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Review: Barbara J. King's 'Being With Animals' explores bonds

Animals are an integral part of our lives and culture. We can find them in children's books, in our living rooms snuggled up on the couch or on our dinner plates next to a heap of mashed potatoes. In Being With Animals, anthropologist Barbara J. King explains how this unique relationship came to be by tracing it back to our earliest human ancestors.

Today — as they have since the beginning, King writes — "Animals give life to humans through milk, meat and wool, enhance human life through labor and companionship, [and] ward off the unknowability and danger of the wild by bringing it closer or under human influences." The details she provides about the origins of domestication are particularly fascinating. Despite our success in domesticating dogs, goats and cats, humans have tried and failed to tame raccoons, gazelles and moose. This has led some anthropologists to conclude that domestication works only when there are rewards for both species.

But humans and animals do more than help each other subsist. Animals are central to human rituals and religious beliefs that span continents and millennia — evidence, King argues, of a deeper, soulful bond. Ancient Egyptians worshiped cats and mummified them before burial, while Islam, Christianity and Buddhism all value a sense of compassion toward animals. The Eveny people in Siberia believe their shamans can turn into reindeer, while the Runa people of Ecuador perform ceremonies on dogs to try to make them understand human speech.

King delves into the positive and constructive relationships humans have had with animals, but treads lightly in examining the flip side. Animal cruelty, animal testing and big agriculture's sometimes deplorable treatment of livestock are certainly not examples of reciprocal, heartwarming human-animal interactions. If the premise of this book is that humans benefit from showing consideration for animals, then how to explain so much human neglect and abuse of animals?

Being With Animals

By Barbara J. King

Doubleday, 258 pages, $24.99

Review: Barbara J. King's 'Being With Animals' explores bonds 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 3:30am]
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