Are human beings broken away from nature and animals?
In 1972, a psychologist named Dr. Boris Levinson, a social scientist teaching a Yeshiva University in New York City, wrote a book called "Pets And Human Development," which almost shockingly foresaw the dehumanizing and polarizing forces taking shape in America.
He also chronicled in much detail the growing evidence that dogs and other pets would increasingly be used to re-humanize society. His book was an inspiration for one of my books, "The New Work Of Dogs," which argued that the new work of pets was supporting the emotional lives of increasingly disconnected and alienated Americans.
Levinson's book, which drew little media attention, was nonetheless influential. It helped to give rise to the Dog Therapy movement in America, and the animal rescue movement, and it highlighted the new work of dogs – providing emotional support to fragmented and anxious and dissatisfied people.
Unlike the animal rights movement, which has over the years argued more and more intensely for the removal of animals from human life, Levinson said animals like dogs (and other pets) were essential if people were to live in harmony with themselves and with nature.
A connection to the natural world, he argued, was essential to human survival.
Unfortunately, it was the animal rights view that gained traction. Animals, said the movement, much be liberated from the cruelty and unworthiness of people. Animals are not our partners, but our wards.
Since the 1970's, animals other than dogs and cats have been vanishing from our world – ponies, carriage horses, domesticated elephants, and politicians and even animal lovers cheer this tragic evolution as humane. The elephants are gone from the big circuses now. Where are the supporters of their rights as these elephants are being put to death all over North America because there is nowhere left on the earth for them to go?
Pets were not, Levinson warned, a panacea for the ills of society, for the pain of growing up or growing old. Alienation and isolation, he warned, were increasingly created by a technologically driven society whose values and institutions were – are – dehumanizing.
"One of the chief reasons for man's present difficulties," wrote Levinson, "is his inability to come to terms with his inner self and to harmonize his culture with his membership in the world of nature." That statement is so much truer today than it even was when he wrote it nearly a half century ago.
Pets can aid people in the future, he wrote, in that they help to fill needs which are not being met any longer in other, perhaps better and historically important ways. Every day, animals of all kinds are being drafted into emotional support work, as the society at large refuses to consider the root causes of human suffering.
It would be better, Levinson wrote, if we were not so mechanized, routinized, and "cut off from the vital rhythms of the natural world." Increasingly, he predicted, unhappy people whose lives were often bereft of spirituality or real meaning would turn to animals, who would provide some relief, give much pleasure, and remind us of our origins.
In a sense, I think, animals are now being asked to do the work of priests, rabbis, political leaders and the makers of technology. These were the people we once counted on to guide and sooth and lead us. We seem on our own today.
Levinson foresaw the new work of dogs and other animals as well as the rise of the animal rescue movement. He predicted as well as the increasing use of dogs in medical and emotional therapy work.
In a larger sense, he foresaw the emotionalization of animals by people who were no longer being sustained by politics, technology, or religion, institutions that were no longer lifting people up and grounding them. We don't look to political leaders or priests for inspiration, they have disappointed and discouraged us. That leaves us frightened and in conflict with one another, our shared values are vanishing.
This view – Levinson's view – became a central theme of my writing, both in books and on the blogs. Yet I've always had the feeling people who turn to animals for emotional support do not really want to think too deeply about what it means for them and their lives. I've always felt I was, like Levinson, exploring important themes many people were not really ready to consider.
People would much prefer reading about cute dogs and animals who rescue people. And I certainly contribute to that.
Our lives, he wrote in his book, were becoming highly planned and structured and complicated, they were bereft of the "heirlooms of former generations which gave us a sense of continuity with the past and hope for the future. City dwellers lived – often alone – in megastructures far removed from nature, their lives marked by little emotional closeness or knowledge of their neighbors.
Because we no longer preserve neighborhoods, there is now a great hiatus between generations, he wrote; our rootless civilization is encouraging alienation and is leading towards chaos.
I can only guess at what Levinson might have made of the Internet, which claims to connect people, but which pushes people into like-minded bubbles and creates the illusion that electronic e-mails and messaging is the same thing as real friendship.
His book was written long before social media and the rise of a "left and a right," new political and social structures dooming us to governmental dysfunction and widening divisions. Man is also, he wrote, entering a period of great detachment, even estrangement from nature now that man had conquered, even devastated the natural forces that created the world.
