A few years back, I received a call from a biologist living overseas. He had travelled for many years in nature reserves and wilderness around the world. After reading my book on elephant trauma, he wanted to share some of his own, related experiences with tigers and other wildlife. The accounts were a cavalcade of fascinating detail and soaring drama, knowledge of which is only acquired by those willing to witness animals up close and personal with patience and keen eyes. Of all of the stories, there was one in particular that lingered, and, I venture to say, haunted my memories.
The biologist described one day, when deep in the Amazon interior, he sat veiled in a thick hide of green fronds near a small stream. It was just after dawn. The air was pungent with flowers, bird calls, and humming insects. Every inch of the tree canopy and ground pulsed with life. All manner of wildlife was there going about their business — eating, drinking, talking, grooming, and socializing. The forest was a mosaic of tapirs, sloths, ants, tree frogs, and vivid green and red parrots flashing by. But despite the vibrant activity, quiet serenity prevailed. Everyone and everything fitted seamlessly, even the jaguar who disinterestedly co-existed with her erstwhile prey. For all intents and purposes, the scene was a tropical recreation of Claude Monet’s picnic in the park.
Suddenly, the pastoral cadence broke with a crash of branches and swishing boughs. The biologist was startled by the noise. Tense, apprehensive of who or what menace might be approaching, he remained motionless, waiting. Then, he saw. A cow. The shattering noise was a cow pushing her way through the brush to drink at the water’s edge.
To his surprise, the man found that all the other animals were unperturbed. The cow’s ungainly entrance had not caused any detectable commotion aside from his own pounding heart. Everyone had continued browsing, grooming and doing whatever they had been doing. He concluded his narrative with this: “I realized that if it had been I, not the cow, who had walked up, all the animals would have run away in fear. At that moment, I felt lonelier than ever before in my entire life.” He stopped. We sat connected in silence accompanied by the low hum of overseas phone static. After a few minutes, we softly bade each other good-bye.
The biologist and I remain in touch, telegraphing emails every so often about one event or another. We bonded through the telling of the Amazon cow. It revealed something intimate, beyond words: an unuttered mutuality drawn from the realization that we both understand the pain of being human. It is perhaps this recognition, and pain, that fuels the deep love for animals that so many humans naturally feel.
People often credit unconditional love as the reason humans are drawn to other animals. Such love is believed to be contract and condition free. No matter our mood, station in life, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and bad hair days, when a cat turns her head with a smile and a dog runs and jumps with unabashed glee upon the glimpse of our return, we feel endless love. We are accepted with no holds barred.
Whatever we do or whomever we are, we are loved. In a world where self and criticism reign supreme and the slightest error can forever split asunder a decades-long friendship, the open hearts of other animals offer a salve for wounded souls. Animals are able to fathom what lies beyond appearance, to be content with what and who stands before them, despite what has happened in the past.
This does not mean that camels and horses do not buckle to their knees from the fury meted out by humans. Nor are cats and birds immune to human indifference. All animals – including fish, octopi, and tortoises –are comparably vulnerable to emotional wounding and trauma as any human. Nature has limits. However, animals generally show a much greater capacity for compassion than most humans. Through expressions of remorse and forgiveness, animals minister tender mercy to those who have done them wrong.
George Adamson of Born Free fame and others describe elephants who, outrageously violated, will strike out and kill. Nonetheless, no matter the gravity of trespass endured, they never forget the sacredness of life. Elephants regularly visit the graves of their victims and reverently place sticks and soil over the corpses. In the words of A.E. Housman,
Ensanguining the skies,
How heavily it dies,
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound,
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground,
Falls the remorseful day.
Animal kin also seem more able to forgive their transgressors. With the sweet nudge of a dog’s nose or soft nuzzle of a horse, human faults are laid aside. These gentle, soundless gestures beckon us to the grace of the present. In the space of the present, there are no sins, no regrets, only love. And in the space of love, there is no separation. Here, we may have stumbled upon the source that relates to the pain of being human.
Separation from nature defines modern humanity. Our identity is based on what other animals have been assumed to lack. We know who we are by what other animals are not, or do not do. True, as best we can tell, bats, cats, pigs, and eagles don’t read, write poems, erect bridges and skyscrapers, and so on. But, as science now recognizes, the absence of Sistine chapels and Twin Towers in the wilderness is neither for want of brain power nor imagination. All animals, and aboriginal humans living similar lives of subsistence, do so out of choice. Modernity’s ancestors chose to hew the tree to build the wheel that turned the lathe that ground the wheat that fed the people who crafted the guns that kill, while other species and cultures chose simpler paths.
The journey from agriculture to industry and technology has carried our species away, far from the circle of animal kin, to lonely isolation. But try as humans might, separation is not possible. All achievements celebrated as human, the porcelain and plastic from which we drink, silicon tablets we use to speak with one another, and garments donned that signal who we are, come from the Earth. They may be unrecognizable by their Mother, but these creations spring from elements gathered together eons ago. No matter what fantastic airy castle the mind may conjure, humans remain Earthlings.
It is Earthling hearts that come alive with the adoring eyes and bodies warm with love greeting us at the door. The outstretched paw and rumbling purr entice a return to the ways of the heart. Theirs is a world of love, not unconditional in the sense that one may do anything one wants with no consequence. That is the kind of world we live in today – the lonely world of which the biologist spoke. Even cows, who have lived thousands upon thousands of lives genetically etched by humans, remain loyal to animal ways. That is why the jaguar, monkey, and sloth were not bothered by the approaching cow. She remained faithful to the law of the wild. In contrast, humans, even those whose lives are intertwined in the wilderness, remain suspect. Humans have lost their place in nature’s trust.
What, then, must we learn to regain that trust so that, we too, like the cow, may walk among wild hearts? How shall we vanquish the pain of being human? The answers are clear. By being animal. This entail two things: giving unconditionally to other animals as we receive ourselves and in so doing, relinquish the mandate of human survival for an embrace of all life. Or, more simply put, as Snoopy’s friend, Charles Schulz, once said, All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn't a dog.
The title of this essay is inspired by The Way of Human Being (Yale 1999) by Calvin Luther Martin.