by Rabbi Wayne Allen
Catherine Thimmesh recently published a book simply called Friends. It is a photo essay of the special relationships of animals with each other, accompanied by some brief reflections. What is surprising is the number of friendships that cross the boundary of species, particularly the boundary between hunter and hunted. Even more recently, Jennifer Holland published her book entitled Unlikely Friendships. It includes 47 stories – with pictures – of animal adoptions and friendships of the most puzzling kind. Putting these unusual relationships in a more thoughtful context is Dale Peterson whose book, The Moral Lives of Animals, was favorably reviewed in Orion Magazine.
The author notes that dogs and many other animals seem to intuit rules for fair play and proper social conduct that punishes cheaters and ostracizes those who harm a fellow playmate. Rodents will refuse food in sympathy with their lab-mates who received electrical shock. Elephants are supremely cooperative. Coyotes that fail to observe their group’s rules will be forced to live alone, most likely resulting in a higher mortality rate.
It is a truism that human beings are animals. To be sure, human beings have the ability to reason, to use a wide variety of tools, to express themselves in music and art, to think creatively, and to communicate with the nuances of advanced language. Yet, despite all of these things, humans often behave worse than the animals we are supposed to transcend.
But rather than lapse into cynicism, these books ought to give us cheer. If animals can overcome their natural tendencies to pursue intra- and interspecies friendships, then there is hope for humanity. Rather than think of political enmities as intractable, we should embrace the possibility that people can rise above their own artificial divisions and achieve a level of amity exemplified by our fellow creatures.