Behind the animal connection

New book posits intriguing theory

The relationship between the human race and the animal kingdom has developed for millennia. Uniquely, humans have a propensity to care for other creatures, something that author and scientist Pat Shipman explores in her new book, The Animal Connection.

“I realised that people all over the world, from every culture, religion, and walk of life choose to live with animals,” she tells Weekender.

“From an evolutionary perspective, nurturing a member of another species is a bad idea, because you give the other animal food, protection, safety and care that you could otherwise give to your own offspring. For that reason, other animals do not adopt or nurture members of other species in the wild.

“Once I realised that it is universal among humans to nurture other species, and that this behaviour does not exist in any other animal in normal circumstances, I had to figure out why.”

The evolutionary connection

Pat is an expert in the evolution of humans and the landmarks in our development – making tools, inventing language, domesticating other species – so she was able to trace the importance of our relationship with other animals through a long period of time.

“We still see the effects of this long legacy today. For example, people who are ill or deeply troubled in some way often respond very well to therapy that involves animals. People who have pets live longer, happier lives, even after the death of a spouse or developing a disability, for example. Our long heritage of being deeply involved with animals explains why this should be so,” she notes.

The book is coming out via W. W. Norton & Company and is the latest for the award-winning author, who is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State University. Her scientific studies have produced major breakthroughs in the understanding of human origins, behaviour and ecology.

“In college, I became fascinated by questions about human nature and what humans were biologically. Clearly humans are like other mammals in many ways and yet also different. Science provides a good approach for trying to answer important questions. At the same time, because I went to Smith College, which is an excellent school, I was being taught how to write clearly and explain complicated ideas to others. This is the most valuable skill I have ever learned and it has done me good in every aspect of my life.”

A great lesson for aspiring writers, she says, is to master the basics of spelling and grammar, crucial tools in expression.

The iguana connection

Pat, who has a house in Little Cayman, is also involved in conservation, in particular regarding the native iguana, which she notes needs plenty of unsoiled land to nurture the species.

“We can live in harmony with iguanas if we don’t bulldoze every place and try to plant a lawn, which uses huge amount of water. Let the gorgeous native plants grow, leave the forest around your house or building and enjoy the beauty of the native birds, butterflies and reptiles instead of ‘planting”’ asphalt or cement. I am very passionate about preserving the Sister Islands iguanas because they are unique and already so close to extinction.

“If we don’t act now, we will lose them and then we will lose many of the native plants that depend upon iguanas to eat their fruits, digest off the tissue, and deposit the seeds – in their dropping – ready for growing. We also need to set aside some of the most crucial habitats for iguanas on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac as protected land or natural preserves, to make sure the iguanas will thrive and live into the future. I think the Sister Islands Rock Iguanas could become a tourist attraction in their own right.”

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