Roach: Animal instinct

Roach: Animal instinct
Photo by John Roach

It’s been a couple of years since we surrendered our family pooch, a border collie mix named Philip Seymour Dog, aka Philly.

After writing a piece on this page about the sadness that comes with giving up a pet, we received news that Philly had not been put down as feared, but had found a home with a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who views him as his spirit animal.

I know the feeling.

Our family was rendered teary-eyed by the photos passed along to us of Philly living a great life. We are grateful for the generous soul of his new master.

Philly was the only true pet our family ever had, and although he is gone, I find myself surprised at the lessons he taught me that linger. Philly left me with an appreciation for just how smart, clever, communicative and compassionate critters are in ways I never understood. Philly changed the way I view all earth’s creatures.

Before Philly my attitude toward animals was callous, because I had never lived with one. But Philly made me acutely aware that pretty amazing stuff was going on in his brain, which then opened my mind to the lasting notion that this was likely true of the brains of all sorts of animals.

Suddenly the volumes of research telling us about the intelligence of chimpanzees, dolphins, dogs and pigs made more sense and caused me to ponder how we treat our fellow animals. Because of Philly, my thinking on the issues of medical experimentation, meat consumption and hunting has morphed from apathy to a more thoughtful positions.

This is not to say that I don’t love a good Culver’s Butter Burger. Or two. Or three. Nor do I suggest outlawing hunting or thoughtful medical research involving animals. My view on humane treatment of animals is now more measured.

And yet, I am still aware of the animal in us all.

One of my guilty pleasures is a TV show called “Naked and Afraid.” If you don’t think humans need and crave protein, all you have to do is observe the behavior of two buck naked contestants after 10 days in the wild without any food other than a couple of coconuts and a rotten papaya. When they finally manage to get a little protein in the form of a turtle, mouse or snake, they are beside themselves with happiness and gratitude even though the feast is often no bigger than a thumbnail. To say that they are delirious with primal joy is an understatement.

You also don’t have to look too far beyond your front stoop to see nonhuman critters with an appetite for flesh. Robin chicks vanish from their nests at the hands of clever raccoons. The fawn you see in the clearing is gone the next day so a sow bear can feed her cubs. Five minutes of watching wildebeest crossing the Mara River in Africa informs you of everything you need to know about nature’s favorite menu items.

But with all those qualifiers, there’s still a thin line crossed when legitimate human need morphs into wanton abuse of animals.

It is accepted truth that a society that treats animals with respect is more likely to do the same for its fellow humans. In fact, it has gotten to the point that we are more likely to treat the end of life for a pet better than that of a parent. Of course there is no market incentive for prolonging a suffering pet’s life.

The word that keeps coming back to me is “sentient,” defined as “able to perceive or feel things.” As a dog owner, I was regularly taken aback by how much Philly understood and perceived. And dogs aren’t even the smartest creatures.

I wonder if one day we will look back and be amazed at how little we knew about our fellow inhabitants of this planet, and how they were trying to communicate in ways we were too dumb or arrogant to understand.

This feels true because, as I have come to I realize, Philly taught me more than I taught him.

Which is more than I can say for most humans.

And them of me.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach