Animals – and not just pets, all kinds of animals – do not enjoy the care and acknowledgement of being our veritable brothers and sisters, as living beings, that they should by right receive. This much is beyond debate. The obscene practice of killing rhino for the supposedly medicinal and/or aphrodisiac properties of their horns, as well as the ongoing decimation of that most beautiful of big cats, the (different species of) tiger, for the same reason – that the male tiger’s penis is an indispensable source of potency for men – is but the tip of the iceberg that represents abominable human exploitation and abuse of animals.

One could draw the circle of inclusion much wider, of course. I recall an episode of Carl Sagan’s wonderful television series, Cosmos, that opened where the famous astronomer was standing next to a big, leafy tree. Probably to the surprise of most viewers, he remarked that he was standing next to a close cousin of ours – that is, humans – namely, the tree, informing them that the difference between humans and that specific species of tree can be measured in a few percentage points of DNA. If this seems counter-intuitive, recall that, as Joel Kovel points out in The Enemy of Nature, all living beings show a similarity in DNA structure which indicates that, fundamentally, they share the same genetic ‘architecture’. In other words, ALL living beings, including plants, insects, reptiles, and mammals (of which humans are one species) come from the same genetic forebear(s). All living beings are related.

This should be a sobering thought for those who look upon animals as nothing more than beasts of burden, or food, or a source of income (in racing, or dog-fights, for example). As Kovel argues, every living being has its own signature of being, which is different from a bee to a snake, to an elephant, a dolphin or a rhinoceros. And, to use a term from Martin Heidegger, given this rich ontological diversity of life-forms, humans should practice what he called ‘letting-be’; not in the sense of passivity, but an active letting-be of every living being according to its ownmost ‘nature’.

Daphne Sheldrick, a naturalist who has worked with animals – mainly elephants – for 50 years, is someone whose authority in this field is beyond doubt. In a recent interview with Time magazine on her new book (Love, Life and Elephants) she talks about the characteristics of these large pachyderms, such as their way of mourning their loved ones (by returning to their remains for years, and covering these remains with leaves and branches), as well as their amazing infrasound communication and their intelligence. They even know, she claims, that they are being killed for ivory, as evidenced by the fact that the few large-tusked bulls left at Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park have become nocturnal, and when spotted by humans, turn around to hide their tusks.

To the question, whether rhinos can be saved, given the Chinese and Far Eastern markets that are threatening them, she retorts that this depends on the ‘education’ of these countries, adding laconically: “The horn is a fingernail. If people bite their nails, they’d be getting the same thing.” This is not very optimistic. Nor is her prognosis for elephant survival: “There’s no hope as long as there’s trade in ivory.” She believes that here, too, people should be educated about the nature of elephants, which is the only possible thing that could prevent their extinction.

An unusual avenue for such education is found in the work of the “zoosemiotician” (or “biosemiotician”), Thomas Sebeok, who has extended the field of semiotics – the science of signs – to include all domains of life. At a seminar of 1987 he remarked:

“The world is composed entirely of signs, and therefore, I think of the whole world as my oyster; whereas for some people only the human world, and then only a small portion of that, is their oyster” (Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio: Thomas Sebeok and the Signs of Life, p. 7).

In a nutshell, Sebeok’s work causes a bit of a dent in humans’ sense of self-importance by demonstrating that, far from being restricted to human sign-activity, what he calls “semiosic processes” are to be found everywhere among living beings, from the simplest protozoa to the most complex (humans, primates, dolphins, elephants, whales), and even beyond these in the “flow of energy-information”.

The difference between human life and other life-forms as far as semiosis or the use of signs is concerned, is that only human life employs or functions by means of two types of signs, verbal and non-verbal, while other life-forms function via non-verbal signs. Elephants, it will be recalled, use infrasound communication, while ants communicate by exchanging chemicals that function as signs, and birds engage in sign-rich mating rituals that are evidently “interpreted” in a certain way by males and females to lead to successful mating, for example. The exchanges of sounds functioning as signs between dolphins is so complex that scientists who study it have even concluded that there is a specific (matronymic) pattern to the series of sounds comprising the “names” of young dolphins.

Moreover, animals are endowed with impressive sign-decoding powers. Think of a bloodhound’s ability to pick up and follow a scent, or the acuteness of a dog’s (or a cat’s) hearing. Lyall Watson, in his book, Neophilia (The Love of the New) gives an astonishing account of recorded cases of animals (pets) tracing their human “owners” over hundreds of miles from their erstwhile homes (where the animals were left, either accidentally or deliberately) to their new homes, even if the scent of the people was not embedded in the ground; invariably they travelled by car.

None of these remarkable attributes of animals should have to be invoked to secure their existence, however. The mere fact that different species of animals exist, including the human animal, should be enough to impel humans to recognize the intrinsic value of these animals’ lives, and refrain from reducing them to food, or abuse them in other ways, such as when animals are kept in cages or on chains and ropes in cramped spaces. The saddening truth of the matter is, however, that many, if not most, people care, at best, for their pets – if they have any – while others don’t give a fig what happens to the members of our extended family of living creatures.

I had a friend – who regrettably passed away because of cancer – who was a zoologist and animal lover, and was particularly aggrieved by the wanton destruction of the habitat of tortoises (and usually many tortoises themselves) when land was cleared for the construction of golf estates. Add to this the destruction of the habitat of millions of animals and insects when rainforests are cut down for various reasons – to clear the forests for agriculture, or to provide timber from rare trees like the Diptocarp trees of Borneo – and we have to face the stark truth that humankind does not really (with the exception of a handful of committed people) care much whether animals continue to exist or not.

We have come a long, downward-spiralling way from St Francis of Assisi’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, an expression that signified Francis’ acknowledgement of the kinship of everything in the universe.

Ironically, as my grandfather, who was an animal-lover, observed once when we were walking through the veld on his farm, one can usually tell from a person’s treatment of animals what kind of human being he or she is.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment