Domesticated animals are like this: human cultures have created them, and we must help them to enjoy this existence. Their hopefulness is a reminder of our duty to fulfil a plan begun at the very beginning of people’s settled existence.

ANNA McHUGH: In February 2012, a story about a remarkable rescue spread across the web. While Nicole Graham was out for an afternoon ride along the beach with her daughter, Nicole’s horse Astro began sinking in the muddy sand. Her daughter’s horse was smaller and lighter, so it managed to get clear of the sand, but Astro weighed over 500kg.

They were stuck on the beach for three hours as Astro sank deeper and deeper. The tide was due to be fully in at 5pm; by 4.30pm Astro was up to his neck in mud. The Country Fire Authority tried fire hoses, then a winch, but nothing could get the horse out of the mud. Finally, a vet came to sedate Astro, and a tractor was used to winch him out to safety. It was 4.50pm and Astro had been saved with only moments to spare.

It’s a dramatic story but the ending is a happy one, not only because Astro was eventually pulled to safety, but also because Nicole never left him while he was struggling. She held on, hoping for rescue, but knowing that, whatever happened, she would stay with her horse.

Animals and hope are very closely related. If you’ve got animals at home, you’ll know that they hardly ever seem to give up. It might be nearly bedtime, but the dog is still hopeful that another walk will happen. The cat still believes that every trip to the kitchen means you’ll rethink the idea that dinner’s over. Horses will see you from the other side of the paddock and still hope that there’s a workout coming. Belief that their human companion will act in their favour, to do something that makes them happy, is deep within companion animals.

Part of this is genetics. We have bred domestic animals to be dependent on us: dogs and horses in particular have had their wild characteristics bred out, and needs for human-related things like companionship, interaction, even certain kinds of food which only humans can get for them, bred in. Cats are more self-sufficient, but many individual animals and some breeds in particular, remain highly dependent on humans. For most of the time, the relationship between humans and companion animals works well – the evidence of this is the continued existence of dogs, cats, horses, cows and so on. When animals are not thriving, they won’t breed. So the hopefulness that we notice in a faithful dog, for instance, isn’t foolish hope. It’s got a sound basis in genetics – the genetic inheritance which we have designed and developed.

Think of it this way: when I was given a new wallet or purse as a child, a coin was always put inside it, to symbolise that this was where money would come in the future. It wasn’t just a demonstration of the item’s purpose, but a kind of promise – I had been given something and the giver promised to help me use it. Domesticated animals are like this: human cultures have created them, and we must help them to enjoy this existence. Their hopefulness is a reminder of our duty to fulfil a plan begun at the very beginning of people’s settled existence.

Another aspect of domestic animals’ hopefulness lies in the idea of reciprocity. This simply means giving back or exchange. (For example, when someone does you a favour and you ‘reciprocate’, it means that you do them a favour in return). Reciprocity is a key part of relationships – within and between the human and animal kingdoms. When you rescue an animal from big things – such as the State Emergency Services rescued Astro, or you rescue an animal from a shelter – you see animals in situations which make them almost lose hope. This is really heartbreaking, because it means that the very purpose for which they have been created has failed. Animals in shelters seem to know this, deep in their bones, and this is why shelter animals can be particularly attached to the human who takes them home and makes good on the promise of their being.

But it works both ways; rescue is reciprocal, and hope should be too. You might rescue an animal from a shelter, from a puppy farm, or from a disaster – but that animal rescues you too. By bringing an animal into your home, you are fulfilling a uniquely human part of your genetic make-up. You’re taking part in a relationship which only humans have, only with domesticated animals. It’s a special and incredibly ancient relationship, which people must live up to. You might rescue an animal once, but being in your home means that they will rescue you every day. If you give an animal reason to hope, even once, they will reciprocate that each time you interact with them.

We often feel hope when we’re really stuck, just as Astro was stuck in the sinking sand. Frequently, we’ve put ourselves in that situation, but an animal will never remind you that the mess you’re in is your fault – they’re tactful to a fault. The same way that Nicole and Astro stuck together, hoping to be rescued, is a great lesson in the way people and animals should stick together, fulfil their hopes and promises to each other, and continue to  rescue each other.

Lesson activity: Find out about the Greek story of Pandora, the jar of troubles, and Elpis (Hope). When students have written their own version of the story, reflect in a group about how animals at home make life better and more hopeful. Then ask students to write a short reflective statement, suggesting one way in which an animal might rescue them.

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