Getting to Know the Human Animal
Terms such as eukarya, animalia, chordate and mammalia may be a mystery to someone who is not a biologist or hasn’t taken a recent biology class. These are the technical names for the domain, kingdom, phylum and class of humans. In common usage, the term “animals,” doesn’t include humans;
however, we are biologically classified as animals and have more in common with other species than one might think. Viewing human behavior through an animal lens offers refreshing insights into individual characteristics and strengths, as well as clues for promoting our well-being.
A key distinction among animals is whether they are predator or prey. Predators hunt and kill other animals for food, while prey are the animals being consumed. The size and strength of the animal does not determine its status. Wolves and lions—and their domesticated counterparts dogs and housecats—are predators; horses, despite their size and strength, are prey. Humans and dolphins are both predator and prey. Dolphins eat other fish, but are prey for sharks. Humans eat many other animals, but are prey for large predators like crocodiles and mountain lions.
Both types of animals have incredible strengths to offer. Humans can draw upon different predator and prey characteristics to serve us well in any circumstance. Predators will attack a situation and use their power to overcome any obstacle. Predator energy and behavior can be useful to humans who are working on a difficult project or situation and need to stay focused on the goal, despite the challenge of achieving it. On the other hand, prey rely on highly sophisticated perception of the world around them to detect and steer clear of danger. Using prey senses can help humans not only avoid physical dangers, but other types of challenges. Relying on intuition or a gut feeling that something isn’t right is a wise use of prey senses that humans no longer need to survive but can still use to thrive.
Some animals choose to live in a group, while others are more solitary. A horse prefers to be part of a herd and will allocate responsibilities among the entire herd while a cat is more likely to act alone. This dynamic often comes up in the workplace. Some humans prefer to work in groups, collaborating to achieve a shared outcome. Others are more comfortable as individual contributors, able to go off on their own and do their part rather than participate in day-to-day group work. Wise managers and human resource directors are able to recognize these preferences and structure the work environment to enable both types of employees to thrive. Students and job applicants who are aware of their preferences for independence or collaboration are better able to choose careers or match jobs to their strengths.
Omnivore, Carnivore, Herbivore
Omnivores will eat anything, carnivores prefer meat and herbivores eat plants. Most animals in the wild know instinctively what foods to avoid. Horses, for example, rarely consume poisonous plants in the wild, even when the poisonous plants are abundant. They have ways to detect what is and isn’t good for them. Like animals, humans can thrive on different types of diets but have become less adept at differentiating between what is healthy and what is not. Ayurvedic medicine divides humans into three types referred to as doshas, which are based on different combinations of life-force energy. Based on the balance of these doshas, practitioners can recommend different types of food and ways to prepare the food that will work best to support each individual’s body type. Humans that take the time to understand their individualized nutritional needs—both what supports them and what is toxic to them—through Ayurveda or careful observation of food choices and their effects are able to regain this animal wisdom and to find a better balance to promote health.
Animals have preferred habitats that best meet their needs. Although they may be able to adapt and survive in other habits, it is more challenging. A polar bear, for example, thrives in cold rather than heat. Individual humans also have preferred environments in which they thrive. Some people like to live with roommates while others need their own space. Some people love changing seasons while others would prefer a steady temperature year round. Although we cannot change the weather outside without relocating, there are many things that we can do inside a space to make it reflect our ideal habitat. Our homes are more than basic shelter for our bodies; they can be designed to nourish our hearts and minds as well. Space heaters, air conditioners and humidifiers can help us adapt the climate. The choice of colors, patterns and fabrics can soothe or energize us.
Places to engage in playful activities we enjoy also are essential to human well-being. One study used many drug-addicted rats that were placed in a “rat paradise” full of food, friends and fun activities. They were given a choice between drug-laced water and plain water; they voluntarily chose the plain water. The researchers suggested that creating the ideal habitat reduced their desire for drugs because they had so many other ways to enjoy themselves. As we design our homes and offices, we should consider how best to meet our needs for joy and play.
Humans have amazing capabilities, but we sometimes forget to address our basic needs as animals. Tapping into both our predator and prey strengths, finding our ideal balance between collaboration and independence, determining our unique nutritional requirements, and creating habitats to meet all of our needs will help us thrive.
Carrie Brady is the creator of Wilton-based Possibilities Farm, a wellness center that partners with horses through non-riding programs, personal and professional development workshops, creative arts, meditation, equine-assisted Reiki and the Heart Herd. Connect at PossibilitiesFarm.com. See ad, page 12.Edit ModuleShow Tags