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Working with animals for our mutual survival

Friday, August 6th, 2010



This next story might persuade you to give your dog an extra treat or two. A researcher from Penn State University says we owe our animals an ancient debt.

Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman has a theory that our connection to animals is one of the unique traits that sets humans apart. Fellow anthropologist Barbara J. King is a professor at the College of William & Mary. She says Shipman’s science is solid.

King: What Dr. Shipman has done is to say, we haven’t looked closely enough at this link with animals, and that, too, allowed us to basically dominate the world.

In the same way that inventing stone tools allowed humans to make up for our lack of sharp canines and claws, the animal-human bond has provided an evolutionary short cut. Shipman says our lingering connection and close observation of animals eventually allowed us to domesticate other species and invent a kind of “living tool.”

Shipman: If you keep the animal around, there are all these renewable resources, that you can gain from it.

Milk, fur, aid in killing rodents, transportation. Consider the horse.

Shipman: A horse means rapid transit, you can move people, you can move goods over long distances, you can haul things that you never could with human power alone, as long as you keep them alive.

Shipman says the animal connection began about 2.6 million years ago, around the time when humans invented tools to become formidable hunters. But colleague Barbara King, who wrote the book Being With Animals, says the bond goes back further to the time when we were just prey

King: So we’re out there on a savanna or in the forest teeming with other animals, so we would have to have been watching them very closely tracking their movements as they tracked ours, there was this very tense animal connection early on.

Shipman argues her theory in the August 2010 issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Some of the best evidence, she says, shows up in cave engravings. That prehistoric art is disproportionately focused on animals with puzzlingly few images of shelters, waterways or plants. For Shipman, it’s proof that animals mattered so much that our ancestors developed language to transmit that knowledge to other members of the clan.

Other evidence of the advantage of the animal connection comes from our unique role as pet owners. On it’s face, it doesn’t make evolutionary sense to share food and care for another species.

When the wolf’s at the door you don’t invite him in. But Shipman says wolves, who became dogs along the way, were tamed enough to included us among their pack. They protect us, provide warmth and companionship.

Her research turned up just one instance of a wild animal taking in another species. All the other cases, she says, come from animals influenced and encouraged by humans. That includes the gorilla who spoke sign language and had a pet kitten.

Shipman: Koko was not raised in a gorilla society. Yes, Koko had a kitten. But it’s not something that she would have done in the wild.

Shipman says we should be devising ways to maintain our connection to animals, including keeping them with us when we make big life transitions.

Shipman: If I’m right, or if I’m even half way right about this, we need to take very seriously the way we plan living spaces, the way we plan care facilities.

The social, health and well being benefits of animal keeping are well documented.

After two million years of being in tune with animals for survival, Shipman says we can’t stop now. She counts two cats among her family members.

Shipman has written a general audience book called the The Animal Connection from publisher W. W. Norton.


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