Man’s supposed dominion over animals is far from absolute. In 2013, John Bradford, who had been the elephant manager at Dickerson Park Zoo for 25 years, was killed by one of the female elephants he had raised since 1990 while guiding her to a barnyard stall . In the light of stories like this, one must question the extent of our control over animals and our own place as living creatures on this planet. Dominion is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “supreme authority,” or, “absolute ownership . ” It seems that the use of this term in Genesis  to describe man’s relationship with animals is either outdated or inappropriate.
The true relationship between human and non-human animals is one much more complex and undefined, hinging on the interplay of knowledge and power. The relationship between man and animal portrayed in Genesis is a somewhat contradictory one. When man was created in “our [God’s] image,” he was given “dominion” over all living things. Man was blessed by God to “multiply” and “subdue” the earth, but this same God not only created a tree that would make Adam “surely die,” but an animal that was capable of seducing man to eat from it.
Finally, when God punished man and the serpent, he said: “he [man] shall bruise your [the serpent’s] head, and you [the serpent] shall bruise his heel. ” This relationship is certainly unbalanced, but also reciprocal, which brings man’s “absolute ownership” and “supreme authority” into question. If man’s actions and thoughts can be manipulated by the serpent, and the serpent’s persuasion led to man’s banishment from Eden with the sentence of heightened “pain in childbearing” and a life of working “the ground from which he was taken,” the concept of dominion becomes questionable.
The domination of animals by humans is further called into question in Yeats’ Leda and the Swan . This sonnet depicts the taking and impregnating of Leda by Zeus in animal form. Simple word choice completely inverts the commonly held notion of man’s superiority over animals. The swan’s actions are portrayed with active verbs like “engenders” and “holds,” while Leda is “caressed,” “caught,” and “mastered. ” She is “helpless” and “terrified,” while the swan is “great” and “indifferent.
Additionally, the words “staggering,” “shuddering,” and “loosening” shows ambiguity in Leda’s consent and ultimately portray either the power of the swan or the submission of the human. Finally, the notion of the swan’s indifference parallels the human’s indifference to animal life. The reader knows that this encounter will indirectly cause the collapse of Troy and ultimately amass to human death and destruction through the actions of Leda’s children. But the swan is either unaware or uncaring, just as the destruction of rainforests is inevitably leading to the death of entire species and ecosystems, for example.
An important note, however, is the fact that Zeus is behind the swan’s actions. His “knowledge” and “power” are alluded to, which undoubtedly play a role in the dynamic between human and non-human animals and justifies this dehumanization of the Leda. Knowledge and power are undeniably related attributes. The former can be attained through education or through something divine, like prescience. The latter is typically a consequence of being knowledgeable, can be passed down through a family lineage, or fabricated through deception.
Mankind, having been created in God’s “image,” can be thought of as his heir. Our right to dominion over animals is based entirely on the fact that we are in the image of our creator and nothing else. But without true justification for this power, it seems that we are subject to domination ourselves, as exemplified by Leda’s rape. Even in animal form, Zeus dominated Leda, who was stripped of her God-given rights and status because Zeus’ knowledge and power greatly surpassed her own. This shows that non-humans can possess these two attributes and have dominion.
Based on his principle, it is no surprise that attacks on humans become exponentially more common when a human enters an animal’s habitat. Animals not only have a more thorough understanding of the terrain they live on, but know how their prey will react to them within that environment. In zoos, man’s control over animals hinges on deception. Animals are made to think that they are in their natural habitats, and when man leaves his own environment behind the glass of the enclosure, he puts himself under the dominion of the animal. In Genesis, Adam and Eve live in Eden, a garden planted by God, and they are therefore under his influence.
God tries to maintain their ignorance and mortality by lying to them about the lethality of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and the “Tree of Life. ” This deception maintains his power over them. Knowing the truth about the trees, the serpent rescinds God’s influence over them and they gain the knowledge of good and evil. The interplay of deception and knowledge are so influential that it has even been used by humans to subjugate their own kind. Throughout history, examples of humans subduing other humans are ubiquitous.
The foundation of American slavery assumed people of African descent were somehow less human than those of European descent, giving ‘whites” dominion over “blacks. ” This falsehood was perpetuated by an educational system that institutionally excluded slaves and later Americans of African descent with the Jim Crow Laws. Educational programs were made by white people for white people, eliminating the prospect of African Americans regaining their rights and any kind of socioeconomic mobility. Without the means of educating themselves, the subordinate status of African Americans was stagnant until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . ”
Like Leda, many African Americans took their position in society for granted, and showed acceptance of their fate, while it was the lack of access to education, not an act of divinity, that maintained their status. The interplay of deception and power has played a role in historical events ranging from the slave trade to the holocaust where the human-animal was regarded as a non-human animal. The portrayal of the relationship between the human and non-human animal in Genesis and Leda and the Swan conflict.
The human-animal appears to represent any living thing with power over another, and is not something unique to humans, as described in Genesis. This power can be fabricated, or can be founded in knowledge or divinity. The non-human animal plays the role of the helpless subordinate under the dominion of the human-animal, with the prospect of overcoming its status through the attainment of knowledge and power. This relationship, when applied to the interactions of humans and animals in reality, appears to be far less absolute and much more dynamic than the one portrayed in the bible.