Saturday, June 6, 2015

Animals on Wheels

Just the other day I was flipping channels since I couldn't find anything on and stumbled across the PBS show Nature reshowing the episode “My Bionic Pet”. This concerned the lives of several animals using prostheses. There were dogs with three (or two) legs, a pig with a wheel chair, and even an alligator with a prosthetic tail.

While some people probably think it odd to do this for pets, I thought that this was a very good sign. At its least empathetic people are working at developing better prostheses and things they learn can be applied to the design of better artificial limbs for humans. And this was mentioned in the show. In addition, these animals can act as therapy animals for people with missing limbs. Which was also something that was shown in the show. As for the alligator with the artificial tail, doing studies with that alligator and others scientists could better understand how an alligator uses its tail.

But most of the people just wanted to give the animals better lives. Putting an artificial leg on a dog does more than just help it move around. It gives the dog a chance to be a dog. At the end of the show there was a six month old Border Collie that was missing his back legs. They showed him getting his prostheses and after just a couple moments they had to chase the dog down to make sure he didn't run out into the street. He changed from an almost helpless little guy to a springy bundle of energy. And maybe a little more independent than they were expecting. But his people were smiling too.

In Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature he shows how people have been changing over the centuries. We're widening our circle of empathy. Long ago it would be surprising for a person to show much empathy for people outside one's own tribe. As we've developed our civilizations we have learned to empathize with people from different regions, speak different languages, belong to different races. We have expanded the range of people we can empathize with further and further.
And that circle of empathy is continuing to expand. And now we're including more and more animals. And that's a good thing. As our circle of empathy widens tendencies towards violence will diminish (the history of Western Civilization shows that).

 And as a final thought, in the 2010 movie How to Train Your Dragon, at the end of the movie both the dragon and the boy have prostheses. (Hopefully not a Spoiler.) Come to think about it, that whole movie was about empathy. And how things can become better when we expand our circle of empathy out.

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