A stranger is only a stranger until you know their name.
Names, that is personal names, are more than just an easy term of reference. Names endow a sense of individuality in the self, as well as commonality among the whole. That may be why when we learn a person's name, even if really nothing else about them, we've a tendency to feel more connected, and more willing to invite them to feel the same -- hence the exchange of names almost always leads our introductions.
In short, names are like passkeys which unlock our empathy, in a single moment capable of transforming a stranger into someone deserving of our decency. But, interestingly, the empathizing effect of knowing someone's name still applies when its bearer isn't human.
It was quite likely after our earliest interspecies bonding, with the domestication of dogs some 50,000 years ago, that we first began to bestow some form of personal names upon animals, too -- and in so doing, elevated their distinction from a generalized animal, to an individualized companion. It's not surprising then that, in that recognition, dogs soon gained access to affection and endearment we once reserved only for our own kind.
While these earliest of personal names for animals are unknown, by the 8th century BC in ancient Greece animals with names began to be recorded in literature. The most famous example perhaps is Odysseus' faithful hound Argos, whose name means "swift foot", in Homer's Odyssey. Other classical texts reveal names of horses, bulls, cows, and even elephants owned by hellenistic kings.
In Ancient Rome, personal names for animals abound, given to trusty dogs, horses, and others, and were often chosen from mythology - suggesting that by then animals held a lofty place in the lives of their owners. These non-humans were no longer just animals. Indeed, they were our friends.
Frank Abbott, in his book Society & Politics in Ancient Rome, writes of ancient epitaphs found written in honor of pets. One dog, named Patricus, received this tribute from his grieving owner, revealing a rare early sentiment of love for an animal:
"My eyes were wet with tears, our little dog, when I bore thee (to the grave)... So, Patricus, never again shall thou give me a thousand kisses. Never canst thou be contentedly in my lap. In sadness have I buried thee, and thou deservist. In a resting place of marble, I have put thee for all time by the side of my shade. In thy qualities, sagacious thou wert like a human being. Ah, me! What a loved companion have we lost!"
This tradition of naming and loving animals, opening our hearts and homes to them, carries on well into today.
Throughout the Western World, it has become commonplace to give our animal companions distinctly humans names; In the U.S., the most popular pet names are Max, for males, and Molly, for females. These names have both been among the 100 most popular for human babies in recent years. In fact, 9 out of 10 Americans actually consider their pets a part of their family -- a remarkable statistic for interspecies relations.
In some traditional Asian cultures, common pets like cats and dogs are not usually given human names as it is perceived as insulting to those people of the same name. Coincidently, consuming these animals often doesn't carry the same taboo in the East as does in the West, and it's likely that a family-like esteem for them, or the lack thereof, is equally perplexing to both.
Despite our history of naming animals and welcoming them into our inner circles, many other unnamed animals have been driven to extinction because they were beyond the boundaries of our empathy. Interestingly, conservationists haven't failed noticed that we are more prone to cherish what we name and have begun using that fact to help preserve species with whom we would otherwise be strangers.
Environmentalists in Rwanda have adopted a novel approach to conserving one of our closest primate cousins, a dwindling population of Mountain Gorillas. As part of a tradition which started in 2003, every newborn gorilla discovered born in the wild is celebrated in a widely-attended naming party, known as Kwita Izina. And the nominal gesture has had measurable effect; Since the tradition began, Rwanda's population of Mountain Gorillas has rebounded, increasing by 23 percent.
In New Zealand, a species of flightless bird called Kakapo was nearly driven to the verge of extinction last century from introduced predators. By the 1970s, only 14 of these birds were known to exist. Not long after, a conservation plan was launched, which included finding and relocating all remaining kakapos to an island cleared of threats -- giving each rare bird a name in the process. Today, the kakapo continue to recover, now numbering 124 individuals, all whom have a name.
Zoos, aquariums, and marine parks have also realized the powerful effect giving animals personal names can have on visitors, and now it's common for zoos to hold events or contests to name newborn animals or to refer to them by name before their species. All this adds up to create an emotional experience, one that draws in the crowds more than a science-minded one. Animals individualized with names can become star attractions. "Shamu" sells tickets better than simply "orca" ever would. And it's no wonder -- we care more about animals we name.
But this effect designed to make visitors feel more connected to animals at their facilities presents a challenge for zoos, aquariums, and marine parks as well. Last week, the Copenhagen Zoo sparked outrage a healthy giraffe was needlessly euthanized -- not just any giraffe though, a giraffe named Marius. By naming animals, giving them individualized identities, facilities keeping them captive create an untenable equation: once we care, we might not want them there.
Giving animals names, even those that are not our pets, ultimately means nothing for the animals themselves, but it does change the way we regard them. And at a time when countless creatures are imperilled by the callous or cruel side of human nature, it's more important than ever to stop being strangers -- even if the names we give them never leave our lips.