da Vincians, Damascans, and Muddlers


In today’s world, animal rights advocates stick out like a sore thumb. We don’t eat meat. We don’t drink milk, or eat cheese or eggs. Wear fur? Forget it. We don’t even wear leather or wool. ARAs are so obviously out of step with the dominant cultural drumbeat that one has to wonder what quirk of nature or stroke of fate made us the way we are. This is a question I have asked myself many times. I do not pretend to know all the answers. I may know some. Here is what my experience has taught me.


Some children seem to be born with what I call animal consciousness. From an early age, they have the ability to enter into the mystery of the interior lives of animals, the life that goes on “behind their eyes,” so to speak. It is not something they are taught, not something they have to “figure out,” not a conclusion they reach after going through a complicated chain of scientific or moral reasoning, I don’t mean to suggest that these children are omniscient. Like the rest of us, they do not know everything: all the odors dogs smell when romping through the woods or what dolphins “see” through their sense of sound, for example. Some things remain forever mysterious to all of us.

What I mean is this. At a young age, some children are able to empathize with animals, to make the life of the “other” part of their own, so much so that they feel a real kinship with them. They know when animals are enjoying themselves, when they are distressed, what they find
interesting and challenging, the things that bore them, and the others that scare them. Dogs and cats, bears and lions, whales and seals: these children have a rapport with other animals that goes beyond their ability with words. They know more than they can say.

The bonds that unite these children and animals are the bonds of a special kind of friendship, a friendship that expresses itself in respect and loyalty. The relationship between the child and the animal (to use the helpful language of Martin Buber) is that of “I-Thou,” not “I-It.” Animals known, as well as animals imagined, are unique somebodies, not generic somethings.

How do these precocious children know what they know? Here is the best analogy I can offer. Think of the most loyal friends you have ever had. Ask yourself how you know they are loyal. It is not by observing their loyal behaviour on one day, then the next, and so on, through all the years of the relationship, until one day you devise the hypothesis, “Maybe my friends are loyal?” Instead, it is by knowing the persons who are your friends, knowing who they are. The same, I think, is true of these children. They know that what happens to other animals matters to them because they know them.

This knowledge makes a difference to how these children want to behave. Once they understand what meat is, where it comes from, for example, they want nothing to do with it. To kill animals for sport or to keep them in tiny cages? Absolutely unthinkable. Friends take care of friends. Friends are loyal to friends. Friends speak out for and try to protect friends. For these children, animals are their friends. To eat a dead friend is something they would never want to do (which is not to say that their parents might make them do it anyway).

I call these children DaVincians, after Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the greatest mind of the Italian Renaissance, famous for some of the world’s most magnificent paintings, including The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, and renowned for the great sweep of his intellect, which took in all that was known while he was alive, extending to anatomy, astronomy, mathematics, and natural history. Less well known but highly relevant in the present context is Leonardo’s untutored love of animals. The historian Edward MacCurdy writes that “[t]he mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to him.”

Early in life, by all accounts, he adopted a vegetarian diet, for ethical reasons. Sparing no sarcasm, Leonardo assails human vanity in these words: “King of the animals – as [humans] have described [themselves] – I should rather say king of the beasts, thou being the greatest – because thou dost help them, in order that they give thee their children for the benefit of the gullet, of which thou has made a tomb for all animals.” Our stomach “a tomb? An arresting image, to say the least. Even milk and cheese were suspect because they involve theft. “Of the beasts from whom cheese is made,” he writes, “the milk will be taken from the tiny children.”

The most famous quotation attributed to Leonardo also happens to be the one that has occasioned the most controversy. Jon Wynne-Tyson makes the attribution in his book The Extended Circle: A Commonplace Book of Animal Rights. According to Wynne-Tyson, Leonardo writes the following: “I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” Since the publication of The Extended Circle, it has become a commonplace to find these words attributed to Leonardo in the vegetarian community.

As it turns out, however, these words cannot be found among Leonardo’s collected works; they are only to be found in a work of fiction, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, by Dimitri Merejkowski. It may very well be true, therefore, that Leonardo himself never said what Wynne-Tyson attributes to him. Even so, knowing what we do about the man, it is not unreasonable to believe that they cannot be far from expressing his personal convictions.

