I have a half-baked theory that animals and humans share an evolutionary connection that is critical to the survival of the human race. I mean that it is critical that we recognize this connection and respect it.
This is not quite the same as saying "respect animals." Respecting animals means we leave them alone, don't hurt or kill them unnecessarily (that's a big caveat and I'll say more about it at some point later), and maybe keep some as pets and be nice to them.
Respecting our evolutionary connection with animals means something more. It means that we promote wild animals' right to live in the wild freely and unmolested by us. It means, ultimately, that we stop building human cities out into the wilderness, stop logging and destroying forests, stop polluting the air and waters, get rid of cars, stop paving roads... It means that we stop treating them as toys, sport, or spectacles to view. It means we learn to live with animals again as equals.
Native Americans view animals as teachers. This is, I believe, the proper way to view them. They know a LOT more than we do about nature because they can never really leave it. It's true that they must live according to our conditions in the world we have made over for ourselves and they do adapt, but they never cease their basic connection to the animal and natural world. If they are allowed to be themselves, they can indeed teach us a great deal about ourselves. They can, in fact, bring us back to ourselves, when we have lost our way. It is now well-accepted that animals can help people to heal from trauma or injury, both psychologically and physically.
Part of the reason for this is the capacity of animals to love and accept us unconditionally. They will return love with love. No mind games, no projection of their problems onto us, no ambitions that they want to use us for.
But I believe it's deeper than this. My daughter believes that animals bond "instinctively." By instinct she means that they do it naturally. They don't have to be taught. But what does that mean really? It means that they have feelings, for one thing. It means they can perceive feelings in others -- both in other animals and in humans. It means they can assess feelings for value: is it a "good" feeling or a "bad" one? They don't have words to describe any of this, but they know it, for they know when (and from whom) they should run and hide or when (and with whom) they can play.
It's not really instinctual, because instinct is not developed through social interaction, but animal socialization IS and that includes animals' abilities to love, play, fight, and so on.
And this is a basic reason why our interaction with them is important. Cultures that live in close proximity and relative harmony with animals have historically been environmentally sustainable communities that do not damage their home planet.
The damage we have now done to our environment is so massive that it is almost impossible for us to see it. We live IN it and we're used to it. We walk down paved city streets, with concrete buildings rising directly out of them. There is no wilderness anymore. The visual stimulation from trees and plants and sky and earth and water is gone. Our minds and our eyes are as dead as the ground we walk on. We go into nature as an excursion, to take pictures, to get exercise, to observe nature (as if we are no longer a part of it). Even many who live in relatively rural areas use cars to travel, separating themselves from the world they inhabit.
This disconnection between us and nature has been written about by others. Jerry Mander wrote about it in 1992 in his book (one of my bibles), In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of Indian Nations.
In sum, I believe the future of our planet depends on our connections with animals. If we can learn again how to respect our evolutionary connection and to live in nature with them, imagine how different things would be.
(Note that I don't mean to ignore the fact that there are animals who would prey on humans. Again, though, I would point to the relationships between First Peoples (Native Americans) and animals, including predators -- as well, as those they would traditionally hunt for food. There's a good amount of evidence (some discussed in Mander's book) that aboriginal hunters hunted in a way that preserved indigenous species. For example, the Inuit traditionally hunted only younger weaker Elk. The stronger elk remained to protect their herds. This is quite different from raising animals for slaughter.)