by Sherry Marr
I recently read a fascinating book titled Animalkind – Remarkable Discoveries About Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion, written by Ingrid Newkirk and Gene Stone.
It tells wonderful stories about all manner of creatures: an albatross, the first living being to circumnavigate the globe; chimpanzees who defeat college students in computer games; a horse trained to choose among various symbols to indicate whether he would like his blanket off or on, or would like a snack. Trainers described the horse as being excited by now having the ability to communicate and express preferences.
The authors describe an Australian sheepdog trained to retrieve – by name – 200 objects. When told to retrieve an unknown object, he correctly deduced that the unknown toy he had not seen before must correspond to the unfamiliar name. Deductive reasoning. So smart. I was smitten, hearing about the tiny desert mouse, who places a stone outside her burrow in order to drink the early morning dew.
Animals are delightfully amazing. And they seem to have a sense of humour as well. I have seen this in dogs and horses I have known. They also exhibit pure compassion and devotion, beyond what humankind seems capable of. This is why it breaks my heart that so many millions of living sentient beings are treated so brutally by humans, who often tend to view them as resources, property, put there for our use, creatures without feelings, rather than part of an ecosystem in which each one has its place and purpose and right to exist.
People who work in abattoirs or vast factory “farms” must tell themselves they are “dumb beasts” who don’t feel pain. But all we have to do is look into their eyes to know they feel every emotion we feel: pain, grief, fear, sorrow, terror, as well as joy, happiness, contentment and love (those who are more gently treated.)
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” said Martin Buber, the German philosopher. The authors of Animalkind pose the question: can animals love? We all know the answer to that.
I have seen a dog lie on an owner’s grave and sob with grief; a horse lay his head on his person’s casket, and weep.
While I was writing this, I read a wonderful book, The Elephant Whisperer, by Lawrence Anthony, the story of how he accepted a herd of wild elephants at his vast wildlife reserve, Thula Thula, in Zululand, to save them from being killed. They arrived traumatized at being removed from their familiar territory, and, only 48 hours before, having seen their matriarch and her baby being shot. Mr. Anthony was determined to save them, hoping patience and stability would settle them down. They broke out right away, causing local rangers to allow him only a short time to turn things around, or they would be killed.
He set up camp beside the fence of their compound and stayed day and night, trying to gain their trust. At 4:45 every morning, the elephants would tense, facing the direction of their homeland, preparing to break out. Each time he pled with their new matriarch, Nana: “Don’t do it, girl. They will kill you if you get loose. This is your place now. It is a good place. Please stay.” This was repeated every morning, for some time. Each time, Nana seemed to reflect on his words, understand, and decide not to break out.
Then, one morning, she came right up to the fence. Intuitively, Mr. Anthony went to her, overcoming his nervousness. She looked at him with her wise, old eyes, and reached out her trunk to whuffle at him. Trust had forged its bond. He then decided he could let them out of the boma, (their early compound), into the wider expanse of the sanctuary, which has now grown to 4500 hectares. “Something happened between Nana and me,” he writes, “a moment of connection. It gave me a sliver of hope.”
Trust grew among the herd, which settled in and did not try to escape again.
We know elephants, like whales, can communicate across vast distances, sometimes at ultrasonic frequencies humans can’t hear. Their rumblings can be felt traveling underground by other herds for as much as six kilometres. Mr. Anthony noted that they somehow intuited across vast distances when certain important events occurred, such as the birth of his sons, or his return from a trip abroad. They came to meet his babies, as they had come to present their calves to him. They always came to welcome him home.
Mr. Anthony writes, “In our noisy cities, we tend to forget the things that our ancestors knew at a gut level: that the wilderness is alive, that its whispers are there for us all to hear – and to respond to.” At the end of his book, he summarizes, “The most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and elephants except those we put up ourselves. Until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” I agree.
When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 61, twenty elephants walked for twelve hours to his house, where they stood for two days and two nights to pay their deep respects in his honour.
To make this even more uncanny, Mr. Anthony died away from home, in another country. Yet the elephants, many miles away across the reserve, somehow knew he was gone. His wife, Francoise Malby-Anthony, in her book An Elephant in My Kitchen, wrote about this: “We hadn’t seen them in months. Why now? Why this exact weekend?….To me, it makes perfect sense. When my husband’s heart stopped, something stirred in theirs, and they crossed the miles of wilderness to mourn with us, to pay their respects, just as they do when one of their own has died.”
Even more astonishing, on the same day each subsequent year, they marched to the house again in his honour. This Knocks. Me. Out. Elephants never forget a kindness, and we know that elephants grieve. (To find out more about Thula Thula, click on this link: https://thulathula.com/history/)
There is a larger landscape
than the one we see.
—Sarah Ban Breathnach
We’ve all read stories of dogs traveling great distances to return home, or re-unite with a beloved companion. Howie was a Persian cat who traveled 1,000 miles across the Australian Outback to return home. Truly remarkable.
Dolphin skin is so sensitive, it can feel sound waves in the water; their echolocation and communication system is highly evolved, much of it, as with elephants, beyond the human auditory range. The noise of boat motors and propellers must be excruciating for them.
I found fascinating the authors of Animalkind’s explanation that the mystery of flight begins, not in wings or feathers, but in birds’ light, hollow bones that make it easier to lift. The bones are full of tiny air sacs that take in oxygen independent of the lungs, which allows the birds to sustain the energy needed to fly. I didn’t know that. Bird songs serve a practical purpose; they call mates, find their flock, scare intruders, warn about predators. They use distinct notes in correct order.
The authors explain that fish feel pain and are aware of themselves as individuals. I have a friend who tapes pictures to her fishbowl, and says her fish spends time looking at them; it shows interest when the pictures are changed for new ones. Wow.
My grandson, at the age of nine, turned vegan, saying, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a face.” He is a man now, still not eating anything that has a face.
We are sharing the world with feeling creatures. This is why it hurts my heart when I read about the excruciating lives so many animals live under human domination.
The words of Jenny Leading Cloud of the White River Sioux speak to me:
“The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins. Even the tiniest ant, even a louse, even the smallest flower you can find – they are all relatives. We end our prayers with the words Mitakuye Oyasin – All Our Relations – and that includes everything that grows, crawls, creeps, hops and flies on this continent.”
I long for the day when enough of the population awakens to the plight of animals to demand legislation to protect these gentle beings. The beyond-human realm is vast and largely unregulated. We scroll past the horrors; we can’t bear to look. But once we know, we can’t not know that a world of sentient beings who cannot speak are telling us in every way they can that they need our help and protection.
For this week’s challenge, speak for animals, or let the animals speak. You can write about wildlife refuges, the need for them and the challenges. Or choose an animal and write a poem in its voice as a non-human being. What is its song, what does it love or fear or need? How does the climate crisis impact it? I am waiting with both fear and anticipation to find out!