This week, the last male white rhino in the world died, just one of many animals who have borne the brunt of living in the Anthropocene age. The relationship between human beings and animals has been a messy one interspersed with dependency, exploitation and mass murder. In her essay, Animal Agents, Amanda Rees explores the way human beings have thought about animals and how changes in this thought process can lead to a better harmony between the species. In literature, very few stories have done justice to the thoughts of animal protagonists. If they are noble, they display human qualities of what it means to us to be noble. We have never thought of delving into what an animal’s idea of noble could be. Animals are used as attractive baits in children’s fiction and also allegorically to make sense of social inadequacies. Rees mentions how William Golding changed that with his book The Inheritors where he delves into the consciousness of his understanding of the Neanderthal race. Golding’s approach would subsequently be used by animal behaviorists when they looked at each animal as an individual.
Only those who worked directly with animals – farmers, shepherds, horse-riders, dog-handlers, falconers – seemed ready to speak of the significance of animal individuality or animal personality. Not to mention calculation and intent. Close up, each animal is different, and the nature of the relationship between individual humans and specific animals is unique.
The author makes it painfully clear that human agency may not be adequate enough to provide a more holistic view of the animal world. We’ve been living with blinkers on for a long time and know next to nothing about the way the animals who inhabit this planet along with us think.