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The meanings of ‘animal’

Written by Sherwin, published on April 29, 2010

No animals allowed sign

Years ago I heard David Suzuki speak in Halifax. He was on book tour for his, then recent publication, The Sacred Balance. He told many stories that night and he spoke for several hours about the fundamental connectedness of life. Meeting and listening to Dr. Suzuki had a lasting impact on me. I recall feeling excited when he made note of the “no animals” signs posted in malls and restaurants.

No animals allowed signHave you ever seen that episode of the Flinstone’s where the aliens take Fred and then there’s a duplicate-alien Fred running around, and then when the real Fred comes back, no one believes or understands him? That is my worst nightmare. There is nothing so lonely to me – so utterly alone making – than being misunderstood or disbelieved. In my next life maybe I’ll keep a psychiatrist on staff to help me with this. In this life, I surround myself with friends that share my values. And when I heard David Suzuki taking the time, in a public and well attended lecture, to point to a common artifact of our culture and draw out the significance of the apparent contradiction, I felt totally sane.

In conversational language, we use the word “animal” in a way that excludes humans. Rationally and scientifically, everyone admits that humans are animals. But few people care that the sign says something so wrong. 1

The fact that so few people find these signs to be notable, is partly because so many people, deep down, deep deep down, beneath their scientific and rational brain, actually think we’re not animals. People act as though we’re special. Well, okay, we are kind of special. But it’s more than this. They also act as though we’re outside of, or separate from, or above, or better than, or not fundamentally connected with. And this might explain some of our less than intelligent modes of being in the world. This might be what’s wrong with the sign.

Now let me make this clear: the sign is not the problem. Sure, the sign is part of the problem. It’s at the very least a symptom or a reflection of the problem. But it’s also a state endorsed problem entrencher. It’s a kind of low level, under-the-radar, reinforcement of the idea that humans aren’t animals. The sign is, after all, quite common.

And this is the rub. If you actually talk to the people that act as though humans aren’t animals, they will tell you that humans are animals! Well there’s a fun (apparent) contradiction. The people who behave as if humans aren’t animals, still, intellectually, believe that humans are animals. 2 It’s sufficient here to say, simply, that the gap between what we believe intellectually, and how we actually behave in the world, is a gap that is of the utmost interest to advertising, the art of persuasion and social engineering.

We all have a gap between what we think, and how we act. So those of us who read the sign and don’t really notice what’s wrong with it, can at least be excused for being busy. But what is troubling about this sign, is that it was written by someone. Someone was paid to make this sign. Someone was paid to think about the meaning of the words.

Back in Halifax that night, Suzuki argued that this kind of sign is evidence of the human pretension that there is an invisible divide between humans and the nonhuman natural world. He also argued that this idea is at the root of our current incapacity to live in balance with our Earth. He also speculated that this idea, this human pretension, was a result of our Christian heritage. And still to this day, I find this interesting and compelling. Could it be that the mainstream Christian notions of  a soul, a heaven, and a human-centric God lies at the heart of our imbalance with the Earth? It’s possible. 3

It really boils down to this. That all life is inter-related. we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny so that whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. – Martin Luther King, 1967

  1. One could argue perhaps that the sign also excludes insects, and other animals, and so it’s not uniquely misleading in regard to humans. I don’t find this argument compelling, however, since we may have no power over the presence of insects and other small animals: we do have total power over whether humans are permitted on the premise or not. As we say in ethical studies, “ought implies can.”
  2. Most contemporary, accepted theories about the human brain/mind, muddled as they are, acknowledge a gap between the conscious, thinking person, and the unconscious, subconscious, less-than-fully-conscious acting person.
  3. I should add that there is a movement of educated Christians that are championing environmental issues, and using scripture to do so. I should also add that there have always been those more complicated, more thoughtful Christians that are as troubled by the other layers of common meaning of “animal.”
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Archived comments

  1. Sarah says:

    I can’t decide if I’d be thrilled or terrified if these signs were all reworded “Only humans allowed in alive.”

  2. […] in Canada. People who identify as Christians are also common and real. Christian values even shape our political and social and legal institutions. But that there is a male angel whose name is St. Peter, and he has wings and a big book, and he […]

  3. tim irvin says:

    Bravo.
    I agree with you and Suzuki on this one and have always been fascinated and annoyed by “no animal” signs. In fact, I felt kind of weird reading this article – it was like you had entered my thoughts…and improved them. That was, like, weird.

  4. sherwin says:

    Ha ha! That’s funny. That’s totally true. The other implicit proviso then, is no LIVING animals. :)

  5. Rusty says:

    Totally beside your point but the other funny thing about such signs in restaurants is that there probably are lots of non-human animals on the premises, they’re just dead and in pieces.