Pass on the Robo-Pet…and Hold the Animals

In a gorgeous scene early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, children bring a litter of kittens to a river and baptize some of them before an adult stops them. The kittens all find homes, but nobody remembers which were baptized. The narrator, a minister, always wonders whether there is any theological difference between the baptized and non-baptized kittens. I don’t find this dilemma troubling at all, since I have never for a moment doubted that animals have souls.

My fifth-grade teacher, who was also a former minister (and, as far as I’m concerned, a saint as well), tried unsuccessfully to convince me otherwise. He’d filled his classroom with assorted fauna – rats, tarantulas, gopher snakes, chicks, lizards, crawfish – and allowed us to hold them during lessons. I was nonchalant about snakes, couldn’t bring myself to hold a tarantula, and fell in love with the rats, especially after reading Robert C. O’Brien’s classic, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Trying to turn me into a good scientist, he showed me several science books that presented as fact that one of the factors that distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity to feel emotion. He taught me a word that felt clunky and collegiate on my tongue: anthropomorphize, the tendency of humans to attribute human qualities to animals and other things that are not human.

His contention that the rats had no personalities and no emotions was the one thing he ever told me that I didn’t believe. Research since then has suggested that I was right that the divide scientists then drew between humans and animals was artificial and anthropocentric. One of the experts on animal emotion, Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University, says “people don’t have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world.”

The human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, however, is also well documented. In a famous 1960s experiment I studied in college, students confided in a computer program, ELIZA, that spat out responses based on Rogerian therapy. Many participants mistook ELIZA for a human and grew emotionally attached to “her.” More recently, a New York Times editorial by branding consultant Martin Lindstrom – contended (controversially and possibly falsely) that brain scans revealed that “the subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member…they loved their iPhones.

The implication here is something like, “Humans anthropomorphize both objects and animals; objects don’t have emotions; therefore it is likely that animals don’t have emotions either.”

For those of us who spend time around them, though, it seems glaringly obvious that animals have an emotional life. Pets clearly show jealousy, anger, affection, and joy; and when their owners feel strong emotions, they rarely fail to appear with a cold nose, a warm tongue, or a snuggle. Our pets declare their personalities and desires as plainly as any child, and they share the child’s impulse to touch and give comfort in the face of human emotions they don’t understand. Researchers point out that only humans have the ability to think about their own emotions…at least as far as they know.

And then there’s Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” about a woman’s failure to acknowledge her best friend’s terminal illness, which ends with this devastating passage about a real-life chimpanzee who has been taught sign language:

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

I have never been able to read this story – or, I have just discovered, write about it – without crying.

So, when I read Clay Risen’s brief article in the New York Times Magazine, citing “Robo-Petting” as an innovation we can anticipate in the next four years or so, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea was not just disgusting but a poor approximation of the love of a good animal:

Petting a living animal has long been known to lower blood pressure and release a flood of mood-lifting endorphins. But for various reasons — you’re at work, or you’re in a hospital, or your spouse is allergic to dogs — you can’t always have a pet around to improve your mental health. So researchers at the University of British Columbia have created something called “smart fur.” It’s weird-looking (essentially just a few inches of faux fur) but its sensors allow it to mimic the reaction of a live animal whether you give it a nervous scratch or a slow, calm rub. Creepy? Yes. But effective.

Right. I prefer my “smart fur” on a live animal, thank you very much…and I would be willing to bet that animals do, too.

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