Leonardo’s animal consciousness extended beyond his abhorrence for meat.
He was keenly interested in understanding flight (his notebooks contain pictures of rudimentary helicopters, for example) and could not bear the sight of birds in captivity. The story is told of how, on many occasions, he would purchase birds, lift them from their prisons, and then (we must imagine he held them ever so gently) he set them free.

Not many ARAs are DaVincians. At least this is what other ARAs have told me. Most of us lack the natural empathy and sympathy of DaVincians, lack their (it seems) innate desire to help and protect. For most ARAs, our initial understanding of animals is a hand-me-down understanding. Successfully acculturated, we uncritically internalize the cultural paradigm. We see animals as our culture sees them. Because the paradigm in American culture in particular, and Western culture in general, sees other animals as existing for us, having no other purpose for being in the world than to serve human needs or satisfy human desires, we see them that way too. Thus it is that pigs, for example, fulfill their purpose when they end up as lunchmeat between two slices of bread.


In 2000 two independent filmmakers, James LaVeck and Jenny Stein, released The Witness. The film tells the inspiring story of Eddie Lama, a tough-talking New Yorker who accepted the cultural paradigm for most of his life. Eddie’s journey towards animal consciousness began when he was asked to take care of a cat. No one can improve on the story as he tells it in The Witness, and I won’t try to do that here. However, one thing Eddie says has always struck with me. Because of the time he spent with the cat, and what he began to learn, Eddie experienced what he describes as “a change in perception”.

I liken his idea to the experience we have when we look at optical illusions, the one reproduced in this chapter, for example. When we first look, we see the image one way; then (how long this takes varies from person to person) a second image reveals itself. First we see the vase; then we see the faces. Or vice versa.

Eddie’s change in perception did not concern an optical illusion; it concerned a living, breathing animal being. Whereas before he had seen animals as pieces of potential human utility, as something to eat or wear or experiment on, he now began to see them the way DaVincians do: as unique somebodies, with lives of their own, in need of protection.


Different people undergo this “change in perception” in different ways, for different reasons, and at different times. Some people experience this change in the blink of an eye. To continue with the analogy: one minute they see the vase, the next minute they see the faces. I call these people Damascans, after the Biblical story of Saul on the road to Damascus.

Saul (you may recall) had been called to Damascus to help silence all the favorable talk about a man named Jesus, toward whom Saul and his friends felt great enmity. As he walked along the road to Damascus, so the story goes, Jesus miraculously appeared and spoke to Saul directly. That was enough to change Saul’s life forever. Saul, the Detractor, became Paul, the Apostle, the
author of such New Testament books as Romans, and First and Second Corinthians.

Damascans enter animal consciousness in a similar way. One minute they accept the cultural paradigm; the next minute they do not. I remember listening to an older German activist tell how one day, during the Second World War, he emerged from a bomb shelter to encounter a horse running wildly down the street, ablaze from nose to tail because the gasoline covering her
body had caught fire. As the mare passed, she looked directly at the then young boy, her eyes full of terror and accusation. It was (the man said) as if she were asking him, “What have I done to deserve this? Why aren’t you helping me?”

From that moment on, the man was infused with animal consciousness. Once his mind and heart were opened, he was able to enter the interior lives of animals through empathy and compassion, something he was never able to do before. What happened to animals mattered to him. Because they had no voice, he would speak for them, asking of others the same questions the horse had asked of him: “What have animals done to deserve the treatment they receive? Why aren’t you helping them?”

On another occasion, Nancy and I were eating dinner next to a young woman who was dining alone. We exchanged a few words, one thing led to another, and without knowing our own views she began to tell us about how she had grown up on a small farm where she raised a lamb. Every morning, before she went to school, she would visit the lamb, brushing her, cleaning her, feeding her. And every afternoon, after school, she would do the same things. Until one day, when she went to the barn after school, the lamb was gone, and the evening meal was lamb chops.

This young woman (she was in her midtwenties) was almost in tears as she told her story. “To this day;” she said, “I've never forgiven my parents.” But from that day forward, her life was infused with animal consciousness. Not the plight of one lamb, but the plight of all animals became a doorway through which she entered the world.


