What animals are telling us about us
Posted Apr 20, 2014
By chance I’ve been coming across a (ahem) flock of nature documentaries lately. As usual, the photography is more breathtaking than a bungee jump into the Grand Canyon. But what intrigues me more is how moving the films can be. As you get less young, you’re more keenly aware of our creaturely vulnerability. You’re inclined to feel for a duck ambushed by a snowstorm, a mare struggling to squeeze out a colt, or bears gunned down like schoolchildren for their magic gall bladders.
But it’s more than that. Science and modernity make it clearer than ever that we’re animals too. We know more about the natural world than once upon a time, when we were blissful, obedient freeloaders in the Garden of Eden. And the Garden’s changed too: it’s suffering bizarre climate skew, whether that’s caused by the sudden release of millions of years of trapped CO2 or by planetary indigestion. In fact, the world outside the world outside Eden has changed too. News tidbits casually remind you that in a few billion years the sun will burn out. Meanwhile the bipeds are vandalizing the oceans and hacking up the rainforests while sneering at "tree-huggers." It's not Johnny Appleseed's frontier anymore.
So you sympathize with critters that have to make a living out there, from frogs to monkeys. This is the theme of the heroic veterinarian show I mentioned last time, “The Amazing Dr Pol.” The episodes present hardworking everyday bipeds rescuing animals and people who care about animals (mostly farmers). In clinical terms, the show offers you transference, a chance to identify with a good-humored, plucky father-figure and his motherly hands-on sidekick Dr Brenda. But the kicker is that you get to see folks cry on camera when Fido or Flicker the horse dies. Or a farmer kissing her cow on the nose as it agonizes giving birth. Those moments of unscripted feeling come as a shock when you’ve been dwelling in the Lollipop Land of TV, facebook, and Googlia.
Now PBS is screening “Touching the Wild,” directed by David Allen, in which Joe Hutto befriends a small herd of mule deer over seven years at his ranch in Wyoming. In the past he’s identified with wild turkeys and bighorn sheep. In this outing the photography is so stunningly intimate that you can’t forget how artful the argument is. In culture, the bipeds compete with brute sneakiness, whereas the mule deer have a magical sort of integrity as well as gorgeous big ears. It’s what we mean when we sigh over “Nature.” Only when you get to know the deer do you begin to remember that nature is also brain worms and earthquakes, and sooner or later it kills everything, even gorgeous big ears. Not for nothing did settlers call the local turf "Dead Man's Gulch."
After two years of passively showing up among them every day, Joe Hutto finally has the mule deer matriarch (Raggedy Ann, he calls her) swap the equivalent of handshakes. Eventually he gets to know them all, their fawns, the pronged bucks, and their social arrangements. With increasing enchantment (yes, that’s the word), he studies their migrations, their winter torments, and the terrifying, equally hungry predators that slowly tear the unlucky ones to death. Oh, and hunters mastering nature with high-powered rifles and a space on the wall for antlers, including a buck known for years.
As for Joe, after seven years, fears for his surrogate family and losses “rock him to his very core; sharing their world so personally finally takes a toll that sends him back to his own kind” (PBS).
Here’s where things get (ahem) chewy. As a viewer, you understand how appalling the relentless awareness of predators and vulnerability is. The mule deer are beautiful surrogate children, like your teenager behind the wheel among drivers who want to eat her. You want to rescue them from the cosmic grind of mutual killing, which even the good ol' doc Pol can't do.
Yet we’re animals too, also trapped in dog-eat-dog life, chawing down herds of cattle and pigs, and chickens by the million. Hilariously, the comments on the PBS website begin with a heartfelt testimonial about affectionate tears over the deer and then turn into gentle sparring over who’s a vegetarian. The fact is, we all live by killing, chewing, and excreting other living things. We have no choice. It’s how we’re built. It’s one reason why you may feel queasy hearing that a concealed hunter has just bagged another biped in stand-your-ground Florida.
We depend on culture to rationalize such painful conflicts for us. We quibble about meat-eating while unconsciously weeping and snarling at a world organized around predation. We try not to look too far over the back fence, even as the film lures you into the imaginative wilderness. It does what the deer do: it invites you to feel vivid vicarious love for Raggedy Ann and the gang, and then makes you feel the terror and craziness of seeing that love torn to pieces by wolves, rifles, or blizzards.
We care partly because we see the mule deer in human terms, as families, fellow creatures. We give them life stories, and they seem to answer to their names and share basic emotions with us. Like the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the philosopher Mary Midgley demonstrates that’s not unrealistic. In Raggedy Ann, the female leader of herd, you have everybody’s ideal mum—Bambi’s mum—looking after her brood and PBS viewers like you. When an orphan fawn bleats for her dead mother, your body is tuned to respond as it would to your baby in the next room.
Most industrial entertainment offers heroic rescue scenarios. The payoff is usually symbolic immortality fantasies. Heroism triumphs, symbolically forever. Or in grownup drama, heroism goes down in tragic sacrifice, but the ideal will live forever. The nature films can be more moving when they merely show you what is. The mule deer forage, nuzzle, mate, groom the kids, and survive. Or not. Either way, there’s no triumph, no trophies on the mantel. At best the deer achieve Hanging-Out-Munching-Together. Suckle the Kid. And maybe Not-Getting-Killed Today.
Stripped of heroic artifice, the mule deers' experience is apparently pointless—as ours is once you screen out the greeting cards and frosting. In a sense, we're all Just Getting By.
Ah, but that’s what makes the bond you feel so mysteriously meaningful. You can’t sum it up in words or in honks, squawks, and bleats. Its visceral, a gut feeling. Whether or not you get in a hug, you feel for the other critters. And because we're symbolic animals, it’s maybe even more interesting, since what you feel suggests we’re broadcasting these animal stories to each other out of anxious fellow-feeling about a planet under stress, blurred cultures, and never enough oxygen and insight in the air. If you want to get fancy about it, you might muse that somehow the animals are signaling us to stand in the footsteps—or hoofsteps—of others and expand our sense of the world. And adapt.
And relish it.
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Resources used in this essay:
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Mary Midgley, Beast and Man
Panksepp, J., and Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion.
Panksepp J (Ed.) (2004) A Textbook of Biological Psychiatry
Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.