“Look at those children, behaving like animals!”
“You wouldn’t believe the filth in that place, they were living like animals.”
“These aren’t people. These are animals.”
I often find myself becoming irritated with the way in which the word “animal” is so frequently used as a slight against people who’s presence or behaviors we might find objectionable.
This sort of insult, I feel, says more about the feelings which people hold toward our animal kin, than it does about the people so labeled. These feelings, so pervasive within our society, must surely display themselves in the ways in which we treat the animals around us: our “pets”, our livestock, and most especially those animals which are still considered “wild” (another word frequently used in a disparaging manner – uncivilized, untamed, undomesticated, etc…,).
Each of those insults which I quoted above calls to my mind a corresponding question.
How do animals behave?
How do they live?
What are people, if not animals?
I have been to several zoos over the years, and driven through a few of those “Wild Animal” parks where you feed handfuls of grey pellets to the giraffes and the water buffalo, all the while hoping they won’t do anything expensive to your car in the process. Never, however, have I experienced anything quite like my recent visit to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, situated in the plains just east of Denver, Colorado.
Firstly, I have never see quite so many animals in any single facility. Lions, tigers, and yes bears, along with foxes, wolves, coyotes, pumas, lynx and a host of others reside here in numbers that would overwhelm any zoo I’ve ever seen.
But this is most definitely not a zoo, and the animals are not on exhibit.
They do not appear in carefully curated little vignettes, framed in post-card images of their natural habitat, say a mountain pool, or untamed jungle. If anything, it is the visiting humans who are on display, exposed up high on a catwalk, easily viewed by any of the animals inhabiting the facility…, if only they cared to look.
Most of them seem…, shall we say disinterested, in the folks admiring them from above.
And that alone probably wouldn’t sit well with some folks. We want the animals to be as interested in us as we are in them. We want them to be mystified by us, curious about our ways, and envious of our progress.
Probably, I think, the animals at the Sanctuary just know better.
Most of them have been abused by humans at some point in their lives. They’ve been kept on chains or in small filthy cages as a “pet” in someone’s backyard, or cramped together in some ramshackle zoo. Some have been declawed, their teeth either filed down or removed altogether, and made to perform in some circus or roadside attraction. They’ve been starved, or beaten, or bred relentlessly, only to have their offspring taken from them again and again, and sold to the highest bidder.
But in the Sanctuary these magnificent creatures are able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort, mostly free from human interference. They roam huge fenced enclosures, acres upon acres of grass prairie with nice cool underground dens in which they may shelter during the hottest parts of the day, or during inclement weather.
When I say they they are not on display, I mean that they are visible when and only when they care to be. Or more accurately, when they don’t care if they are seen or not.
We passed entire enclosures which at first inspection seemed entirely devoid of animal life, only to return later, with dusk approaching, to see lions or tigers suddenly appearing out of the tall grass.
It is one thing to look into the bored eyes of some great tiger on display at a zoo, but it is another thing entirely to watch her vanish as if by magic into a stand of bamboo, or to try and keep pace with her, walking quickly along the catwalk as she parallels your path along the fence below, only to realize she is stalking your shadow through the tall grass, as the sun dips toward the horizon. Short of actually viewing them in the wild, I can’t imagine a better way to dip ever so slightly into their world.
Because this IS their world, as surely as it is ours.
We try to own them like we try to own everything.
And we fail them, and ourselves in the process.
And so I come one again to my initial questions…,
How do animals behave?
Better than we do I think, in most circumstances. They do not hunt or kill except for survival. They do not burn down their forests, or despoil their land in the name resource extraction, or money, or politics.
How do animals live?
These days, mostly where we permit them to live, or where we don’t notice them, or haven’t found a way to reach them yet. But always, they live the best they can.
And what are people?
We are the animals who have forgotten how to BE animals.
And I think we all know this, on some level. Otherwise, there would not be the fascination, the curiosity, the need to control, to dominate, and to prove our manifest superiority over them. We, as a species have lost something vital. And I think that this loss inspires both our best and our worst inclinations where these creatures are concerned.
The dominate religions of our time tell us that their god is separate from the creation, and that mankind was set above the animals, was imbued with a soul and a destiny that the other ‘things’ which move upon the earth are lacking.
And I understand the appeal, the desire to feel important, to be of central importance in some grand scheme.
But the old religions knew better.
We are OF this world.
We should learn to accept that before it’s too late for them, and for us.
Stalking this tiger with my camera, only to realize that she was stalking my shadow through the tall grass.
What a feeling to watch her stroll away into the distance once she lost interest in the “hunt”. No bars and no faux stone walls to keep her where we could see her.