Animals Among Us

Should we eat animals? Can we save our ailing wildlife? What can animals teach us about caring for the planet and each other? The Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine explores our relationship with other creatures.
Sarah Spread 57


At a small beach park last summer, I watched an enormous shaggy black dog sit anxiously on the beach. A young girl had waded out deep into the cold salt water, and she seemed to be in trouble. At a signal from a nearby adult, the dog leaped in and paddled straight for the child. The girl grabbed the dog’s long fur, and it turned and swam for shore, towing the child to safety. Soon, the youngster was back in the water, helping out with what turned out to be a water-rescue training exercise.

Shaggy black dog photo by Andres RodriguezWe love our animals, and we rely on them, sometimes in unexpected ways. We lavish them with attention; we view endless videos of cute cats or clever birds, and visit wild places hoping to get a glimpse of an elk or an orca. And we eat them.

Our relationship with animals is filled with contradictions. While we treasure wildlife, we are causing a massive wave of extinctions. We are outraged by abuses of dogs and cats, yet we eat food that comes from an industry that keeps animals crowded in sickening confinement and, in the United States, slaughters 104.8 million pigs, 35.3 million cows, and 8.8 billion chickens each year.

Out of these contradictions, a relationship with animals that is both new, and very old, is emerging. We are questioning practices that treat animals as commodities, and instead, looking for respectful ways to coexist. We are moving toward relationships with animals that are more like those of indigenous peoples—seeing animals as fellow creatures living alongside us in complex, interdependent ecosystems.

Does that mean we should never eat animals? Joel Salatin, one of the country’s best-known sustainable farmers, says animals are integral to responsible farming and that animals on his farm live good lives (until their abrupt ends). But Sunaura Taylor—drawing on the vulnerabilities she feels as a person living with a disability—believes eating meat is neither natural nor defensible.

What about wild animals: Can they be saved? Some animal lovers are recreating wild landscapes in our midst to connect habitats. Others are working to establish that nature, animals, and Mother Earth have rights. And many more are making their own backyards and neighborhoods more hospitable to wildlife, as Jane Goodall recommends.

As we grow spiritually, our circle of compassion expands from self to family to community and, sometimes, to all life. A deeper understanding of animals helps us extend that circle to include not only the charismatic animals, but the ugly, slow, and microscopic ones. And with that compassion comes a commitment to save them.

We, too, are animals after all, and the bright lines we draw to separate ourselves from the animal kingdom don’t hold up to scrutiny. Stories in this issue tell of magpies that grieve their dead, chimps that dance at the base of a waterfall, crows that train their young to make tools, and dogs that can diagnose early stages of lung cancer.

As I write, my cat lies curled in front of the wood stove, adding warmth and comfort to my home. A short distance away, otters are teaching their young to dive for fish. A great blue heron leaps off a tall cedar, crying out as it soars toward the water’s edge. Life without animals is unimaginable.

Are we capable of making the changes necessary to protect our wild cousins and to restore the natural systems that sustain life? It might be too much to ask, except that is what it will take to save us, too.   


  • What can the first peoples teach us about restoring our relationship with animals?

  • Grief, friendship, gratitude, wonder, and other things we animals experience.

  • How one Baltimore-born Motown veteran is preserving two of the country's most precious resources: wild mustangs and at-risk children.