Friday, May 12, 2017

Working Animals

Humans have employed animals in jobs for millennia, and also do so in fiction, so we had a good time with this topic. Dogs are used for herding cattle, herding sheep, fighting off wolves, hunting on the ground, hunting under the ground, etc. etc., but they are not alone. There are also horses, cats, companion animals, and many others. And in fiction, cats don't just hunt rodents, they also help solve mysteries! (They do, I swear.) We figured that the dragons in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books also counted as working animals, since they are saddled and bred and used to combat Thread. We couldn't decide if the horses of Valdemar counted as working animals or as independent sentients.

We talked a bit about pets. The pet-owner relationship is culturally defined and differs across the world. Kat told us that the difference between food for humans and fodder or feed is very distinct in Japanese, and that it would be very strange to consider a pet a family member in Japan. Obviously, pets are often considered family members in America. This may have to do with people wanting to nurture and play the role of a parent. We played around a little with the idea of humans being pets for another species.

It may seem a small step from pet to emotional support animal, but from there you can step to service animal, and a service animal is a hardworking animal indeed. There's a likelihood that a service animal might be considered family even though it is working, while a herding animal probably would not be. It seems in some ways similar to the distinction between a human nanny, who is often considered part of the family, and a gardener, who is not by virtue of the difference between their work environments.

We spoke a bit about horses, and had an important reminder that as authors we really need to consider the food and water needs of working animals in our stories.

Kat speculated that if you had cows in space, you might capture methane emissions for fuel!

We talked a bit about using sentient animals in stories, and how those animals might manipulate things (with toes or lips). I mentioned the sentient elephants in Lawrence Schoen's Barsk.

Kat encouraged us to question the assumption of human sovereignty in interaction with animals. If you were to run into alien animals, would enslavement and colonialism be your approach, or would you choose companionship? What would it be like if you had not developed the kind of co-evolutionary relationship that humans have with Earth animals?

The basis of the working animal relationship appears to be the concept that "the thing that animal is doing could be useful to me."

Going on the basis of that, the concept of working animal could potentially be expanded. We wondered if the shai-hulud worms of Dune could be considered working animals. Honeybees might be considered working animals in some sense, even though we don't have a mammalian relationship with them. What about sugar ants?

We also had questions about animals like chickens. If a chicken lays eggs for you, is it a working animal? Or is it a food animal (would you eat it)? Would geese be working animals? Where is the border between the abilities of the animal and its substance?

We also looked at the question of why we work with some animals and not others, like goats vs. deer. Goats climb, while deer jump. Some animals are not easily tamed. A lot of it also has to do with their attack and defense characteristics. Hares and rabbits are very similar visually, but rabbits can be tamed and hares can't. Behavioral differences can also be critical.

Llamas and donkeys are definitely working animals. They are not only employed as burden-carriers, but often as guards for other animals. Llamas guard milk goats from pumas in Pescadero, California, and donkeys in France guard ducks from foxes.

What are the characteristics of humans that might make them useful to another species? Community building? Curiosity? Could we be perfume harvest animals?

Larry mentioned pigs and truffles. When you use pigs to find truffles, you have to distract the pigs so they won't eat the truffles. Some truffle hunters use dogs, which would not be interested in eating the truffles they found. Here is a link about truffle-smelling dogs. Apparently farmers who use pigs for truffle-hunting sometimes lose fingers! Retriever dogs are trained not to eat the birds they retrieve. Fishing cormorants have rings placed around their throats to keep them from eating the fish they catch.

Falcons also are working animals. They are parallel in some ways to the fire lizards in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books.

There are a lot of different animals with relationships to humans, and it's interesting to speculate about how those relationships could be expanded, shrunk, reversed, or mimicked with alien species.