Richard Smith: Confusing animals and people

Richard SmithMy Kenyan friend thinks that Americans are mad. He worked for a while in an American hospital, and one day a colleague disappeared for a few hours. When he came back in the afternoon he said that he’d been to his father’s funeral. “He didn’t even seem sad,” said my friend. “In Kenya when a father dies there is a big funeral lasting days. Everybody comes.”

Two weeks later my Kenyan friend saw his colleague weeping. When he asked why, his colleague told him that his dog had died. “Fancy crying over a dog,” said my friend. “In Kenya dogs are never allowed into the house. They live with the other dogs. They are dogs. They work. How can you cry over a dog and not over your father? These Americans are crazy. They have everything upside down.”

I was remembering this as I was walking my dog—Henry the miniature schnauzer—on Clapham Common. Henry will be 11 this year, and I was wondering how long he would last. Death, as you might know, is my thing. I can’t help but think that I’ll be very sad when Henry dies. I cried when our rabbit was killed by a fox, and I didn’t have much of a relationship with the rabbit.

Henry, in contrast, is central to my life. Sitting beside me when I read and between me and my wife when we are watching the television. When I come back from a trip Henry is hugely pleased to see me, whereas my human family are so used to me coming and going that both are non-events. I’m going to miss him a lot when he dies.

But I didn’t cry when my father died. I loved him very much, have a picture of him above my desk, and his memoirs on my hard drive, and think of him almost every day seven years after he died. “His death,” said a good friend who is scared of death and dying, “showed how death is normal.” Syd, my father, was 81. He fought at the El Alamein, spent three years in prisoner of war camps, weighed just 7 stone on his 21st birthday, and smoked all his life. He never thought he’d get to 81, and he died magnificently—at home, without any pain killers, still in his right mind, and five weeks after he first began to cough up blood. He didn’t even seem old. What was there to be sad about? It would have been much sadder to see him become demented and disabled.

So why did I cry when my rabbit died and why do I think that I’ll cry when Henry dies? It’s something to do, I suspect, with consciousness, rationality, and consent. The rabbit didn’t have any of that triad and died suddenly and brutally with his neck broken by a fox in a pointless piece of vandalism. Henry doesn’t have any of the triad either, although he looks at me as if he understands more about me than I do about myself. (We think that he was a dermatologist in a former life.) And perhaps if he grows old, slow, arthritic, and blind I’ll see that death is the best option for him—as it is for all of us if we live long enough—and I’ll not be sad.

But I already qualify as crazy by the standards of my Kenyan friend—perhaps even crazier than the American, crying over a rabbit and not my father. How did we get to this point in Western culture? And does it matter? I’m not confident of the answer to either question. Can you help?

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

  • bojimbo26

    Humans give love ; animals give unconditional love .

  • Margaret Miller

    I loved reading this. I have parents in their eighties and live daily with the anxiety of worrying about their death. I also have a dog and realize that it’s likely he’ll. Die before me. It is apparent to everyone of my friends and family that I am very attached to my dog for several reasons. He is a replacement child who I care for and on whom I can lavish affection and because he is a well behaved child I only need to exercise a little discipline so he is an easy “child” to love. The emotional relationship with my parents is far more complex, varying over our shared lifetimes, more expressed than assumed and luckily many tensions and difficulties resolved. I am sure my reaction to their passing will be very complex whereas when Sparky my dog dies it will be very simply, grief at his loss and the loss of the simple happiness of his sweet nature and the time we shred. No ambiguity, just love.

  • notactualsize

    An individual can surely experience sadness without crying – and cry without feeling sad. Here you accord much significance to the act of crying; it’s as if someone can only be said to be sad when he/she is crying. Are we making a fetish of crying?

  • Vueloga

     Indeed, we do wonder how some people can cry
    more over the death of a pet than over the death of a person. I doubt that this
    question can be resolved from any one perspective, the sociologist,
    the physician or the psychologist point of view. If we consider the
    biologist or even the veterinarian point of views, which are known to
    have global and holistic visions, then we can observe the natural state of
    the interaction of individuals with a broader approach.


    Our reactions are mainly influenced by our
    imprinting and modeled from our experiences learnt throughout our lifetime. We
    all have an innate degree of “survival of the fittest” pushing us
    forward in life and urging us to maintain the human specie. In our modern
    world, a certain respect for the animal kingdom has been recognized, such as
    animal welfare, especially noticeable in pets and farm animals.  The role
    of a pet can be very important and in some cultures may become as close as part
    of the family.


    All this having been said, many people tend to
    believe that you should cry over your own specie, but some humans believe that
    they are above the animal kingdom yet all have the same rights and responsibilities.
    I believe that the underlying message is that a human will always feel moved to
    someone or a creature that they share the most with.  If the parent has
    become more distant, then yes, we will cry less over them and more over the
    animal that shares our everyday life. An animal will have a tendency to share
    the good moments and give you a kind of “support”, but who can really
    help you to deal with your real life problems is another human, and normally
    one who will really help in good and bad moments!  

    What is relevant for some may be not as important for others…