It’s odd to say, but there’s something very compelling about being in the waiting room at the pet emergency clinic. Like many, I’ve had to drive there at various times of the day and night for my feline children’s digestive and urinary crises. I look around at the blurry-eyed people, reflecting the fatigue and worry I feel, and notice on their faces a raw vulnerability and tenderness.
At Pet Emergency, a poignancy comes forward, of people stripped of their defenses. An undiluted caring is revealed, in the gentle stroking of animals and murmurs of encouragement, that warms the cold room like a woolen blanket.
Clearly, we are capable of such whole-hearted attachment to other beings. The expression of the same uncomplicated love between humans, though, tends to get obscured through various defense mechanisms, tests and trials and power dynamics. It appears easier at times to unconditionally love one’s dog than one’s relative!
Neuroscience has begun to identify how interconnected we are across species, evident in the way the brain responds when people observe the pain of others. An individual, for example, will experience distinct neural reactivity in the face of another’s suffering. This type of interconnectivity is not only activated with human suffering; the same activation in the same neural regions occurs when one witnesses pain and harm inflicted upon other biological entities, specifically animals and nature. And human brains are not the only ones who respond in this way (Mathur et al 2016).
“Dogs on the Inside,” a 2014 American documentary film, profiles a Massachusetts minimum security prison program in which inmates foster stray or neglected dogs.
The development of trust over time enables positive changes to take place in the dogs’ behavior as well as in the nature of the inmates who care for them. The pairings of prisoner and dog allow both to transform: the prisoners are reminded of their capacity for empathy and love and connection with another being, and the dogs’ disrupted faith in people heals.