Re-reading his book this week, I am struck once more by Dr. Levinson's foresight, and also his balance. This essentially, is why I moved to the country, to re-connect with the natural world and its rhythms, I could sense the healing power of a farm.
"Rational man has become alienated from himself by refusing to face his irrational self, his own past as personified by animals. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the two agencies which have held out hope for man's liberating himself – science and religion – have largely failed him." And this, before social media, bitter-divided political systems, and the rise of the Internet, which tore people apart from one another and imprisoned many in their homes.
Technology, the handmaiden of science, has created an almost impregnable barrier between between man and the rest of nature, including the members of the animal kingdom.
I know of no better metaphor for this than the New York Carriage Horses. People who call themselves animal lovers are determined to drive them out of New York forever in the name of preserving their rights and our safety. What greater disconnection from the animal kingdom could there be than a movement spending millions of dollars over many years to remove animals from our lives and from our world in the name of loving them?
Can dogs and other pets fill this void? As Red and I approach our therapy work together, I see every day the power of animals to heal and uplift dispirited and alienated people. It isn't that the dogs perform magic, they are not miracle workers. Rather, they are a bridge to our inner selves, our pasts and natural identity. They help to re-humanize us in a de-humanized world.
Technology and corporate and political greed – just look at the news – have caused us to see nature as an inexhaustible source of wealth for the wealthy, an endless mine of riches for the few, as a kind of global whore to be exploited at leisure and then abandoned to its fate. We are no longer even pretending to protect Mother Earth, only looking for new and easier ways to rape her.
We deny the sickness of our beloved home, the earth, only to keep rich people rich and richer. Mankind got this far, history, suggests, because people live and worked with animals and cooperated not only with people but with animals, who helped to build our world, and are now being abandoned.
Levinson argued at the end of his book that we need a new understanding of animals, we need to see them as acceptable and even desirable participants in our social order, not as dangers or nuisances or piteous beings to be removed and hidden away in preserves. He saw that we need animals not only in the country but especially in crowded urban areas, where most people are. We need to grasp the pleasures and benefits they bring to anxious and disconnected people.
"If those who believe pets are a real need for human beings in this day and age can show the way toward maximizing the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of keeping pets in the home or in an institution, reluctant and even hostile individuals and groups may be won over," he wrote.
That is precisely the conflict raging in New York City over carriage horses. Some people insist in the face of overwhelming and contrary evidence that the horses do not belong in New York. Others grasp their historic, cultural and emotional importance to so many people in the city.
People who love animals – people like me and perhaps you – can work to create a favorable climate of opinion among political leaders and the general public so that animals can once again be regarded as a valuable resource rather than a nuisance or danger. The political leaders of New York ought to be fighting to keep the carriage horses there rather than banning them – they do so much more good every day than the people protesting their existence – have ever done.
"It is certainly worth the effort to bring about this change in attitude, for while it is quite possible that animals can do without man," Levinson concluded, "it is much less likely than man can do without animals."
I believe these attitudes can change, I have seen this. I received hundred of messages in the last few years telling me my own writing on the horses has caused some people to re-think the future of animals, and change their minds about the carriage horses. It can be done.
it is interesting that in Dr. Levinson's time, many people were still opposed to pet ownership for all kinds of reasons. The need for pets has become a social tsunami, people are taking ducks on airplanes for emotional support for fear of flying. In Dr. Levinson's time, there were about 18 million owned dogs in America, today there are more than 75 million owned dogs, and even more cats.
Nobody is arguing about pet ownership any more, there are raging conflicts everywhere about the future of animals.
Other animal species have not fared nearly as well as dogs, more than half of the animal species on the earth have vanished in the past 25 years, according to the World Wildlife Federation.
Many people who call themselves lovers of animals would prefer to see elephants slaughtered by poachers and exterminated in their shrinking habitats than entertain and uplift people, as they have been doing for thousands of years. The people worried about their welfare pay no attention to their deaths or extinction.
I understand that the time Dr. Levinson was different from ours. Were he alive today, I imagine he would see the new and awful reality about the animals in our world. it seems that cannot do without man, they are vanishing from the world or being driven out of it at an accelerating and catastrophic rate.
But he was a prophet and a seer. The farther we get from animals and nature, the more troubled, angry and unhappy we seem. Pope Francis has identified this as a profound moral issue for his Church. Levinson saw it would be a problem for all of us, and he was right.
And it seems more true than ever than we cannot do without them, as what we call the so-called "news" reminds us every day – every hour – of our lives.