Tag Archives: Animals

The Art of War

If you read my last post, you’ll know that a few weeks ago I visited The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Denver, Colorado.

A big part of what that facility does is to rehabilitate animals that have been mistreated, many of whom have been raised in isolation, away from members of their own kind.  The goal of the Sanctuary is for their resident lions to roam in prides as they would naturally, but many of these creatures must first be acclimated to the presence of other lions.

Toward this goal, one of the two enclosures where the residents are visible to visitors at close range is the purpose built Lion House, a roofed and climate controlled facility where individual cats may be kept temporarily in close quarters with their neighbors, until they are ready to join one of the many prides on site.

And that brings us to our little drama.

Access to the Lion House is via the same high catwalk as the rest of the facility, where visitors are elevated to a distance above the lions which is safe for the humans and non-threatening for the lions.

Unfortunately, no one appeared to have explained these rules to this pigeon.

Lion curious about pigeon

The interested lioness in this photo was very VERY invested in figuring a way to get that bird out from between the wire enclosure and outer wall of the structure.

Less interested in the avian intruder was this fine lady, who I think was just wanting a nice bit of a nap.

resting lion

Seconds later the exuberance of the one lioness sent her bounding into the personal space of her roommate, and for a few seconds all manner of hell broke loose.

Somehow, as these powerful creatures spun and rolled and leapt into each other, I managed to keep shooting, not knowing if I was getting anything at all, given the low level of available light and the sudden speed of action.

lion leaping into fight

And what I got definitely wasn’t something you’d see in National Geographic…,

two lions fighting

But honestly, I think these shots tell the story better than perfectly lit, tack sharp exposures could ever have done.  This is as much about what it looked like, as how it felt, when these two powerful forces of nature clashed.

No one was injured, by the way, except perhaps the pride of the pigeon hunter.

And maybe the pigeon.

I didn’t see him at all when we swung back by a couple hours later.

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Filed under Art, Nature, Photography

…like Animals.

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“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? 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Stalking this tiger with my camera, only to realize that she was stalking my shadow through the tall grass.

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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.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, Spiritual Journey, Travel

Inconvenient, not Evil

Did you see the story last week about the raccoon who spent his day climbing a 25-story office building in Minnesota?

Little fellow became an internet sensation for a few hours, with millions checking in on his progress and wishing him a safe climb in perilous conditions.

In the comments sections that followed the coverage, I noticed how some thought it odd that a creature whom many think of as a filthy pest, suddenly had his own cheering section.

“Trash Panda…,”

“Vermin…,”

“Scavenger…,”

Strange choice of words, it seems to me, as we are blaming the raccoon for something the WE did. We built the cities and neighborhoods in what used to be their habitat. We killed off most of the stuff that they’d normally gather to sustain themselves, and then we get upset when they are forced to root through out trash for scraps.

That little critter in the YouTube videos wasn’t climbing a building to make a point and he wasn’t in it for the adventure. He was terrified of all the humans wandering around at street level.

Also last week, my Facebook feed lit up with posts from a friend of mine at work. He was having a problem with a mouse that had turned up in his apartment. Little critter was eating his bread and making all the standard mousey scurrying sounds as it moved to and fro.

Following along post after post, I read about the snap-traps and glue traps, all of which failed to undo a rodent of such size and cunning, that I began to wonder if NIMH weren’t missing another of its test subjects.

I surmised from the follow up posts that the critter was eventually cornered, and quite possibly bludgeoned to death.

Now, in the days leading up to the creatures demise, I must admit I was somewhat amused by the frequent and desperate nature of my friend’s posts. You’d have thought, from the tone, that his home had been taken over by a pack of angry badgers, rather than by a single rodent.

“City people,” I caught myself thinking with a wry smile.

But as this saga dragged on I began to pay more attention to the language used, in both his posts and by some of the people who left supportive comments…,

“Disgusting,”

“Filthy,”

“Vermin,”

“Evil,”

“Straight out of Hell!”

