Are animals better than humans?

My mother, who suffered a good number of knocks from people over the course of her life, always used to say they were. “Look at those sweet boys,” she would say, pointing to whatever collection of dogs we had on hand at the time. “You can always count on a dog. They’ll never let you down.”

My mother wasn’t alone in this view. Animals – dogs in particular but plenty of other species as well – have been receiving this kind of praise for millennia. Honesty, loyalty, bravery, humility… While humans are constantly bungling opportunities to showcase these virtues, animals seem to do so without a thought. From the dog that shows up, panting and emaciated, on the doorstep of the family that left it behind on the other side of the country, to the pod of dolphins that appears miraculously by the side of an endangered swimmer, the evidence is everywhere that my mother was right. When it comes to behaving decently down here in the world, animals have it all over us humans.

Or do they? When I grew up and started experiencing the full force of adult human failings myself – both my own and those of the people around me – I would sometimes find myself looking at my own dogs in just the wistful way I remembered my mother looking at hers. Meanness, phoniness, pettiness, egocentricity… In their simple, uncomplicated faces I’d catch a hint of a world where such qualities simply didn’t exist. Why couldn’t the human world function more like the one that animals lived in?

Then I’d remember another animal that loomed very large in my mother’s life during the years of my childhood: the snake. My mother was afraid of snakes; so afraid she’d actually foam at the mouth if she saw one. No Florida vacation, no walk in the New Hampshire woods, was ever free of the threat – usually unmentioned but ever-present all the same – that a snake might show up and spoil everything. If my mother was sometimes severely tempted to see the world in a black-and-white, animals-good/people-bad kind of way, the simple existence of snakes ensured that she didn’t. It was almost as if God had created these animals precisely in order to subvert any such temptations on her part; to remind her that things just weren’t that simple.

Are animals better than humans? “Yes,” says the snake, “and no.” Though not a direct quote, that’s pretty much what the most famous snake of all said to Adam and Eve when he ushered them out of the innocence of Eden and into the world we inhabit today: a world where at one moment we look at the natural world with love and wistful longing, and at the next moment with uncertainty, and even fear.

The more I experience of humans and of animals as an adult, the more I suspect that it is precisely God’s purpose that animals – and the natural world in general -- serve both to inspire and disconcert, comfort and terrify. In doing so, they remind us that though we can’t go back, we can go forward, to a place that lies beyond both Eden, and our present world, where all our questions will be answered once and for all.

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