Why Are Animals With Prosthetics Upworthy When People Aren’t?

Posted on December 28, 2014

After breaking his leg a few years back, Darryl Partridge found himself with an impossible decision: Live a life of pain or amputate. Two months ago, Darryl chose the latter and is already more mobile than he’s been in years. He is also in the process of getting fitted with his very first prosthetic.

Darryl is one of 2 million amputees living in the US right now, yet you will probably never hear his story. You will never celebrate his milestones. You’ll never feel his pain. Why? It’s quite simple, Darryl is not a dog:

or a pig

Piglet on Wheels, Florida, America - 12 Feb 2013

or a dolphin or a giraffe or a goat or a cat or a donkey or an elephant or a turtle. Darryl is human being.

Darryl Living Life on Crutches

Have you ever noticed how quick we are to celebrate animals with prosthetics when there are so few Upworthy photos and videos of humans in the same situation? I decided to turn to two of my most animal loving friends to get their thoughts. Robyn has three pups and frequently volunteers at local animal sanctuaries. Sarah has both fostered and adopted many loving pets.

Both Robyn and Sarah felt it must have something to do with the stigmatizing act of staring. I’ll let Sarah explain:

“I think people know, or have at least been taught at some point, that it’s impolite to stare at folks who look different than you.  While many people seem to forget this lesson, it’s still ingrained in us.  But the reason a kid has the inclination to stare at, say, someone using leg braces and crutches, is because it is novel and different.”

A recent USC study asked participants to watch both able bodied and disabled people performing basic activities. Upon viewing the disabled person, participants had an initial flurry of brain activity. But given a little bit of time, those same participants “brain activity quieted to the same levels they displayed when they first watched the fully-functioning person.”

Dolphin Prosthetic

The study also showed that brain activity was much higher in participants with the highest measures of natural empathy. This implies that participants use their own body representations to understand people who are different than them.

And isn’t this what babies do best? Studies have shown that as quickly as 36 hours after birth, babies begin to mirror their parents facial expressions. And I suppose that’s what makes Darryl’s recent experience so sweet:

“I was sitting down in a restaurant and small boy came up to me and said “excuse me sir where did your leg go?”  It was so unexpected and I had wished I had had the perfect answer, but I didn’t so I simply said “it was badly hurt and the doctors had to remove it”.

Why was this so unexpected? Because his parents were unaware that he asked me his innocent question.  If they had been aware they would have quickly hushed him and embarrassedly removed him.  In the mean time if that had actually happened it would been the parents who would have offended me, not the child.  The child was treating me as a normal person who had a difference that he was curious about. Where the embarrassed parents action would have showed me I was someone who should be invisible.”

Invisibility is a common theme in the lives of disabled people. In a recent post titled Stroller Shopping vs. Wheelchair Shopping, David LeSeur spoke about his invisibility:

“When you’re in a wheelchair, people don’t talk to you generally. They treat you like you are a child. They talk to the person with you rather than talking to you. Like when walking into a restaurant to be seated, they ask the person with you how many are in the party. Or the check gets brought to someone else at the table instead of you.”

Robyn feels that “many people think animals are very different from humans, yet they have the same basic desires and needs that we do. They feel happiness and sadness, and want to live free of harm, just like we do.”

Elephant Prosthetic

And in terms of survival, we can safely assume Robyn is spot on. Animals may not feel things in the way humans feel emotions. We still don’t know if those things that we feel (our complex and murky emotions) are innately human. What we do know, is that stuff we describe as emotion is really just our survival circuitry.

Joseph LeDoux, a NYU Neuroscientist has observed that “survival functions are not about creating feelings. They are about controlling interactions with environment.” So “when we see a cat purring or a dog wagging its tail in joy, we shouldn’t expect that it’s feeling what we are feeling when we experience joy.” That’s not to say that animals don’t have feelings, it’s just that their survival circuits probably do play out differently in animals then they do in humans.

Turtle Prosthetic

So what is it that we’re seeing when we watch a YouTube video of an animal in a prosthetic? I believe that we see the thing that we’re taught to look away from as children. Because we’re actually not relating to the animals, we’re relating the animals to our selves.

But Sarah also makes a very interesting point:

“You know why people LOVE a dog with prosthetic legs? Because they will never be a dog.

I think we are far more open to seeing the wonder and joy in an animal that is so clearly not like us using prostheses because we are so terrified of our own physical limitations.

The fear of being un-healthy, being differently abled, is pervasive. It’s also normalized.  I can marvel at a dog without feeling like my own ablebodied-ness (such as it is) is threatened.”

Maybe that pervasive normalization is actually contributing to our fear. As that same USC study pointed out: “Exposure to people with disabilities is actually quite important because the more you become exposed and see people with disabilities the more you start to process them the same as you do other people who don’t have disabilities”.

