What Animals Can Teach Us About Ourselves

Since early 2014, following a recommendation from my sister Abigail, I have been regularly volunteering at a local animal shelter. My role is quite simple: I socialize cats to get them used to being around people, and record how the animals behave so prospective adopters know what to expect. I answer questions like, “Is the cat playful? Does it like other cats? How does it respond to being pet or brushed?” And so on.

I recently hit a milestone of 500 hours volunteered, and that led me to reflect on the entire experience. Volunteering has been incredibly rewarding and educational. If you like animals, I would highly recommend volunteering at your local animal shelter!

Off the top of my head, I can name a handful of animals I will never forget for what they taught me and — while I can’t take full credit here — how wonderful it feels knowing I at least helped them blossom and find loving homes. One lesson really sticks out in my mind as having been particularly important. You want to know what it is? Animals often exhibit destructive behavior when they’re stressed. For example…

They growl and hiss when approached by humans, or even other members of the same species.

They bite or scratch if you reach out to touch them, no matter what your intention was.

They spray to mark territory, or refuse to use their dedicated spots for relieving themselves.

You have to understand that just because an animal behaves a certain way doesn’t mean it will always act like that. Most of the time, the animal is just trying to protect itself in unfamiliar circumstances.

You cannot take it personally if the animal lashes out at you. Getting angry is only going to make things worse. Sometimes, walking away for a few minutes is the best option to let both parties cool down. Indeed, numerous times after being scratched or bitten, I simply put the animal back in its cage and left to tend to my wounds.

Patience truly is a virtue here. You have to learn to read subtle body language cues to figure out what’s really bothering the animal. More often than not, I’ve found that if you take away the stressor, in time, the animal will become more friendly.

Now, I have a confession: I hate to pull a bait-and-switch here, but this story isn’t actually about shelter animals; it’s about people. I think we are the same way. When we feel threatened, we act out in ways that can ultimately be destructive. Reacting to that destructive behavior with anger won’t get you anywhere. There’s one big difference, though: We don’t have to express ourselves solely through actions; we can use words, too.

While this lesson can apply to a number of hot-button issues, I want to talk about the populist movements that have been gaining traction throughout a lot of the Western world. Think of the Leave movement in the UK; the National Front in France; Alternative for Germany; the rise of Donald Trump. Like many of you, I’m concerned by the sorts of policies these groups advocate. On balance, I believe “drawbridge up” approaches (e.g. protectionism and isolation) leave us worse off.

Despite my vehement opposition to these parties, I don’t think getting angry at them is the right course of action, largely for the same reason I wouldn’t get angry at a cat that bites me out of fear. Let me be very clear: I don’t mean to caricature the people supporting these movements as animals. That’s childish and extremely hurtful. I’m merely suggesting that both are acting destructively out of fear.

The people supporting these groups feel scared and humiliated. The world is changing rapidly and they feel left behind. But these folks generally aren’t ignorant, racist, or bigoted. They’re people just like you and me. They want to earn a good living to provide for their loved ones, and they want to feel safe.

I think those are admirable goals, and ones I can relate to. I get scared a lot, too, and that’s OK. The biggest difference is that lots of folks haven’t had the opportunities in life I had. It’s not fair to get mad at people for making rash decisions when they’re scared. If you were in their shoes, you’d probably do the same thing.

If our goal is to prevent these populist movements from gaining power and enacting policies that we believe would destroy society, first and foremost, we need to listen and be empathetic to their supporters. Demonizing them is only going to confirm their fears that the people in charge don’t care about them. We would do well to understand their plight. If we can offer a path to prosperity that includes them, I bet they’d be on board.

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