Thursday, June 23, 2005

Lions and tiger and bears

Okay. What gets me about the story below (where the lions saved the young girl from kidnappers and protected her until help arrived) is that the "experts" have to chime in and tell us that the lions probably mistook the child's cries for those of a lion cub. To which I say, bullshit. What lion mistakes a twelve-year-old human child for a cub? Adult lions have great eyesight, a superb sense of smell, excellent hearing... It's ludicrous. And anyway, if those lions really thought she was a cub they would have picked her up by the scruff of the neck and carried her off and nurtured her. They would not have stood guard over her. And if they were protecting her because they thought she was one of their own, they surely would not have just calmly walked back into the forest when more humans arrived. They would have continued to protect her. They would have fought the new humans off. Instead, they delivered her to safety and considered their job done.

Why are we humans always trying so hard to explain away the altruistic behavior of animals? We seem so absolutely convinced that humans are the only creatures capable of motives higher than obtaining food and sex (and some humans aren't).

It's specie-centrism and it's myopic thinking.

We need to bridge the gap that will let us acknowledge that animals are capable of love and of nurturing species that are not their own. How many thousands of pets have saved their owners? (I can just hear the rationalists: "If the house is burning down and the pet saves the owner, it is really just saving itself.") Not always. When I was a child, my dog got between me and an angry copperhead. She took the strike and almost died. (My dad and I dripped milk into her mouth from a turkey baster and walked her around the house all night until she was out of danger--it seemed like the least we could do.)

Sometimes an animal is alerting its human to danger so the human can take his magic opposable thumbs and fix the problem. When I was in my twenties, the pottery studio where I worked caught fire from a faulty kiln while the owner slept in a nearby trailer. Our studio cat (nicknamed "Dammit" because she always bumped into pots and dinged them when still wet or knocked them off to shatter on the floor when dry) alerted the owner, and he was more than 100 feet away in a trailer, plenty safe from the fire.

There are numerous accounts of dolphins rescuing drowning humans. At what benefit to the dolphin? None. The dolphin is not saving itself. It is saving a human. Another species. In fact, the dolphin puts itself in danger by assisting, yet its compassionate nature, its own understanding of the need to breathe air makes it save the human. What possible other reason could there be?

Understand me. I am not romanticizing animals and saying they are all altruistic and wonderful. Just as I would never say that all humans are altruistic and wonderful. But there are plenty of times when the only explanation for an animal's behavior is something like understanding. Something like compassion. Something like love.

6 comments:

Myfanwy Collins said...

Well said, Mary!

Katie said...

Absolutely brilliant, as usual!

katrina said...

I agree with Myf and Katie: well said, Mary.

TheDevilIsInTheDetails said...

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CR Cohen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CR Cohen said...

Hi, Mary.

Nice to read about you, and interesting to hear your thoughts on animal sensibility.

Have you checked into what Thomas A. Sebeok has to say about animals and communication? Kristeva is also an excellent source. I think you'd find it pretty cool.

Here are few of my favorite quotes on the subject, which you might have read before but might enjoy anyway:

Rachel Carson speaks of phosphorescent plankton as "lights that flash and fade away, lights that come and go for reasons meaningless to man, lights that have been doing this very thing over the eons of time in which there were no men to stir in vague disquiet."

"Nature is not human-hearted," says Lao-tzu. "The sage is not human-hearted."

Finally, poet Galway Kinnell says, "The nonhuman is the 'basic context' of human existence."

Cheers.

CR Cohen
http://crcohen.blogspot.com