Goat Prosthetic

This brings about the power of one. Robyn feels that

“by featuring the journey of one individual animal, it makes it easier for people to relate to them. Think of the news stories we see about farm animals escaping from transport trucks – a cow on the way to slaughter jumps off a truck and runs through a city, trying to get away. Everyone that sees that story feels for the cow and cheers for her as she runs for her freedom. One individual is easy for us to connect with. We see that one animal as a unique individual and usually want what’s best for them.”

giraffe

So today, Darryl gets to be that one. And I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about what his Upworthy video would feel like. He’d title it ‘Just Because I Can’, which is also the title of his next post. Bon Jovi would be belting ‘It’s My Life’ in the background. And the theme? “I wasn’t waiting for the prosthetic leg to resume my life. I was out living it.” … just like an animal.

3 more things:

Check out Darryl’s blog, it’s easily one of my favorites.

Ask Darryl a question. He’s got quite a few answers. He’ll also let you know when he doesn’t.

And one last and final thought. This post is dedicated to my childhood dog Sadie. She passed away during the writing of this post and my heart aches for her stinky and gentle love.

Sadie

My name is Liz. I walk with the assistance of a purple cane. And I write about the stigma of disability and the stigma of assistive devices. I am passionate about easing this stigma and would love your support.

You might also be interested in The Paradox of Featuring Fashion Week Models with Disabilities.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Gino December 28, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Thank you Liz.
    I don’t think I ever make the mistake of using my disability as an excuse or leverage for special treatment.
    But, I’m realizing that almost EVERY day I hide it and/or cover it up out of shame, frustration, disappointment, etc…
    YOU are one of my living Heroes!
    I’m ready to embrace my situation and learn how I can use it to make not only my life better, but (as you do on a daily basis), other people’s lives better too!
    Thank you so much for being you in such an amazing and admirable manner. It’s inspirational and refreshing.
    Love,
    Gino

  2. Stephanae V. McCoy December 31, 2014 at 12:30 am

    As usual Liz, you do not disappoint. On Darryl’s situation, I love the open honesty and innocence of children who are able to see beyond a disability and subsequently they are able to really ‘see’ the person.

    I really don’t believe most people intentionally set out to hurt people with disabilities or anyone else for that matter but as you touched on when coming face to face with a person with a disability or serious illness it reminds us of our own frailties. Yesterday out of pure frustration I had to vent on Facebook about a woman who openly stared at me using my white cane. My son told me she just about broke her neck while her eyes were glued to my every move. It’s hard enough to navigate life as to what some would call a healthy and whole person, let alone becoming ill or having to accept a new way of life with a disability, only then having to advocate and build awareness. Its exhausing and when I think back I’ve always been exposed to disabilities with friends and family members and because of this I’ve also been hyper sensitive and protective. Now that I have to advocate on my own I realize that it’s a necessary component in building awareness which will impact change in our culture.

    You’re doing such great work and I enjoy reading your posts Liz. I’ll check out Darryl’s blog when I have some downtime. ~Steph

  3. Stephanae V. McCoy December 31, 2014 at 12:32 am

    I also meant to extend my condolences on the passing of Sadie, so sad. She looks so sweet in the picture and her eyes remind me of my Mollie.

  4. Sylvia Smith January 2, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Hiya I can. Relate to what you say in ur post, I also use a white cane, lots children have Approached me to ask why you got that ebcane, I tell them my eyes are poorly, they then move on to different subject, usually at this point a very embarrassed mum will come up and remove the child and say I am so sorrye
    TV this upsets the child but the mum is the one who dont a whites cane firstly I am. Human who needs white cane to be extension to my arm and to enable me to walk safely around obstacles I have heard adults say that she isn’t blind
    At all, I wanted to au no I not yet totally blind, nor am I totally deaf I use two hearing aids I get treat dif when I Not got my cane on show, but not dif when I say I got two aids is it because don’t see them that they are not a disabled aid like legs are, my dear friend who is an amputee, we can laugh with each other along With her husband, we are normal people but we just need a little help along the way, but I do think a wheelchair user gets offered help more readily than I do, my friend will say please help my blind friend across I will get myself across. But when her hubby is with her he gets asked do u need help? Where is their logic?i

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  6. LadywithMS February 16, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    The genuine and natural response of children can teach us adults many things.

    Your the comparison to animals with prosthetics is an apt one. People see animals as as cute or trained or domesticated. That means a prosthetic limb is not a threat to them – it can be seen as an achievement ‘saving’ the animal. But people don’t view others as cute or trained or domesticated. Instead, they are reminded that if something happened to one person to make them need a prosthetic limb (or look different in any way), something may happen to any other person – including themselves – as well. I think people find that reminder confronting.

    Thank you for this post, Liz.

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