North Atlantic Books, 2014, pbk, 216 pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Our Western, industrial culture has a schizoid split when it comes to our relationships with other-then-human animals. Whilst we see some of our warm-blooded, furred or feathered relatives as commodities and treat them abominably, we lavish affection on others. In another split, 75% of the population revels in posting online endless pictures and videos of cute and fluffy creatures while the other 25% looks down its collective nose at sentimentality and—the biggest sin of all—anthropomorphism, or the ascribing of human attributes to members of other species.
The author of this book, who is both a passionate advocate for animals and a trained veterinarian, seems to have put her finger on the main problem: we have the anthropomorphism thing totally back to front. We dismiss—officially, at any rate—the notion that other-than-human animals have individual personalities, feelings, emotions and souls just like we do, whereas deep down we know they do. Yet at the same time we forget that we are the only species who spends most of its time mentally rehashing the past or rehearsing for the future. Since we find it so extraordinarily hard to do as so many spiritual leaders have tried to tell us and live in the eternal, spacious ‘now’ in which everything is accepted and everything is basically OK, we have enormous trouble realizing that this is precisely where our animal relatives spend 100% of their time.
If we understand this, Bender says, we can better understand how killing fits into the scheme of things. This ability to dwell totally in the present moment means that prey animals don’t spend their days in dread the way we might be doing if we had not killed off all our sabre-toothed tigers. Being caught and eaten is OK with them, despite the survival instinct that, in the actual moment, will prompt them to run. According to Bender (and this accords perfectly with the wisdom offered by Native American and many other tribal cultures) the predator-prey relationship is based on a sort of acceptance and reciprocity that we can hardly begin to imagine. Yet there is a profound spiritual lesson to be learned from it, because the sort of life that would contain that much acceptance and sense of reciprocity would—for us as a thinking species—be a life lived totally in the conscious awareness that we are all one and everything in the universe is but an eternal dance of energy. We may subscribe to that belief intellectually and even feel it in the odd, fleeting moment or in deep meditation, but very few of us are able to live our daily lives out of that space.
It is, as we know, the ability to conceptualize and rationalize, which followed the development of a pre-frontal cortex in our brains, that sets us apart. Mythologically speaking, this was the fruit we plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. Other creatures, who did not eat that fruit of self-reflective consciousness, live on an Earth that never stopped being Paradise.
If we, too, want to see our world through what Bender terms ‘the paradise perspective’—our challenge is to bring our feeling and intuitive functions up to par with our thinking function and fully integrate them. This involves re-owing all the animal abilities we have let lapse, such as deep intuition and telepathic communication. Bender reminds us that these abilities are well-researched and documented. She cites the work of biologist Rupert Sheldrake who has done extensive and ongoing research into animals’ ways of knowing and of scientists at Stanford and elsewhere who have studied the same latent abilities in humans. The main message of this book is that animals can help us re-learn these skills—and are more than willing to do so if we will humble ourselves enough to let them. Maybe together, we shall be better able to repair the damage we have done to the planet than if we try to do it alone.
Despite the fact that this author, who is scientifically trained, encourages her readers …to think of intuitive, telepathic communication with animals as a natural ability that you once had and have temporarily misplaced rather than as a supernatural power that you are trying to acquire, the mere suggestion that such a skill is achievable by all of us will probably send the cynical 25% running screaming for the hills. But that’s their loss. I hope the other 75% will buy, read and learn from this lovely, thought-provoking and insightful book.