I heard it again just the other day—this time in passing an elderly couple eating their lunch at a sidewalk café.
“They’re animals!” the old man had said, his upper lip curled in a snarl of disgust.
Then snippets of phrases as I walked by the table, “—how could anyone do that to a classroom of kids … can only imagine ... was just horrified.”
“Poor dears,” I heard the woman reply.
While trying to piece together an image of what could have happened, my thoughts kept on stumbling on what he’d first said, “They’re animals.”
It’s not that I hear it especially often—mostly in the media after epic tragedies: 9/11, Columbine, the Boston Marathon, Sandy Hook. But each time I do, it gives me pause. A common phrase blurted out passionately met with nods of agreement and empathetic words. While, no doubt, I grasp the underlying emotion—the shock and disgust with the crime’s perpetrators and heartrending sympathy felt for their victims—I falter in my mind, if only for a moment. A crack in a pathway of thoughts passing by that causes me to misstep and sends me off course.
In working with animals twenty-five years, I’ve yet to meet the notorious creatures who purposely set out to cause others harm as humans can manage to mete out on each other. Tigers, timber wolves, grizzly bears, leopards—carnivores in all shapes and sizes whose role in life demands that they hunt routinely to survive—I’ve never seen preying on others with malice. In fact, nature calls them to do so efficiently, sparing the victim unnecessary suffering as well as conserving their own energy. A pair of rogue lions lying in wait, watching a small herd of Thompson’s gazelle as they graze beside a watering hole, track an elderly buck with focused precision—ears pricked fully forward, eyes open wide, noses twitching and sniffing for ephemeral scents—calm and composed with no ill will toward their quarry. Likewise the leopards in my care at zoos, bite into their meal with no more hostility than I watch my friends cut into a steak.
As a specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine, I’ve worked with a wide array of exotic creatures with impossibly sharp claws, massive white fangs, hands that could reach out and squeeze me so tightly and fracture a bone, if only out of naïve curiosity. Yet, the animals I’ve cared for through the past quarter-century have widely shown a considerate respect for me, another species, as well as their companions. Back when I was caring for dogs and cats and visiting them in their families’ homes, among those who were branded as hopelessly aggressive, I daresay few, if any, showed malevolence toward me or others but rather a violently misdirected fear or agitation—amiss in reading signals, responding out of context. Still, for most I could find a way to create safety for them to ease into the customary habits of their species.
Sometimes, the depiction’s nothing more than lighthearted—a playful expression, a whimsical nudge, at times a flirtation, or even a compliment—“You’re such an animal,” spoken to a friend, capturing the essence of some beastly creature seen within. But, even then, it gives me pause. The animal we briefly glimpse in those moments is not some malevolent predator, lurking inside us and ready to pounce, bent on some instinct to bring others harm, but instead just another reflection of ourselves.
In truth, what we see in those moments is much more human than animal.