All this hate, earned for nothing more than trying to survive in a world we built.

***

The raccoon in Minnesota became an internet sensation because he was never really in anyone’s way. The mouse in the house is a different story.

I know that a lot of what I read last week was hyperbole.

That’s kinda what the internet is for.

But I can’t help but worry when I see good people equating inconvenience with evil.

And I have been seeing that kind of thing a great deal as of late.

And no, I’m not talking about rodents.

The species may vary, but the circumstances are really pretty similar.

Living beings, just trying to survive in a world we built.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Politics

Someone Else’s Omen

I saw an owl last night — what do you think that means?

There was a feather on my porch this morning — what should I do?

Does anyone know what a bird with a yellow chest signifies?

I lit a candle last night and this morning I saw a fox — thoughts?

Is a spider in the house bad luck, or good?

Sometimes, when I am stuck for anything in particular to write about, I will wander these, our ‘world wide webs’, seeking out inspiration.  Upon my last such foray, I noticed, and not for the first time, a vast quantity of questions like those above, clogging up a number of the Pagan forums.

Now, I am not one to say that the birds and beasts do not ever have messages for us.  My regular readers may recall the story of my encounters with the Morrígan in raven form.

I do not scoff at the possibility of such meetings, only their seeming frequency.

These are rare events!

And, at least in my own experience, when they do happen, we KNOW it, without question.  Even if we are unsure of what the message means, we know that we have received one, and without having to consult some random stranger in an online forum.

So where then, does this idea come from: that the ‘spiritual switchboard’ must be buzzing madly with messages for us?

Is it something that new converts to the Pagan world bring with them from their monotheistic upbringing?  Our Christian friends, for example, are given to believe that the world was made for them, and that all things happen for some greater purpose.

So if we combine that idea, with the more Polytheist/Animist notions of a world populated with spirit beings, do we then end up with a natural order where every passing insect is vying for our attention?

It just doesn’t work that way.

Natural Omens?

If the Natural Practitioner, the Witch, the Shaman, and yes, even the Druid, hope to find their place in the universe, they must take one truth to heart…,

There ‘may’ be a reason for everything, but odds are, that reason has nothing to do with us personally.

If we want to hear the voices of the gods, we would do well not to drown them out wondering about the motives of every ladybug that takes flight.

And if there is a message we should take away from our various and random wildlife encounters, that message should be that, despite the best efforts of our species, the natural world is still hanging in there.

The owl, and the fox, and that bird with the yellow breast?

They’re doing their own thing, and I have no doubt that they are happy to be left alone.

Most of nature’s creatures are quite busy enough with the business of survival, without the bother of acting as someone else’s omen.

The world is not here for us.  The belief that it is has allowed us to unleash unspeakable harm in the last millennia.  I do not think such an idea will fare us any better in the hands of well meaning Pagans, than it did with our Monotheistic friends.

We would do better to adopt the belief that we are here for the world.

When the birds and beasts glimpse us from afar, let our sudden appearance not be one of ill portent.

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Filed under Divination, Nature, Religion

…Things!

Her fist shot out suddenly, whipping away from her in a horizontal arc, pivoting rapidly along a suddenly outthrust elbow, until her knuckles struck the glass window with a sound not entirely unlike that of a gunshot.

I stood looking down at her, arrested in my forward movement by her sudden and entirely unexpected action, and by the resulting bang, so loud against the surrounding hum of muzak and chatting shoppers.

I’d been walking through one of those big-box pet supply stores, a basket of feline edibles held easily in one hand, on my way to the cash-wrap, and from there to whatever other errands awaited me.  I’d given no conscious thought to the two old women in the aisle ahead of me, only what it took for my brain to navigate a course between them while instructing my mouth to deliver the “excuse me” which is common courtesy.  I had only managed the preliminary smile and the beginnings of a nod, when the one to my right, the one who was not busy studying a display of bagged dog chow, flung her closed hand against the glass beside her – hard.

