The Real Difference Between Humans and Other Animals

A couple of years ago Chelsea, our dog, accidentally got into a fight with a woodchuck (she was exploring a large hole beside the walking trail in the conservation are near our home, and the sharp-clawed woodchuck didn’t like the invasion of her den and emerged and attacked). Chelsea was unsure what to make of this creature, and she first approached and barked, and then, when it squealed and lunged, she backed off and the woodchuck retreated. Chelsea seemed fine, and was a bit distraught but made no sound of distress, so we continued on our walk.

The next day we noticed Chelsea was licking herself on one side and I went to check to see if she’d picked up some burrs. To my astonishment I found a gash four inches (10cm) long and nearly one inch (2.5cm) deep. It was invisible under her fur but was still bleeding — a battle wound. If we hadn’t been paying attention we would never have known. If it had been on a different part of her body she might have died. The wound required several stitches and a long time to fully heal. We resolved to keep a closer eye on her health from then on.

A month ago, we were going out for groceries and, as usual, Chelsea came along for the car ride. With her arthritis and her hypothyroid condition she’s a little tentative now about jumping into the back seat of the van, but she made it all right. We were doing up our seatbelts when suddenly Chelsea let out a terrible howl, just like a wolf’s. We panicked and rushed back to see what was wrong, convinced she must have injured herself somehow. It was a cold day and my wife had strapped on her coat, and in walking through between the middle bucket seats to the back bench seat Chelsea had got caught and couldn’t squeeze forward or back. She was completely unhurt, but was terrified and shaken by this experience of being trapped. A serious wound she took in stride without a whimper, but the thought of being immobilized, imprisoned was unbearable.

How different she is from humans! From childhood we howl for help — from parents and then when we’re older from doctors — at the first sign of pain. We measure out our childhood with band-aids. But we learn to take imprisonment stoically, silently, dutifully. Soon we even learn to lock ourselves in — in our rooms with ‘keep out’ signs on the door, in seatbelts in locked cars,and in homes locked against outsiders, and some even in gated, wired ‘communities’ — voluntary prisons. Our imprisonment grows from being forced to stand in the corner, to being forced to sit in oppressive classrooms, to victimization by the cliques and bullies in the schoolyard, to ‘being grounded’, to the humiliation of having to pay and volunteer for even more stifling ‘education’ in universities, to groveling for jobs, employment contracts and wage slavery, to the ‘bonds’ of matrimony, to addiction to consumption and debt, just another form of imprisonment, and finally to fear on a global scale — of criminals at every turn, of terrorists and tyrants — causing us to want to lock up our loved ones and put barbed wire around our whole country.

This then, it seems to me, is the real difference between humans and other animals: We can take imprisonment but not pain, and all the rest of life on our planet can accept pain but finds imprisonment unbearable. Perhaps then it’s not surprising that we call imprisonment without pain ‘humane’. If you’ve ever watched chickens in battery cages, you know nature doesn’t see it that way.

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11 Responses to The Real Difference Between Humans and Other Animals

  1. I was just about to mention factory farms and how we treat the *billions* of animals that are imprisoned in them, but then you did in your last paragraph. Insightful entry.

  2. Aleah says:

    And why zoos and exotic animal ownership are inherently cruel. Animal lovers continue to frequent zoos and aquariums without questioning the psychological suffering of animals who know only that they cannot escape – enter stereotypic behaviors, like pacing, self mutilation, etc. Great post!

  3. Roger says:

    Max-Neef wrote that only humans have stupidity. No proof but makes you think he might be right… See also:

  4. Daphne says:

    “And people who believe in God think God has put human beings on the earth because they think human beings are the best animal. But human beings are just an animal and they will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and it will put human beings into a zoo, like we put chimpanzees and gorillas into a zoo. Or humans will all catch a disease and die out, or they will make too much pollution and kill themselves. Then there will only be insects in the world and they will be the best animal.” — from: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonOf all living things on Earth, man is the most barbaric. See this post also: “What are you afraid of?” at

  5. Hey Dave, I don’t know if you have seen this: The Meatrix

  6. Octavio Lima says:

    Thank you for your inspiring text. Octavio Lima (

  7. Sheba Grafton says:

    That is very thought provoking. I’ve never thought of it that way.

  8. Yes, right on spot! We’re surely the most barbaric animals ever, we lost part of our touch with nature, believing we should escape from our monkey heritage. But doing so, we lost our soul and freedom (see Princess Mononoke –, human imprisonment seems the best way to refuse our given freedom. Do you feel free knowing that people are imprisoned? I don’t. Freedom is the cornerstone of anarchist philosophy. What more do we have to loose to get free? Unless we want cyborgs to exploit us? Pretty scary, but very human-like! Cyborgs already exist… look at us :) Like said Leo Ferre, “If people knew what anarchy really means, we’d all be anarchists!” So first get ourselves a life, like animals do! Second, let’s talk about political economics, then natural solutions.

  9. Jim says:

    Well, there’s nothing like making an enormous and lame generalization based on a couple of observations. Pain and imprisonment vary in degree. My friend’s puppy is being crate trained. She’s quite willing to hop into her prison for a night of shut eye and doesn’t complain about it. My dog was not happy at all when he had to go through heartworm treatment. He wasn’t imprisoned, he was ill. Marriage might constitute imprisonment for some at different times and stages of a relationship, for others it may feel for the most part like a worthwhile commitment . My reading of your post is that its purpose was to denigrate humans in relation to other animals or mammals. And we may well deserve it. But that really has nothing to do with pain and imprisonment. The subtext of your post is that humans have lost touch with what you consider “nature,” and by extension our own wildness, which is clearly a value you hold in high esteem. That’s a good point, but I don’t think your observations of your dog support it.

  10. Zach says:

    Dave, I’m sorry to hear that you feel trapped. You are not trapped, you are utterly free. I think you should go read some Jack Kerouac, and then go camping or on a canoe trip.

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