More animal rights advocates are Damascans than DaVincians. This reflects my experience, in any event. When it comes to how we see other animals, more people are changed because of a single, transforming experience than are born with and never lose their natural empathy. However, if my experience is reliable, the majority of ARAs are not DaVincians, and not Damascans either. Nothing in the genes. Nothing so dramatic. Rather, most people who become ARAs just muddle along in life, first learning one thing, then another; experiencing this, then that; asking some questions, finding some answers; making one decision, then a second, then a third. Men, it seems to me, have a special talent for taking their time about it. We tend to want more by way of rational proof, more by way of logical demonstration; there are so many things we have to “figure out” before we can permit ourselves to come down on the side of animal rights. At least this was true in my case, as I will explain shortly.

Whatever the path taken, and however long it takes, Muddlers (as I call them) grow into animal consciousness step by step, little by little. To speak metaphorically, it just takes us awhile to see the vase rather than the faces, or vice versa. Even so, the transformation is noteworthy and, once it occurs, permanent. For Muddlers, a day finally dawns when we look in the mirror and, to our surprise, we see an Animal Rights Advocate looking back at us.

The archetypes I have described (DaVincians, Damascans, Muddlers) are not restricted to animal consciousness. I have known some children who have been born without a mean bone in their bodies. Their sensitivity and kindness, their empathy and compassion for everyone around them, are apparent from the moment they are able to interact with others. The good they exude is boundless and nondiscriminatory. It is as if these children do not see the color of another person’s skin or how different some people are from them when it comes to their dress, language, and customs, for example. These children are to other humans what some children are to other animals. And, of course, sometimes an exceptional child will combine both capacities.

In addition, some people, like the Damascans I have described, recognize and overcome various prejudices against humans because of a single transforming experience. And still others just muddle along, growing slowly but surely toward the sensitivity and respect for other humans that some children bring with them when they enter the world, qualities that, once acquired, are
retained undiminished throughout their lives.

I should note as well that the three archetypes I have described do not exhaust all the possibilities even in the case of animal consciousness. For example, Kim Bardlett who, together with Merritt Clifton and their son, Wolf, publish Animal People, writes about her experience as follows:

“I believe that the normal acculturation of children (into religion; the educational system; the acceptance of meat-eating or at least the prevalence of cruelty) . . . has the effect of stifling and stunting whatever awareness the child may have been born with. You might have a child who was born in an enlightened state only to have the enlightenment turned completely off by the acculturation process.”

In other words, children can be born DaVincians only to have their animal consciousness stunted or drained from them. Kim knows whereof she speaks. It happened to her:

“I know that I went into a deep state of denial after learning that I was eating animals at about age 5 or 6, so I know what can happen to a child—even one who is emotionally sensitive to an extreme that is personally and socially maladaptive.”

In time Kim was able to reclaim her DaVincian ways, something her son Wolf has never lost:

“Wolf was never “turned off.” He was never told that animals were anything but his kin, and he was never indoctrinated into any religion. When he would ask about spiritual or moral matters, I would tell him what I think and what things other people think or what various religions teach, but always encouraging him to decide what he believes. When Wolf found out that other people eat animals, discussions went on for a very long time about it (and still go on sometimes), with Wolf concluding that it is wrong to eat animals ‘because animals don’t want to be eaten’”

I hope I will not be misunderstood, therefore, when I use the ideas I have been explaining in the pages that lie ahead. When it comes to how different people perceive animals, not everyone is either a DaVincian, or a Damascan, or a Muddler. The world is more complicated than that.

As a Muddler myself, I think I know something about this way of reaching animal consciousness. In fact, this book (as the dedication states) is for Muddlers, everywhere. Resolute DaVincians don’t need to read it. Born with an animal consciousness they never lose, they already have what Muddlers are in the process of possibly acquiring. And while all writers hope their words have some power for the good, I would be fooling myself if I believed that my words alone might have the power to change how people see animals, in the blink of an eye, the way the world changes for Damascans.

No, if my words can be of any possible use to anybody, it will be to people who are growing slowly into animal consciousness, maybe even those who are starting from a place at or near ground zero. Beginning in this chapter, I share some of the noteworthy features of my journey, not because it is so exceptional but because it is, well—because it is so ordinary.

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