I feel it in my fingers
Photo credit: Jon Lipski
I feel it in my toes
Love is all around me
And so the feeling grows
It is written on the wind
Its everywhere I go
– Reg Presley
We talk about love all the time: “I sure would love to win the lottery”...“We loved Spain!”...“Don’t you love Meryl Streep!”...“Barry just loves pizza.”...“I love you.” Love is all around us, but when it comes to describing what it is, love remains ineffable, an extraordinary feeling that is nearly impossible to put into words.
That’s one reason poets have always had the first and last say about love. Poems provide space for the unspoken that love needs to live and thrive. Shakespeare, Rumi, Rilke, and balladeers around the world survive the ages because they never appropriate the private property of the listener – the intimacy and essence shared with a beloved. The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing.
Love’s trace perhaps shows most unabashedly in our relationships with other animals. Even the most formidable countenance melts when faced with the loving face of a companion animal. This heartfelt openness is often attributed to the unconditional love that other animals give. “I am yours, no matter what you look like or what you are feeling, no questions asked.” Such devotion is even more astounding when one takes into account that most domestic animals and captive wildlife never have a chance to choose with whom they live. Humans take their own liberty for granted and fail to appreciate the humility and acceptance with which animals live their lives.
While we struggle with whimsy, other animals are able to overcome pride and prejudice. They see though external form with x-ray precision to the souls that lie within. Take Cluck Cluck the chicken. Despite being used as an egg-producing machine, she, like billions of turkeys, cows, and other domesticated animals, manage to rain gentle mercy upon those who have harmed them. Because of her loyalty and persistence, Cluck Cluck’s alarm saved her human neighbors from a raging fire. Outside the confines of captivity, wild hearts show the same altruism.
Many a surfer and swimmer tell of dolphin pods who form a circle of protection around humans vulnerable to advancing sharks. And altruism goes both ways. Naturalist Charlie Russell who has spent over a half century living intimately with free living grizzly bears used his body and bear-sense to stand between the orphaned bear cubs he was rearing and advancing male grizzlies who sometimes eat the young of their species when times get lean.
For a long time, inter-species love stories were treated as amusing anecdotes closer to just-so fantasies than to real life. But now, scientists are starting to take the subject seriously. Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson calls trans-species attraction “biophilia.” According to Wilson, human affinity for other animals is a natural product of evolution. The impulse to save an injured squirrel or lost puppy is deeply engrained psychologically after millions of years living side by side in nature. Bonding is in our bones and medical practitioners say it’s also good for us.
Over the past two decades, researchers have been studying how love affects health. Social connection – cuddling, caressing, snuggling – releases a chemical called oxytocin that whirs around in the bloodstream signaling brain and body to “relax!” Love reduces stress. Further, the quality of our social circle is more than skin-deep. Along with genes, it shapes how we see the world. Early attachments made in youth teach us who and how to be. Relationships sculpt neural pathways in the brain. “We are,” as Nobel prize winner François Mauriac puts it, “molded and re-molded by those who have loved us; and though the love may pass, we are nevertheless their work, for good or for ill.” Today’s science recognizes Mauriac’s lyrical “molding” as one of the most important influences on our lives.
Of course, this is no surprise to other animals. Elephants, cats, rabbits, and even non-hot blooded fish and snakes touch, groom, nuzzle, and hang out together as a matter of everyday life. Social living defines life. It is unthinkable for a Canada goose or sardine to live in isolation. The link between mental well-being and sociality is also no surprise to scientists.
A vast scientific literature documents the deleterious effects of social deprivation suffered by animals living in zoos, laboratory cages, and aquaria. Further, the majority of human mental health models are based on this understanding. Former American Psychological Association president Harry Harlow designed experiments that he dubbed the “pit of despair” where infant nonhuman primates were driven to emotional breakdown as a result of social isolation. In similar tradition, decades later, also at the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson’s laboratory performs invasive brain experiments on macaques to emulate teenage anxiety disorders. Through the absence of love, whether by isolation or neural impairment, scientists cause monkeys, cats, and rats to develop a suite of irreversible emotional wounds including incessant rocking, self-mutilation, terrified screaming, eating disorders, and suicide.
