Monday, October 11, 2010

Nature of the beast

I've had an interesting few days, capped off by a magical weekend. One of the most interesting questions in my mind, and one that seems to keep intersecting with me, is what happens when you let an animal be herself? What happens when you treat her as more human than animal? What happens when a human ventures into the animal world, instead of forcing the animal ever deeper into the human realm?

This question crystallized for me first when I saw Raising Sancho and got to know Carolina Vargas. My exchanges with author Jon Katz last week made me revisit the issue, and refine it even further. What I found striking about Carolina's time with Sancho was how she entered the otter world to a much greater degree than she brought Sancho into our world. Her entire interaction with Sancho was constructed around honoring Sancho as an otter. That is what made it so beautiful, and yet, poetically, is what also what illuminated the larger human lessons about life, love and loss.

When people project their humanity and their own problems and pain onto an animal, they deprive themselves of an opportunity to know another creature on a truthful level. At worst, they can actually bring harm to the animal, and by extension, other animals. But the same thing happens when people take a reductive view of animals and their natures, denying that animals have feelings, and are nothing but instinctive flesh robots.

There is a tension to be maintained, I think. What I was trying to convey about Jon Katz was that I think he maintains that tension in his work, and in his ethic about animals. It's there, in that tension, that the interesting things happen. He called it "rationality versus mysticism" in his post, and that is the sweet spot -- at the intersection between those two orientations -- where the lessons lie, for those willing to be taught something by the non-human set.


  1. When did you have exchanges with Jon Katz? I've been following his blog (and just got "Rose in a Storm" for my Kindle). This is an interesting topic. I know I lost a friend this past year due in part on her insistence on seeing her commitment to her animals as the prime obligation in her life. Well, not that so much as my failure to live by that particular standard. I'll be very interested to read Katz's book on animal grieving when it is published.

  2. It was on Facebook. I related more about it two posts below this one. I offered up an observation about his work that I first made three years ago on Mountain Time. He found it somewhat meaningful, and it went from there.

    I'm about halfway through Rose in a Storm. The thing that is really hitting me so far is how powerfully he activates your primitive brain, that animal-like part of your feelings and instincts. I've had to put it down a few times to collect myself and re-center my forebrain.