Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Project Gutenberg Ebook #19850, 2006.
Free download from <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/19850>.
Originally published by Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1918.
254 pages, hardcover.
Royal Dixon, who in 1921 launched the First Church of Animal Rights to great fanfare but with no evident follow-up, was no Cleveland Amory.
(See “Intersectional issues” broke up the 1st Church of Animal Rights––in 1921.)
Yet The Human Side of Animals, published a year before Amory was born, sufficiently presaged Amory’s 1974 opus Man Kind? that it might have been among Amory’s early influences––even though it does not appear in the extensive Man Kind? index.
Unlike Amory (1919-1998), Dixon made little use of humor, and was not a curmudgeon. But like Amory, Dixon sought to establish the premise that animals should enjoy basic rights and better treatment by humans through passionate narration of strings of anecdotes. Like Amory, Dixon could shock, but held his audience chiefly as a story-teller.
The books that launched the movement
Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, also published in 1974, is widely viewed as the philosophical foundation document for the animal rights movement––but Amory’s Man Kind? was read by many times more people, and almost certainly attracted more to the cause, not least because Amory coupled promoting the book to promoting the Fund for Animals, which he had founded in 1968.
The Human Side of Animals, though popular, was not nearly as influential as either Animal Liberation or Man Kind?. As a sequel to The Human Side of Plants (1914) and The Human Side of Birds (1917), The Human Side of Animals might even be considered a pot-boiler, produced with no aspiration greater than making money for the author, who was an itinerant lecturer for most of his life.
As a gent whose living usually depended on flattering the speaker selection committees of women’s clubs, Dixon was known to glibly turn a florid phrase. But he appears to have sincerely appreciated animals.
“The love that fills a mother’s heart when she sees her first-born babe is also felt by the mother bear,” Dixon opened in The Human Side of Animals, “only in a different way, when she sees her baby cubs playing before her humble cave dwelling. The sorrow that is felt by the human heart when a beloved one dies is experienced in only a little less degree by an African ape when his mate is shot dead by a Christian missionary. The grandmother sheep that watches her numerous little lamb grandchildren on the hillside, while their mothers are away grazing, is just as mindful of their care as any human grandparent could be.”
Styled himself a scientist
Having a scientific education, Dixon styled himself a scientist, and often cited scientific research, but was frequently critical of science that treated animals as instinct-driven automatons.
“The trouble with science is that too often it leaves out love,” Dixon argued. “If you agree that we cannot treat men like machines, why should we put animals in that class? Why should we fall into the colossal ignorance and conceit of cataloging every human-like action of animals under the word ‘instinct’?”
Dixon was much more interested in the findings of social scientists than in the discoveries of so-called “hard” science made through vivisection and dissection. His own informal animal studies convinced him that, “Some animals can count. Most of the arithmetical feats of trained animals are hoaxes,” Dixon conceded, but added, “I have known a monkey who could count to five. He played with a number of marbles, and I would ask for two marbles, one marble, four marbles, as the case might be, and he would quickly hand the number requested.
Can dogs do math?
“There is no reason that a dog should not be taught arithmetic,” Dixon opined, going on to explain how he thought it might be done, using a method similar to those used in testing and challenging the math acuity of dozens of species during the past 50 years.
“The zebu, or sacred bull of India,” Dixon continued, “shows his mathematical qualities to a pronounced degree. When he grows attached to a small group of his kin, he will often refuse to leave them unless the entire group accompany him. When driven from his pen, if by chance one of his party is left behind he refuses to go––thus indicating that he is able to tell that the exact number is not with him. No wonder he is worshipped in India, where the human side of animal life is understood and appreciated to a degree quite unknown to the Western world!”
Dixon shared with United Church of Christ minister William J. Long (1867-1952) the conviction that animal communication is far more complex than was usually imagined. Among the most read nature writers of the early 20th century, Long was an outspoken opponent of hunting. This earned him some influential enemies. John Burroughs, an early advocate of hunting-based wildlife management, denounced Long in 1903 for allegedly propounding “sham natural history.” Then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called Long a “nature-faker”––and the name stuck. Falling out of popularity, Long retreated to writing mostly for a small audience of devotees, among whom was Dixon, who defended Long against some of his most eminent critics.
