Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Soul of a Lion

Soul of a LionWhen I picked up the new book, Soul of a Lion, I was hoping that it would at least have a metaphysical slant to it. No such luck. Aside from one timid reference to the subject ("Each [animal] has a personality, and along with that, most volunteers who have worked and played with them agree that each has a soul.") the book is a biography of Marieta van der Merwe, creator and matriarch of the Harnas Wildlife Foundation, a huge wildlife sanctuary in Namibia.

But we do get hints of the metaphysical in the comments made by some of the volunteers who have worked at that sanctuary.

One volunteer said, "My soul has been laid bare. The routine and materialism that control my daily life at home feel like chains hanging on my heart.... I am rediscovering who I am and what is really important... Through spending precious moments with the animals, I am learning the art of silent communication and embracing the power of mutual trust and respect."

And another volunteer: "You can't put up a false front. We end up stripped and showing what we're really made of.... Everything comes out, whether you want it to or not. I feel like I'm naked--but everyone is naked. It's too bad that when I go home, I'll have to put up a wall again in order to survive in that world."

And one more: "...Animals don't judge you for your appearance. You just become your real self. You lose the other, fake part.... I want to stay this person. It's so much better than the person I was before."

These ideas and emotions come from connecting on a deep level with the animals at the sanctuary. I have said in an earlier post that looking into the eyes of an animal and truly seeing the person that is there can make you feel laid bare like no other experience; you know you are seen for who you are, there can be no pretenses.

Such connections would not be possible for those volunteers if the sanctuary was not a safe and loving environment. So, these testimonies about the outcome of her work tell the truest story of the person that is Marieta van der Merwe, much more than the telling of the tragedies in her life.

And here's something I found interesting: I thought the best possible illustration for the title of this site, "Intelligent Life Is All Around Us", would be the eyes of many different animals. At the top of the Harnas Wildlife Foundation web site, they have pictures of eyes of many different animals.

A trip to Namibia may be in order.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Devotion and Understanding

Once upon a time--1923, actually, since this is a true story--a professor at Tokyo University, Dr. Eizaburo Ueno, got an Akita Inu puppy and named him Hachi.

Dr. Ueno was quite a dog lover, and Hachi returned the affection. Dr. Ueno shared his meals with Hachi, and Hachi would go to the train station to see Dr. Ueno off in the morning and greet him in the evening.

One day, a couple of years later, Dr. Uneo went off to the university as usual, but he died suddenly during the day and never came home.

Hachi, who had no way of knowing about Dr. Ueno's death, went to meet Dr. Ueno as usual and waited there until dark for his friend who never returned. Every day from then on, Hachi went to the station in the evening, and waited.

Even when Hachi was given to one Ueno' relatives in another town, he ran the eight kilometers back to wait for Dr. Ueno every evening. This went on for a year until finally the family gave Hachi to a friend who lived near Dr. Ueno's former residence. Hachi continued his nightly vigil for Dr. Ueno, every day, without fail.

For ten years after Dr. Ueno's death, Hachi waited at the train station for him, every evening, until he died in 1935.

Hachi became something of a celebrity in Japan, and there is even a statue of him at the station. While some people try to come up with mundane reasons for Hachi's behavior, most see him as the epitome of devotion and faithfulness.

Hachi's story also points out how hard it is to accept the mysterious disappearance of a loved one. If Hachi had been allowed to see Dr. Ueno's body, he would have understood what happened. Animals do understand about death, but no one thought to give Hachi the chance to know what happened to his beloved Dr. Ueno.

I wrote a while back about how, when one of our cats dies, we hold a viewing for the benefit of the other cats. I believe this is especially important when the cat didn't die at home. Watching the cats' behavior as they see their departed friend one last time leaves me with no doubt that they understand.

If only Hachi could have been given the chance to understand... When my time comes, I hope that my cats are given the chance.

With the thought that art imitates life, I offer the following video. It's only a cartoon, but it will move you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


So now there is yet another "what exactly it means to be human" book (Almost Chimpanzee) in which author Jon Cohen seeks understanding through focusing on how humans are different from other animals, specifically chimpanzees in this case.

Now you know, if you've read previous things I've written, that I am going to disagree with that approach. The key to understanding is not to focus on what makes us different. People already are utterly convinced that they are different, separate, and as a result somewhat lonely (yes, lonely--why else would they look for extraterrestrial humans?).

But it's when you can begin to see the similarities between all species of life that whole new vistas open up to you. I can tell you that the same spirit enlivens any species. When you understand that each animal has the same basic desires and needs, that all can experience love, then you can feel a kinship with any creature.

There is an interesting idea in the book, though: that "humanness" derives from the fact that human babies, unlike their ape counterparts, can lie flat on their backs, which allows them to gaze into their mothers' eyes.

I'm not sure I get the reasoning behind that statement. Surely ape babies have just as much opportunity to look into their mothers' eyes as human babies. But underlying the statement is the significance of eye contact. And this is indeed a very significant thing.

When Ace Bourke recently posted a picture of Christian, my immediate reaction was, look at his eyes! It's so easy to see the love in them.

Eye contact is essential in understanding any animal. That's why I made the collage at the top of this page--look at the intelligence in those eyes of a dog, cat, owl, and other animals. Use the search box at the right and see how often the subject of "eyes" comes up.

Dolphin advocate Ric O'Barry's life was changed when he looked into the eyes of the dolphin (Kathy) he had trained for the TV series "Flipper" and recognized what he now calls "captive dolphin depression syndrome". It was an epiphany that changed his life, as he realized just how similar dolphins' and humans' psyches are.

Izumi Ishii had a similar epiphany when he looked into a dolphin's eyes. The sudden realization changed his life, from dolphin hunter to dolphin protector.

The phenomenon of truly recognizing a fellow creature through eye contact is not unknown; it even made for a very effective scene in the fictional movie Fierce Creatures. But how often do people give themselves the chance to make contact? And how often are they held back by only seeing what they expect to see, and not seeing what is really there?

The eye of the tiger. Or the dolphin. Or the chimp. The window to the soul.