And that was when I stopped.

I watched as she pulled her bony little fist back, folding it against her chest with her right hand protectively around it, almost in the manner of prayer.  I glanced at the glass display window she had struck, and through it, at the two domesticated rats resting in a pile of shavings, one with brown and white markings, and the other a light tan color, bright eyes looking back through the glass at us.

Fancy Rat

I looked back at the elderly woman again as she turned her face up to return my gaze, her pale blue eyes wide and full of malice as she hissed, “Disgusting things!”

I walked away.

Only moments before she had seemed to be just another grey-haired lady in a blue sweater.  Someone’s sweet old grandmother perhaps, just out with a friend, running errands and enjoying the day.

Now she was revealed as the worst kind of bully, and I have little tolerance for that sort.

Had I lingered even a moment longer, I would surely have lost my temper.

I wanted to scold her, to publicly humiliate her, to lash out at her and frighten her, the way she had tried to frighten two little creatures who care only to nibble and play.  I am not one to give in so easily to anger, but in the darkest forests of my mind, the Big Bad Wolf had swallowed down little red riding hood’s sickly grandmother, in a few large bites.

She’d certainly left an unsavory knot in ‘my’ stomach.

“Disgusting,” indeed.

Cartoon Granny

So how have we come to find ourselves in a world where grandmothers menace, without provocation, animals which are tame, caged, and completely at our mercy?

How did we get here?

Did the glorification of cartoon violence on television somehow convince the elderly that it was okay to bash pets with brooms and umbrella handles?

Maybe, but I doubt it.

I think it goes back much further than Saturday morning cartoons.

I think it started when we decided we were better.

“Better than the other animals.”

“Superior.”

No, I apologize, I am being unclear.  We are not “better” or “superior” than the animals, but are to be understood as altogether different, and not counted among the animals at all, at least according to the dominant mythology of the western world.  And the animals, well…, they are mere “things,” placed here, for our use, for our consumption and amusement.

So then, by that ‘logic’, it should be fine to threaten some domesticated rodent in a glass box.  It hasn’t got real feelings and it hasn’t got an immortal soul.  And even if that particular rat wasn’t carrying the plague, there must be one somewhere, out of immediate reach, that is.

Filthy – Disgusting – Thing!

I feel that I must clarify, at this juncture – I am no Vegan.

Animals die to feed and clothe me.  Some few, I have killed myself, when I thought it necessary.  Where possible, I consume only the meat of animals I know to have been raised and slaughtered in an ethical fashion.  I do this because I think there is more than enough unnecessary suffering in the world, and because, quite frankly, I think the meat tastes better when it comes from an animal that did not die in terror.

You should also know that, in addition to being a polytheist, I am an animist.  I believe deeply, that everything has, according to its nature, thoughts and feelings and a spiritual substance of its own.

Does this make me a hypocrite in your eyes?

Is the person who moves knowingly through life, taking what he must, and honoring the lives that are sacrificed for his own survival, is that person better or worse than one who barrels unthinkingly through the world, giving not a second of consideration to those who have fallen that he may survive?

An interesting question, but let us consider: not one man, but millions.

When a person suffers from the delusion that other people are not real, that they are mere playthings to be used and disposed of, we call that person a sociopath.

What then, should we call a race which carries the same delusion regarding all other forms of life?  More importantly, how do we treat that condition?

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A Matter of Temperament

A Polytheist, a Monotheist and an Atheist walk into a bar…,

Okay, there wasn’t a bar involved; it just sounded more amusing that way.

Sometimes at work, when time and energy allow, we find ourselves debating the big (and even medium sized) questions which have long plagued mens souls.  During one such recent late shift, a trio of us were knocking around that old standby: “What is the Meaning of Life?”.