“In the words of that remarkable naturalist William J. Long,” Dixon wrote, “to call a thing intelligence in one creature and reflex action in another, or to speak of the same thing as love or kindness in one and blind impulse in the other, is to be blinder ourselves than the impulse which is supposed to govern animals.’
“All animals possess ideas”
“The fact that all animals possess ideas, no matter how small those ideas may be, implies reason. That these ideas are transmitted from one animal to another, no one can doubt in the light of our present scientific knowledge,” Dixon continued. This was a year before Long produced his own opus How Animals Talk And Other Pleasant Studies of Birds and Beasts, reissued in 2006.
Dixon went on to quote Bronx Zoo founding curator and Long critic William T. Hornaday: “Be not startled by the discovery that apes and monkeys have language; for their vocabulary is not half so varied and extensive as that of the barnyard fowls, whose language some of us know very well.” Added Dixon, “An instance of canine language is given by John Burroughs, who says that a certain tone in his dog’s bark implies that he has found a snake.”
Argued for telepathy
But, like Long, Dixon argued for telepathy among animals, instead of recognizing that many species communicate through sounds and scents that elude human perception. Telepathy, Dixon contended, “is spoken by no man, but is understood by every brute from the tiniest hare to the largest elephant; it is the language whereby spirit communicates with spirit.”
Dixon was on much firmer ground in contending, like Mark Bekoff today, that “‘one touch of Nature makes the whole world kin’ is shown in no clearer way than by the games and play of animals. Recreation is as common among them as it is among our own children,” Dixon wrote.
“Animals, like ourselves, feel every sensation of joy, happiness, surprise, disappointment, love, hope, ambition, and through their youthful games an entire index of their future lives may be obtained.” He illustrated this point with a sketch of two grinning dinosaurs enjoying a rough-and-tumble game (left).
“Once owned a tame raccoon”
Dixon’s next examples were recited somewhat at his own expense, as he seemed to realize. “I once owned a tame raccoon, and often kept him chained in the back yard,” Dixon confessed. “He devised all kinds of schemes to relieve the monotonous hours. He would pile up a number of small stones, and carefully await his chance to fling one into a group of young chickens. He seemed to understand that he was more apt to make a hit when he threw into a crowd than when aiming at a single chick. One day he pounced upon a rooster who insulted him by drinking from his water vessel, and plucked a long feather from his tail so quickly that we could hardly realize what had taken place. He then had great fun in attempting to stick the feather in his head or by planting it upright in the ground.”
Kept a fawn, too
Unaware that a doe usually leaves a young fawn unattended while grazing, Dixon’s sister “rescued” such a fawn, who became a family pet. “Our tame fawn used to delight in playing with our old rabbit-dog, Nimrod,” Dixon wrote. “They were the best of friends. The fawn would begin the chase by approaching Nimrod as though he were going to stamp him into the earth. Then suddenly leaping quickly and safely over the dog, he would run away. At this signal for a game, if Nimrod was in the mood, he chased the fawn, who would delight in jumping over fences and hedges and waiting for poor Nimrod to get over or under just in time to see his playmate leap to the other side.”
Frequently citing Charles Darwin, Dixon contended as Darwin had, to little notice in his own time, that behavioral as well as physical traits are products of evolution, and that all creatures are part of an evolutionary continuum.
“Man has long preached this doctrine that he is not an animal, but a kinsman of the gods,” Dixon summarized. “This anthropocentric conceit is the same thing that causes one nation to think it should rule the world, that the sun and moon were made only for the laudable purpose of giving light unto a chosen few, and that young lambs playing on a grassy hillside, near a cool spring, are just so much mutton.”
Dixon appears not to have claimed to be a vegetarian, but he frequently made a point of the human-like qualities of farm animals, and in The Human Side of Animals never mentions eating any.
