“All these years I have been a slave to humans, hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless,” said the Horse (The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis).
As children, we often entertain the idea that the “dumb” animals actually talk with each other when humans are not in the vicinity. At least half the books written for children have beasts with consciousness. This would be a genuine tragedy, if it were true.
The way I figure it, a major perk of being a simple beast of burden or fowl of the field, is lack of consciousness. The animal has no concept of time. It never reads its predicted life expectancy in the daily paper. It doesn’t buy Oil of Olay in an attempt to fool the other fowl that it’s still a young ducky. It never considers nip and tuck surgery in an effort to disguise the wrinkles on its trunk. Imagine existing without the need to check for lumps, regulate cholesterol, force yourself to exercise, or diet. An animal eats what it needs to survive, without concern for vitamin C, revised Canada Food Guides, or additives.
It doesn’t agonize over selecting the right college or achieving a dependable income. Religion or politics would never be discussed. It never reads a safety bulletin, obeys any law but those of nature, or selects a designated hopper, flyer, or burrower. Except when driven to mate, it doesn’t fret about attracting others. There are no singles bars, computer dating, blind dates, match-makers, or single-parent clubs in the animal kingdom. Each creature lives in the moment. It enjoys every non-threatening minute in the sun, without concern for the daily UV rating. Yes, its life is short and savage, but without guilt, shame, worry, or unachieved ambition. Every day that it isn’t eaten by another animal is a good day.
Today is just a day to be lived, while not being overly concerned about the past and probably not much aware of the future. Except when fleeing for his life, the deer or squirrel doesn’t worry about death. It never has to write a will, deciding who to leave the rights to the best grazing grounds or to whom he should bequeath his winter nuts.
It isn’t all easy pickings when it comes to food though. Nature pulls a few bizarre tricks, especially with regard to animals’ eating habits. The rabbit, it seems, is a prime example of a creature hard done by. The rabbit has been provided with big eyes to see danger, bigger ears to hear danger, and even bigger legs to run from danger. Why? Because almost every other animal endangers it. It is eaten by owls, ferrets, minks, snakes, badgers, humans, foxes, wolves, coyotes, falcons, eagles, humans, and more. The rabbit is also attacked by parasites, disease, and starvation. Most die in the first year of their lives. A few make it into their second. An animal who has practically no protection when danger gets past its eyes, ears and legs can’t hope for much. Its only defence against humans is its innocent appearance, which, sad to say, makes it ideal for mittens and Sunday dinner. Big, bashful eyes don’t impact much on a species that created factory farms.
But, if that isn’t enough, Mother Nature has thrown the little rabbit a special trait. In order to gain enough vitamins and minerals from the tough grass, plants, and barks that it consumes, the rabbit must eat it twice. Bluntly, it has to chow down on its own droppings. It chews the grass in the field, defecates at home, and snacks on the pellets, before giving them a final resting place outside the burrow. In the rabbit’s case, it seems to be especially kind that the beast is dumb and witless. If it had to sit through a grade six lesson on the digestive tract before lunch, it would probably loose its taste for a morning snack.
Speaking of snacks, provincial parks place warning signs and provide pamphlets about the dangers of interacting with bears. It amazes me that people still need to be warned about an omnivore with claws as long as my fingers, weighing about 200 kilograms, that runs twice the speed of the fastest human. What else do they need to earn respect? Bears do not behave predictably, which makes studying the pamphlet a little superfluous. Some people risk life and limb by leaving trash around. After a snack of taco crumbs and chocolate bar wrappers, a bear is ready for raw tourist, an impertinent little dish with a savoury aftertaste.
Current advice says to wear bells as you walk through the bush to warn bears you are coming. Isn’t that a little like ringing the dinner bell? Forget spotting a deer or rabbit as you tinkle-tinkle along the path. Apparently, bears will usually avoid you. Should you encounter one, the idea is to make yourself as large and noisy as possible in order to convince the animal that YOU are the bigger threat. I’m not sure I have the confidence to intimidate a bear. I’m not that good an actress.