The time spent on the actual topic was fairly short as both the Polytheist (yours truly) and the Atheist agreed that there really wasn’t a single (capital ‘M’) meaning to life.  Along the way, however, we touched on a number of other topics and I began to notice a funny inconsistency in the beliefs of my fellows which, in retrospect, I should have seen long before.

This is the Wheel of Emotions developed by Dr. Robert Plutchick in the early 1980’s and used to illustrate the relationships between the various emotions and how they all appear to interconnect.

People have some very contradictory beliefs about so called “Human Emotion”.

On the one hand, we like to see emotions, particularly the complex ones, as a handy line that separates us from what we choose to consider lesser creatures.  Love, hate, compassion and grief are seen as the particular provence of human kind.  These things show that we have big complicated brains capable of reasoning beyond our simple hungers for food, sex and shelter.

A swarm of bees may appear to be angered when a bear damages it’s hive in search of honey, but we assume that they do not HATE the bear.  Likewise, the bear, while certainly drawn to the honey by it’s sweet taste, could not be experiencing anything like JOY while lapping it up from within a cloud of FRUSTRATED stinging insects.

We have been warned time and again, against anthropomorphizing the lesser beasts.  Your cat does not LOVE you.  Your dog is not FAITHFUL.  They just want you to give them food and attention and shelter.

Animals, we have been told, are not like us.  They do not experience complex emotions, they do not have language and they don’t make tools.  These are things that only humans do.

Except…,

In recent years the behavioral scientists have had to do a bit of backtracking in the areas of animal language and tool making.  Silly old reality, getting in the way of academic hubris.

Ah well, at least they got one out of the three correct, right?  You can, at the very least, rest assured that your dog does not love you and your cat did not piss on the bed because he was angry that you were gone all day.  Humanity is still safely and securely above the station of the lesser beasts.

But what about deity?

During our debate my co-workers (the Monotheist and the Atheist) both expressed serious doubt when I suggested that the gods were capable of emotion.  Both of them made the suggestion that crude human emotion was beneath the station of such advanced beings (should such beings “hypothetically” exist).

It was even suggested that God, as some all-encompassing force or intelligence, would be emotionless.  Imagine an all powerful being of pure rationality but somehow incapable of either wrath or compassion.  In all honesty, the idea made me shudder.

You want a dispassionate god who runs us through his little mazes until he is done with us? I give you Ridley Scott’s “Engineers” from Prometheus.

I realize now that I’ve heard this theme (in a few variations) repeated many times before.

Sometimes, like in this instance, the divine is said to be above lowly human emotions.  I find it odd that the very thing that is said to show our superiority to the rest of the animal world should be, for some reason, lacking in that which is seen to be above our station?

Often, it’s just the so called “negative” emotions to which God is said to be superior.  Typically, the catchphrase for these believers is: “God is Love”.  I usually hear this argument from New Agers and from those Christians who choose to ignore the first 39 books in their Bible.  I find the deity that these folks imagine far too saccharine for my tastes and an unlikely candidate for ultimate authority in our rather “rough and tumble” universe.

Most often, I hear human emotion trotted out as the reason the gods of myth are either unworthy of worship or were simply made up by men long ago.  “In the stories,” I have been told, “the gods act just like people.  They get angry or jealous or lustful with each other.  They make war with each other and with mankind.  The gods, if they were truly superior, would act better than we do.  They wouldn’t be subject to love or sorrow or fear.  They would be above those things.”

It’s an interesting theory.  We mortals can hate and love because we are above the animals but the gods cannot hate and love because they are above us.

If it is the degree to which we are capable of feeling emotion that indicates our superiority, wouldn’t beings that were superior to us experience emotion to an even greater degree?  Might not some of them exist as living personifications of those emotions – just like the mythology suggests?

I am forced to wonder if the gods are exempt from language skills and tool making as well.  Questions for another day, I suppose.

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Filed under Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, The Gods