Dixon was many decades ahead of his time in appreciating coyotes, and even had a few good words, between repeating stereotypical condemnations typical of the era, for jackals, hyenas, vultures, mongooses, peccaries, and badgers.
“Scavengers & criminals”
“No more remarkable creatures exist in the animal world,” Dixon opined, “than those that play the role of Nature’s scavengers and criminals. They are as numerous and varied in their methods of working as they are interesting. The only things they have in common are their profession and their appetites. As individuals they are ugly, unattractive and apparently void of personality and charm. Nevertheless, they have an important part to play in the scheme of things.
“As time goes on, it is to be hoped that we will understand our animal brothers better, and that our old attitude toward the so-called ‘brutes’ will be entirely changed,” Dixon continued. “Heretofore we have greatly abused the zebra, for example, because of his wild disposition, ferocious humor, distrust of all power except that in his own legs, and his pronounced aversion to work. Why should we reproach him for his wildwood philosophy? It is perfectly natural that any animal of his experience with man, and with sufficient brains, would have only contempt for all mankind,” Dixon assessed, only to mingle his seemingly enlightened view about animals with passages in which he made clear that his moral egalitarianism did not extend to people of other races.
Dixon was racist
“His native home is in Africa,” Dixon added of the zebra, “and his human associates, if they are human, have been the most impossible and hideous people on the earth. He has seen nothing but cannibalism and carnage among the savages; and since his transportation to Europe by a strange occurrence of horrible circumstances, he has been the subject for all kinds of barbarous punishments…The zebra is not of the mental calibre to be suddenly seized with love for the human species and its civilizations! And the human species is astounded and thinks the zebra stupid and wicked. He may be both, but his wisdom is undeniable when it comes to trusting humanity, and his wickedness is small in comparison to man’s terrible cruelties. He should be awarded a medal for wisdom! For man is far the greater ass of the two!”
Dixon was no more appreciative of Native Americans than Africans. “On the North American prairie,” Dixon wrote, “though the bison are extinct, their great roads still remain as evidence of their former habits…How interesting must have been the life on this great animal highway, before the Indian made the deadly arrow to destroy these nature-loving travellers!”
Three years later, addressing the inaugural meeting of The First Church of Animal Rights, Dixon belatedly acknowledged that Caucasans with guns had a part in depleting bison, but continued to blame Native Americans in equal measure.
Thomas Dixon Jr.
Dixon, raised in Huntsville, Texas, in part by former slaves who had been owned by his forebears, was a contemporary but not a close relative of Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864-1946), author of The Clansman (1905) and 15 other books glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.
In contrast to Thomas Dixon Jr., whose works are such monotonously racist screeds as to occasion wonder that anyone ever read them, Royal Dixon merely interrupted himself with racist outbursts––but they were more than just casual reflections of the times, and must have particularly jarred Diana Belais, his partner in founding the First Church of Animal Rights.
Born in West Virginia, Belais was nearly as much a native Southerner as Dixon, yet in more than 50 years of frequently forceful public speaking and writing on behalf of animals, Belais appears to have left no record of ever even using a racist expression. While human rights were not her issue, her compassion for humans as well as animals appears to have not been questioned by any but the nastiest of the many vivisectors she met in debate.
Allies of man?
Dixon, while frequently capable of great insight, was equally capable of writing nonsense, including in his closing arguments.
Taking note of increasing populations of urban wildlife, Dixon wrote, without pausing to consider the ecological factors, “It seems that the secret ambition of all animals is to become the allies of man. This is demonstrated,” he asserted, “by the fact that most of them have gone near the villages and towns, and, consequently, there are comparatively few remaining in the heart of the big forests.”
But Dixon finished with a plea for tolerance and appreciation of “nuisance” species. “Under the true state of conditions man should live in harmony with these animal brothers,” Dixon suggested, “with mutual trust and respect existing between them. That would mean, of course, that man would have to show a little more kindness to them.”