The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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THE PHILOSOPHER’S DOG By Raimond Gaita, Routledge, Rs 495

One of the greatest thinkers of all times, Aristotle, believed, “Friendship cannot exist between adults and children because it can truly exist between equals and between those who have the wisdom and the will to rise to its demands.” Had he read Raimond Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog, he would have perhaps scorned his own idea, after reading about the divine bond between human beings and animals in this fascinating book.

Gaita is an extremely sensitive writer. And he has a rare inspirational manner in which he deals with the stories of innumerable pets — dogs, cats and birds — he lived with during his childhood and also in his adult life.

Through interesting facts and stories of friendly or hostile dogs, wise cats and even super-intelligent pet birds like cockatoos, Gaita asks and answers difficult questions about animals: “Is it wrong to attribute the concepts of love, devotion, loyalty, grief or friendship to them'” “Why do we care so much for some creatures like chimps, dogs and cats, but not for others like rodents and reptiles'” “Why are we so concerned to prove that animals have mind'”

The Philosopher’s Dog also explores human attitude towards understanding animals’ minds, the pain, the affection and love animals experience while interacting with their human masters. To explain this, Gaita takes up the reactions of people of different ages towards the same pet — his young daughter, who shares an emotional bond with animal, his wife, who cannot bear to see an animal in pain, and his father whose experience of farm life makes him harsh and practical towards animals.

Gaita believes it is this varied attitude that affects our understanding of animal psychology. When his daughter wants to know why her grandfather killed goats on his farm and used their flesh for food, she fails to understand why her grandpa who cares deeply for animals, needs to do so — perhaps because he has very little money to buy meat as he lives on pensions, and has little choice but to kill some animals to provide food for others.

Experience with pet dogs like Orloff on his father’s farm and later with his own pet, Gypsy, taught Gaita that dogs might have a practical awareness of death, but they have no reflective awareness of mortality.

The realization that death strikes humans and animals alike perhaps drove a young Gaita as well as his father to weep at the graveside of Orloff. It was the same feeling that made his father lift Orloff over the fence that separated the paddocks from their house and bury him “at home” instead of dumping him off in a paddock far from home.

Of the pain that one feels on losing an animal friend, and of their death throes, Gaita says: “If you hold an animal fighting for its life in your hands, the whole of the being of the animal is thrown into the fight, without reserve. So it’s wrong to say that life matters less to the animals. However its fight for survival lacks the dimension of intellectual or imaginative horror, as its whole being is living flesh.”

What gives The Philosopher’s Dog a touch of novelty is the way Gaita, a professor of moral philosophy at King’s College, London, and professor of philosophy at the Australian Catholic University, uses serious philosophical theories to understand the animal mind. Small incidents inspire him to draw deep philosophical lessons, and helps in understanding animals better. Authors have so far been more interested in the science of the animal kingdom, using science to explain the actions of animals. Gaita is an exception. He uses philosophy to prove that animals too have a complex mind.

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