By Courtney Westlake
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Throughout history, human beings have defined our humanity primarily in reference to animals. After all, Psalm 23 in the Bible begins “The Lord is my shepherd…,” making it necessary to understand the relationship between shepherds and sheep to understand the passage.
“Without animals we could not be ‘human’,” said Dr. Boria Sax. “They have given us a repository of vivid metaphors, images, relationships, aspirations and ideals that pervade human culture. But to preserve its vitality, culture must retain contact with that source.”
Sax, an adjunct faculty member in the philosophy department at UIS, had written many books on human-animal relations before he was asked by Dr. Peter Boltuc to design an online course for UIS focused on philosophy and animals in 2006. In 2007, he revised the course to a broader focus and renamed it “Animals and Human Civilization.”
In recognition of academic excellence of the course Sax created focusing on the relationship between people and animals, the course won a Distinguished New Course Award in the national Animals and Society awards program of the Humane Society of the United States in December. Selections are made based on depth and rigor within the topic, impact on the study of animals and society, and originality of approach.
“I was extremely pleased; no external vindication can ever substitute for a personal faith in what one does, but, in any case, I am deeply honored to receive the award,” Sax said. “Human-animal relationships are getting a lot more attention recently in almost all fields from social work to computers and philosophy.”
Sax said he believes it is extremely important to study the relationship between humans and animals in order to get a better sense of who we are as humans. His course examines social, religious and philosophical perspectives on animals from pre-Biblical times to the present, especially the ways in which animals have provided essential metaphors for social divisions along lines of tribe, gender, class, race and other categories, he said.
For example, as Sax points out, warriors have always identified with predators such as the lion, but in Christianity, God is symbolized by the sacrificial lamb. Also, wealth in the Bible is measured by herds of animals, not money.
“Human relationships with animals are characterized by an extraordinary combination of passion and intellectual complexity,” Sax said. “That makes these relations an ideal subject for reflection by students who are developing their analytic and writing skills.”
For receiving the honor, a monetary award will go to UIS. Sax said he hopes UIS will bring in speakers, such as Native American storyteller Joseph Bruchac, who might provide interesting perspectives on human-animal relations.
“Over a decade ago, I started an organization called NILAS (Nature in Legend and Story). I would be especially pleased if the speakers and the prize money might be used to establish a presence for NILAS on the campus of the State University of Illinois at Springfield,” he said.