslaving views, it will be wise for all societies with a humane object to think well before in any way interfering with scientific investigations of any kind. Without research the true nature of those diseases which afflict man and the lower animals can not be known.

With many persons dogs and hydrophobia are closely associated mentally, and I recently read an article in which the author spoke of the dog as the "breeder of hydrophobia." The societies will do good by publishing actual statistics and other details bearing on the nature of this dreaded disease. I have also read arguments for the complete extirpation of dogs based on the fact that some sheep were worried. The plain preventive for rabies is the proper care and management of dogs; and for sheep-worrying, the confinement of dogs at night, which would be, indeed, a proper proceeding if no sheep existed. A roaming dog is no more desirable than a human tramp; but no one has advocated the destruction of the human race to get rid of tramps. In attempting to spread sound views in regard to diseases that are common to man and our domestic animals, such as rabies, indirectly much information will be given to the public about the care of dogs, with a view to avoiding conditions that simulate this terrible malady. The "mad dog" of the streets is, we know, rarely rabid, and usually only needs a little judicious and kindly assistance to restore him to health. It is just about as reasonable to pounce on and kill a human being that falls in an epileptic fit, as the majority of the dogs that are attacked and killed by an excited crowd.

Above all, the public needs enlightenment regarding the true nature of animals. When that is complete and thorough, right feelings toward them will spring up in the larger proportion of people. I would especially direct attention to the education of children in and out of school on this subject. It should be held before a child as a more cowardly thing to abuse a defenseless animal than one of its own species. But this will not weigh much with the child if all it hears tends to belittle the creatures by which it is surrounded, and to exalt man beyond all measure. I should begin with very young children by pointing to similarities of structure and function between themselves and the family cat or dog. They have eyes, ears, tongues, etc.; they see, hear, taste, feel pain, and experience pleasure just as children do; therefore, let us recognize their rights, avoid giving them pain, and increase their pleasures. I strongly advocate each family having some one animal, at least, to be brought up with the household to some extent, whether it be bird, cat, or dog. But, on the other hand, it seems to me to be a great mistake to introduce any animal as a mere toy or plaything for very young children. Such a proceeding rather tends to encourage cruelty.

It is of great importance for the education of the public mind that fine specimens of animals be exhibited. All shows for our domestic animals are worthy of encouragement as educators. Many a person that regards the ordinary mongrel dogs of the street with indifference, if not aversion, has his views and feelings changed when he attends a dog show, with its numerous specimens of fine, pure-bred animals; and the same may be said of horse, cattle, and poultry shows. The æsthetic has a very great influence in our age. We devote a large share of our energies to securing the gratification of our sense of the beautiful. It will be judicious, therefore, to present the beautiful in animals to the public. For this reason, again, exhibitions of superior specimens of domestic animals, zoölogical gardens, museums, and kindred institutions prepare the public mind to appreciate animals more; and, as I am endeavoring to show, to understand and to admire are usually necessary steps to the generation of humane feelings toward the creatures with which we come in contact.

Once establish the proper feelings, and fitting conduct is likely to follow; but before these feelings arise we must have right conceptions of man's relations, if not relationship, to the animal kingdom.

While many persons are ready to admit that, so far as physical organization is concerned, man and other animals are on the one plane, they either do not believe in any likeness beyond this, or more probably they have never examined the subject.

It is not unlikely that the great majority of persons have not devoted a half hour of their lives, taken altogether, to any thought upon such a subject. It has been taken for granted that man is on <nie plane of intellect and feeling, and all other animals are so much below him that their acts are not commonly regarded as other than the result of instinct, a sort of blind impulse, so that they are not regarded as showing at all those qualities which we term mental, much less moral ones. Even educated persons have but vague conceptions on the subject of animal intelligence. The publications of many of the humane societies bearing on animal intelligence must have done a vast amount of good in dissipating ignorance and prejudice.

We have in Montreal, in connection with the Faculty of Comparative Medicine and Veterinary Science of McGill University, a society for the study of comparative psychology—the only institution of the kind with which I am acquainted. It has been in existence now six years.

A brief account of the proceedings of each meeting is published in the daily press of the city, and I have reason to believe that the association has in this way alone helped considerably the cause of the lower animals. The Montreal Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has received and circulated large numbers of copies of several of the papers read before this society for the study of animal intelligence.

I suggest that if the interest of teachers—especially the heads of schools—can be secured, some steps may be taken in leading the young to entertain correct views and feelings toward the lower animals. The keynote should be: They are our fellow-creatures; in some, but not all respects, our "poor relations"; to be guarded and assisted, but also to be respected; for in not a few directions they are superior to ourselves. Let this spirit get into schools and families, and but little actual formal teaching will be required to accomplish the end in view. Actions on the part of elders in this, as in other cases, speak louder than words.

Of course, now, and for a long time to come, the ignorant, the lowly organized, and the depraved will maltreat animals; and they must be appealed to in a way that is deterrent—that is, by punishment. But the sooner we can establish a strong and correct public feeling on the subject of the rights and relations of animals, the more effectually will cruelty be prevented; and when it does occur, be detected and punished. All cases of prosecution should be published, on account not only of its preventive effect, but because it strengthens public sentiment.

The cause will be hindered by mawkish sentiment, interference to an undue degree in slight cases, while neglecting great and widespread injustice, or positive wrong, toward our faithful dumb friends. In spreading sound ideas in regard to animals; in correcting generally admitted and great cruelties; in providing temporary homes for lost and stray animals; by encouraging, directly or indirectly, scientific research in biology, especially on the diseases common to man and our domestic animals; in contributing to the investigation of animal intelligence—we have, in addition to many other lines of effort, large and worthy fields of endeavor for the improvement of the condition of things in the world in which we live, both for man and his fellow-creatures, lower in the scale, it is true, but withal very admirable.

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  1. An Address before the American Humane Association, Philadelphia, October 27, 1892.