The ameliorative effects of love are not limited to members of the same species. Countless stories of famous “odd couples” illustrate. Several years ago, when a tsunami swept through, a young hippopotamus, Owen, was orphaned in Africa. In the absence of other hippos, Mzee, an ancient tortoise, stepped in as a surrogate parent and the two became an inseparable item. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz told about a bird who fell in love with a Swiss woman from a nearby village despite overtures by avian companions. Koko the gorilla adopted a kitten and there are pictures of him carefully cradling the young cat as if she was his own child. More recently, a couple filmed a neighborhood crow caring for a young stray cat. Diligently, the bird brought food, even worms, to nourish the fragile feline, and in time the two began a friendship playing together and enjoying each other’s companionship.
Neither is love limited to the furred and feathered. While some scoff at the idea of reptile emotions, neuroscientists have shown that crocodile love is not qualitatively different than Romeo’s. Erich Jarvis, a professor in the medical school and neurosciences department at Duke University has shown that while the evolutionary trails of mammals and sauropsids (reptiles and birds) are different, their brains and emotions run just like ours: “The bird brain is a reptile brain or the reptile brain is a bird brain and they are both analogous to the mammalian brain having comparable capacities and functions.” Reptiles and birds have hearts and brains as big as ours. One beautiful story is that of Chito the human and Pocho, the 17 foot, 980 pound crocodile.
One day, a Costa Rican fisherman found the crocodile lying on the banks of a river. Pocho had been shot in the left eye by a cattle farmer. Chito hoisted the dying crocodile into his boat and took him home. There he cared for the ailing reptile giving him food and medicine and sleeping every night by his side. Miraculously, the crocodile survived. It took more than six months for him to recover. Chito explained: “I just wanted him to feel that somebody loved him, that not all humans are bad.” After the crocodile was able to move on his own, the two friends took to swimming together in the river. When the day began to close and Chito started for home, Pocho would haul himself out of the water and faithfully follow. Their loving friendship lasted two decades until the day Pocho died.
Chito and Pocho show how real love stories lie between sonnets and science, in our personal experiences. Again, we encounter an ineffable – the love shared with our animal kin. Love for and by our cat or dog fails to neatly fit into any one box. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it best: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. The ways in which we love and are loved by animal companions are innumerable. But while we have all sorts of categories to describe human-human relationships- friends, lovers, spouse, buddy, associate, colleague, partner, and so on- none are comfortably used for other species. Collective labels for human relationships may not capture the ineluctable relational facets we experience individually, yet they provide a bit more flexibility, and respect, than “lizard,” “dog,” “parrot,” or rabbit” affords.
There is no single cat-human relationship, nor rabbit-human, turkey-human, dog-human, or sheep-human relationship. Each is unique and diverse. Our beloved animal friends are universes unto themselves. The fact that the life spans of human and other animals’ are usually very different means that we and they play myriad roles. At first, we may play the role of surrogate mother or father to our rescued stray kitten. As he grows into a teenage cat, the relationship shifts to friendship of playful adventure and co-conspiracy. Some days, after returning home from an upsetting day, our cat or dog dons another hat - that of a consoling companion who helps wipe away our tears.
At other times, our friend is our champion, pushing her way protectively forward with a suspicious growl when another human telegraphs a less than friendly attitude. Finally, in later years roles reverse, and caregiver turns to care receiver. There comes a time when our faithful companion sickens and ages. The smile, playful swat, or pleading bark no longer comes so readily. It is our turn to cheer our beloved, urge her to try a little more food and walk a little farther. It is at these times, human guardians must carry the heavy burden of voice and choice. It is at these times when the sacred sharing of souls is most tender.
Mother, father, sister, brother, friend, beloved, companion, teacher, student, partner, confidante, protector - the list goes on. Animal family members play many roles as we do with them. This relational multiplicity is mirrored inside. Our relationships with the other animals enrich our hearts and souls. We, who have the fortune to be invited in their grace, are blessed. The ways of love for animals cannot be counted, only embraced with the great depth, fidelity, and love that they give us.
1. Quote from Pierre Bonnard