Animals play essential roles in many areas of human life. While it may be difficult to define an animal, and sometimes controversial to speak the scientific truth that human are animals, too, the continuum between us and them is incontrovertible. In describing animals, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that they are “good to think” of (1963, 89) because they show up prolifically in our cultures. Human-animal scholars often use a research approach known as multispecies ethnography as a way of understanding the symbiosis between humans and animals.
Of all animal species, the dog has played the most transformative role in human cultures historically. An early domesticate, dogs have served as guards, hunters, herders, transport, food, and (most commonly) companions in many different societies. Many human subsistence systems depend on animals; hunting, herding, fishing, and factory farming are the primary ways in which humans access meat. Indigenous hunters practice empathy and appreciation as ways of connecting as predators to prey, and many pastoralists have a symbiotic relationship with their herd animals, migrating periodically to provide pasture for their herds. Animals are also symbols. In totemic societies, animal species and relationships are used as ways of ordering human society; human groups have relationships of respect with their totemic emblem and identify with some of the qualities of the animal. Animals also play important roles in oral tradition and religious systems as teachers, messengers, and sacrificial tokens. Many religious systems reflect the awareness that life is not the exclusive domain of the human species and that our world is a shared community.
Animals are also pets and cultural artifacts. Domesticated animals have been genetically reconfigured to meet the needs of human societies. This includes selectively breeding for neotony, a tendency for an animal to maintain both physical and behavioral juvenile characteristics. While many Indigenous societies practice pet keeping as companionship and sometimes also as a way to teach young children about animal behaviors, in modern Western societies, pet keeping has become an industry.
There are also animal trades in Western societies, from zoos, aquariums, and circuses to wild animal reserves where ecotourism generates funds to preserve wild animal habitats. Often, these industries have both negative and positive attributes. In the medical industry, animals have long served as human stand-ins for research. Increasingly today, there are laws and regulations to improve the plight of animals in medical labs, but this continues to be a challenge, and the improvements are rarely adequate. Still, the contributions that animals have made to human health and welfare have been substantial, whether in labs, on farms, in forests, or in our homes. Animals have always mattered to human beings.