In search of ponies: Animals capable of humanistic traits

The mare’s struggle quickly turned to quiet relief the moment she nuzzled her newborn foal on the ground beside her.

In that one instant, she changed and the change was as real as the fragile creature next to her, her focus switching from centered on self, to being centered on her offspring.

As I watched their first minutes together, I couldn’t help but relate because in those moments, she wasn’t an animal, she was a mother.

That shift of focus and nurturing care highlights common ground between humans and animals, making the line between our species seem a little less pronounced.

However, the line doesn’t cease to exist because humans and animals share some common ground and non-human animals are the “lesser” creatures.

Why is this?

We know that animals feel pain and sorrow, get depressed, feel joy, envy and form family and friendship bonds, and yet they’re beneath us.

No matter how many thousands of years they live along-side us, or how many human traits we project on to them — from dressing them in human clothes to assigning human emotions and motivations to their actions to even teaching apes to paint — they do not evolve to meet us on the same, equal playing field.

A dog in a sweater will still curl around to take a lick — because, as the adage goes, he can — and an ape with a paintbrush in its hand will still use its free fingers to pick its nose regardless of who’s watching.

Recently, I came across a blog by science fiction and fantasy author Piers Anthony, in which he contemplated the separation between animals and humans, and I found myself thinking of the foal whose birth I had witnessed.

Essentially, Anthony chalked the difference between humans and other animals up to art.

“What distinguishes human beings from other animals is art… Not only does man have the capacity to appreciate art, it is central to his existence; wherever man has gone, art has gone with him,” he wrote.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing.

We often associate art with its product or its lasting presence, but the painting is not the true art. Rather the art is the process that made the painting and the painting is the sum, the proof.

If a predator devises a clever way to herd, then trap its prey, that process, too, is art. It is skill, technique, influence and creativity all swirled together in a unique combination by the unique mind of that particular animal, whether the result is a painting or different way to hunt or crack a nut.

The difference is why that process is applied and, yes, the proof that it happened.

Just as a human would, the mare loved her child.

However, her nurturing ends with that particular foal and its generation. She doesn’t ponder its offspring, nor consciously cultivate that child with the intent of advancing horse society or contributing improvements to the future beyond the moment that foal becomes independent of her. Instead she thinks about keeping offspring alive through the next few minutes, hours or days.

That is what separates humans from other animals — the ability to see a need and to care about it, invest in it and want to make it better, even when it isn’t real… yet.

And yes, that is reflected in the art product because it is documentation of a contribution to development of culture — something other animals don’t do.

While the animal has thin layers of “humanistic” traits between it and its survival instinct, for humans, those layers are thicker and allow us to apply our survival instinct further than our immediate benefit, something we see in technology and art.

But then again, looking at our creative products and how we often focus our advancements, sometimes you have to wonder if humans are really so different after all, or if maybe, we don’t just live like we envy the dog in the sweater — because we can.