It seems that bipolarity is a significant element of human nature, mental as well as emotional. Human beings tend toward extremes in both thought and feeling, never more than when the subject of either is the animal kingdom with which we share our world. Most of mankind differentiates among animals as ferocious beasts, objects of sport, utilitarian biological machines, and pampered pets. Mankind itself is divided pretty much between humans who hate or fear animals and humans who have a genuine love for them, with only a small percentage in between who are indifferent to animals whether as a congeries of species or as individuals—largely because, living in an urbanized world, they know nothing of them. And, among those who love animals and have an interest in them, the division is equally stark. As someone with a wide familiarity with zoological parks, animal sanctuaries, their staffs, and their collections, I can say confidently that a great divide exists between zoo people who adopt a self-consciously “scientific” view of animals and others who take the “sentimentalist” one—those who feel an emotional attachment to individual animals, over and above a zoological interest in the species to which they belong.
“We do not know what animals are,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “or why they are.” Seventy years later, we still don’t know. Nevertheless, we know a great deal more than we did in 1940, when his book was published. Indeed, a huge body of highly informative scientific research in respect of animals has been compiled since World War II, most notably perhaps on the subjects of birds, monkeys, and elephants. Much of this is field work, the rest the result of experiments performed in laboratories or under controlled conditions. In both cases, the documented findings make a clear point. Animals are far more intelligent and complicated creatures than we had hitherto suspected them of being. At the beginning of the 21st century, we can fairly claim to have made real progress toward understanding what animals are. Why they are is a theological mystery that will not be revealed to us so long as this world—St. Paul’s world “groaning in travail”—endures.
Lewis, in The Problem of Pain and elsewhere, contemplated the possibility that certain animals might possess souls that would win them immortality, attaining salvation by virtue of their affectionate incorporation with their human groupings. This notion, he hastened to add, was pure speculation on the part of a layman, not the considered opinion of a “real theologian”; even in letters Lewis made a responsible effort to dissuade his correspondents from wishful thinking that might also be heretical. That was prudent of him. Thomas Aquinas had denied that animals were soul-bearing creatures, including the higher and the highest animals. But neither Aquinas, nor Lewis seven centuries later, knew, as modern research suggests, that elephants may have a notion or concept of death, returning time and again to the spot where a comrade died or was shot by a poacher or culler, or where they had tossed or trampled a human victim. Elephant Reflections, an excellent new book by Dale Peterson, cites research into elephant calls and modes of communication by Katy Payne, who suggests that calls by females may be translated using the first-person plural—that female elephants have a sense of themselves as members of a communal group, while males are aware of their existence as individuals.
Setting aside the question of whether certain animals are worthy of salvation, there is no doubt whatever that they are educable—not just “trainable” but possessing the capacity to be “led forth” to a higher plateau of consciousness and understanding than that which we observe in their “natural” condition. Perhaps the most astonishing example is the subject of the most famous animal book ever written, Born Free by Joy Adamson, about her lioness companion. (I use the word companion advisedly.) Adamson, born in Vienna in 1910 and an accomplished painter of wildflowers, was the wife of George Adamson, for many years senior game warden in the Northern Frontier Province of Ken-ya. While hunting a man-eating lion, Adamson was compelled to shoot the lion’s mate when she attacked his scouting party. The dead lioness had been lactating, and Adamson, after a brief search, discovered her three young cubs in a cavity beneath a large rock. He brought them home to his wife, who raised them in the house on a bottle. When the cubs, three females, were still juveniles, the Adamsons sent two of them to the Rotterdam Zoo but kept the smallest, named Elsa because she reminded Joy of her mother-in-law by her first marriage. When Elsa was about two, the Adamsons determined to return her to the wild. This feat they finally accomplished, after several unsuccessful efforts. Elsa learned to hunt, to live on her own, and she found a wild mate and had three cubs by him. But she never failed to show up in bush camp when the Adamsons drove out from Isiola and George fired his rifle to alert her to their arrival. Sooner or later she would dash into camp, throw herself in delight upon her human friends, and remain with them for days at a time. After her cubs were born, she refused to permit the Adamsons to follow her to the denning site. But when they reached the age of six weeks, Elsa proudly led her children across the River Ura into camp—just as a wild lioness would have introduced her young to members of her own pride. During her few remaining years (she died an untimely death at five of a parasitical infestation) Elsa lived a double life, passing gracefully and effortlessly from the natural existence of Panthera leo krugeri to human civilization, and back again. She ordinarily slept on a cot in George’s tent or by his side on the ground, and frequently accompanied her human companions on Adamson’s professional expeditions, riding on the roof of the Land Rover or, on longer excursions, atop a pile of camp gear in the cargo area.
Only four months before Elsa’s death, Sir Julian Huxley and his wife, intrigued by her story, made the trip from England to Kenya to meet the principals. They saw Elsa, followed by the cubs, emerge from the bush and “[spring] toward Joy Adamson as toward an intimate friend, putting her great paws on Joy’s shoulders and almost knocking her over with the vigor of her greeting.” “You may quarrel,” Huxley writes a few sentences later,
with that word personal as applied to a mere animal. But . . . I insist that it is the right one. By a passionate patience and an understanding love, Joy Adamson succeeded in eliciting something in the nature of an organized personality out of an animal’s individuality, its set of instincts strung on the simple thread of memory. . . .
I find this not only interesting but moving. The story of Elsa . . . demonstrates the wealth of potentialities in higher mammals, waiting to be drawn out and elicited into actuality. And it shows that the best and perhaps the only method of eliciting those higher potentialities in any fullness is through emotional intelligent involvement, by way of what I have called understanding love.
It is tempting to regard Elsa as having been that close to human. For instance, disliking to be photographed, on one occasion she found Joy’s box camera lying about and made off with it to a spot on the edge of camp, where she lay down with it between her paws and exercised her carnassials on the infernal instrument. This dislike extended, astonishingly, to being sketched. On a visit to Elsa’s camp by Sir William and Lady Percival, she lay patiently within Joy’s tent while Lady Percival worked with her sketch pad—until Joy left the tent to instruct the boys to bring tea. The instant she disappeared, Elsa arose, bounded over to the artist, knocked the sketch pad from her hands, and returned quietly to her place on the ground.
Good zoos provide far more than public entertainment. They are serious scientific institutions, dedicated to zoological research, conservation, education, and breeding animals matched for their highest genetic potential. And zookeepers and curators do not have the time for the kind of emotional, intelligent involvement that Mrs. Adamson was able to have with Elsa. Still, I wish that they did. And I regret that they seem to feel constrained to make a virtue of this, as if the Adamsons’ work with Elsa (and generations of lions after her) were somehow “unscientific” and sentimental. Like everyone working with zoos, I’m frequently asked by the public if I feel sorry for the “captive” animals. My answer is no. (Are you sorry for your housecat within the confines of his comfortable home?) But I do feel for those animals who are capable of Elsa’s achievement, yet lack the opportunity to realize their animal potential as she was able to do. And—risking real sentimentality here—I regret also that they have not the chance to attain the supernatural estate Lewis thought, or hoped, he glimpsed for the animals with whom he was personally acquainted.
Similarly, I often hear visitors deplore captivity on the grounds that it is against the animals’ nature to be removed from a wild environment and confined in an artificial and restricted one; unnatural and therefore cruel. I have replied that my distant ancestors were wild too, and ran in the wild (I speak in more or less historical terms here, not the abstract ones of Rousseau’s state of nature), but that I and all civilized people I know are both happy in our domesticated condition, and infinitely better off for it. If a human savage can be comfortably conformed to domestication, why not a savage lion? As, indeed, a great many lions have been. Rameses II rode his chariot into battle accompanied by Auto-m-nekht, who bowled over those of the enemy who approached too close to the pharaoh, and Caracalla’s Acinaces sat at his master’s side at the table and slept at night in the imperial bedroom. In recent times, Ralph Helfer, a supplier of Hollywood animals, slept in a specially reinforced bed with Zamba, who during the day gave Helfer’s young daughter rides on his back and spent his evenings with her on the sofa watching Westerns on TV. On the other hand, anyone who has watched Animal Planet, or read at all in leonine literature—for instance, George B. Schaller’s classic field study, The Serengeti Lion—knows that the life of a lion in the wild, a male lion in particular, is at least as nasty, brutish, and short as the life of a Kenyan citizen living in a Nairobi slum.
The public, of course, is sentimental. (It likes best of all to see baby animals.) So are PETA and the other bullying animal-rights organizations that would shut down all zoos—and “free” all pets. This helps explain perhaps why zoos are so often guilty, not of science, but of scientism—emphasizing the species over the individual, denying that animals can be more than bundles of instincts and “behaviors,” that they have wishes or preferences, that they are endowed with anything like a higher nature, or the capacity to develop it. As one who’s spent a life with animals—horses, cows, pigs, goats, dogs, cats, birds (domestic and exotic), snakes, turtles, and salamanders—I think I know better. At least I hope—even pray—that I do.