I appreciate the Little Brown Bat who eats 4000 – 8000 mosquitoes in a night. If those blood-suckers were allowed to live, at least a tenth would have bitten me. While those around me are mosquito free, I attract them like shoppers at a Black Friday sale. So, I try to appreciate bats. Park literature tells me bats are harmless creatures “for the most part”. What are they for the other part? Whatever it is, it’s worth it for the slaughter they perform on biting pests.
The diner that surprises me most is the porcupine. No, they don’t throw quills and you have to be pretty dense to walk up to a living bundle of barbed thorns. While a beaver can quickly reduce an aspen grove to a log pile, a porcupine hits us where it truly hurts. A tenting camper can get by without deciduous trees, handle a skunk stink, smack six million mosquitoes a day, and learn to eat in their car, but don’t take away their most important link with civilization, the outhouse.
A jogger informed me she was startled at 5:00 a.m. by a strange growl (anyone who runs in circles when the mosquitoes are still out and the sun is not, is more than startled). It sounded like an excited dog with a chew bone. A porcupine was devouring the floor of an outhouse. If the jogger had stayed in bed until the crows and seagulls tormented her out of the tent like a normal camper, she would not have been subjected to such horror. At the time, I didn’t quite believe her. I thought she’d inhaled too much propane. However, this was not a tall tale. Porcupine vandalism is increasing. Canada’s second largest rodent has convinced me that having a tent potty for night time urgencies is a must. I have no desire to confront a plywood frenzied porcupine in the dark. I couldn’t sneak past an 18 kilogram rodent covered in long spikes with a two by four between his huge front teeth and maintain bladder control.
Porcupines ravish a lot of wood. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine dine together.
“Where do you want to go for lunch?”
“Well, darling, how about that new outhouse by the beach.”
“Marvellous idea. We haven’t gone to a new place in simply ages.”
A little off this wall. A bit from the door. A few chunks off the frame. Finally, she squats back on her haunches and announces, “I really couldn’t eat another sliver.”
“Oh, but my dear,” protests her mate, “you really MUST try this sink support. It has a new wood stain that’s absolutely out of this world.”
Some of the gnaw marks were high up the wall, over my head, in fact. Do they give each other leg-ups, or porky-backs? One must have stood on the sink counter, leaned out and around the corner twisting its body at a ninety degree angle while chewing. Otherwise there’s a six foot porky on the loose. Perhaps there’s a Kobe Bryant porcupine who does jump bites. Fortunately, the seats were porcelain. Splinters could have been a serious issue. The floor was concrete, otherwise I would have been in DEEP trouble.
I’ve eaten some pretty strange things in my life, but I’ve never had to stoop to eating an outhouse. Still, it might almost be worth it, to be a dumb, witless animal living in the moment, not understanding the phrase “Over the hill” except in the sense of a new field, or outhouse, for scavenging.
**NOTE: I wrote this 16 years ago. Recent studies show that animals are far more aware than we ever realized. Dogs can understand human speech far more than we think. Chickens can recognize up to 100 human faces and we use the term “mother hen” for a reason as they dote on their chicks. Pigs have the intelligence and social skills of a three-year-old child. Animals love, mourn, remember, have likes and dislikes, problem solve, learn, make and use tools and weapons, spoil their children, become depressed, experience fear and panic, invent, tease, count, identify shapes and colors, plan, contemplate, and more.
Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina’s landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel to Amboseli National Park in the threatened landscape of Kenya and witness struggling elephant families work out how to survive poaching and drought, then to Yellowstone National Park to observe wolves sort out the aftermath of one pack’s personal tragedy, and finally plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in the crystalline waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Beyond Words brings forth powerful and illuminating insight into the unique personalities of animals through extraordinary stories of animal joy, grief, jealousy, anger, and love. The similarity between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy calls us to re-evaluate how we interact with animals. Wise, passionate, and eye-opening at every turn, Beyond Words is ultimately a graceful examination of humanity’s place in the world.
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Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages