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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 8 page 12


Animal tales

by Clement Peddington

Sometimes I wonder what the animals think of us. I’m confident they do think, in some animal sort of way. I wonder if they marvel at us. Do they envy us our hands, our speech, our cars? I wonder if we look like we’ve got everything figured out?

The really lucky thing as far as our reputation is concerned is that the animals don’t read the news.

Like a month or so ago, when the World Wildlife Fund reported that the world-wide population of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles fell by over 50% between 1970 and 2010 — I’m glad the animals didn’t read that.

Of course, the majority of Homo so-called sapiens missed the story too. At least, no red alert sounded throughout the breadth of their civilization. Next day, people were still cranking their ignitions, still pissing their pharmaceuticals into the waterways, etcetera.

We have a mass extinction underway and Homo so-called sapiens is the culprit.

The current wave of extinction is gaining momentum, but its origin goes back some ways. It goes back to when we began outsmarting the animals in the hunt and dislodging them from their habitats.

I’m not dissing our ancestors. Theirs was a different world. They didn’t have this concept of animals going extinct.

I have to modify what I just said. By early Sumerian times, they did have the concept. The Great Flood is a near-extinction story. The god Enlil (“Lord Air”), irked because humans have let their population grow out of control (sound familiar?) and especially annoyed by the racket they make in their love-making, sends storms to cause a flood to wipe them out. However, Enki (“Lord of the Earth”) warns the farmer Utnapishtim to build an ark to float his family and animals to safety. In the West we know this story, thru the Hebrew Genesis, as Noah's Ark. Humans, the source of the trouble that provoked the flood, emerge looking like heroes for saving the innocent animals.

That’s the kind of patronization that civilization has made second-nature to us. But if you trace back further, back before agriculture took hold, back before humans appointed themselves to rule over the animals, you’ll find that humans looked up to, not to say worshiped, the animals. They felt that the animals retained a direct point of contact with Nature, with Creation, with the Divine, that humans themselves had somehow lost.

Not only were the animals spiritually better connected than ourselves, but their attributes, their courage, strength, speed, ferocity, and wisdom, were purer, more elemental, than our own. So the bear and the eagle and the lion became the totems of clans. The gods themselves assumed the forms of animals. That was easy for them. A god could slip in and out of an animal skin without a hitch, without so much as a by-your-leave. Many a human tribe claimed descent from some such animal-god.

The animals, with their better connections, brought messages from the divine sphere to help humans along their outcast path. Eventually priesthoods would develop around the ability to interpret the flight of birds or to discern the future from some animal's entrails.

Hang in with me, this is all going somewhere.