Animals make us more human and deserve our respect

Here since 1996, I finally get around to going to the Las Vegas zoo. Its official, studly name is Southern Nevada Zoological and Botanical Park. Actually, Joseph and I go, which is cool because zoo experiences are always enhanced by attending with a 6-year-old.

Within minutes, my young lad is surrounded by pigeons, chickens, peacocks and sparrows. The birds peck at his socks, knees and hands clenched around the paper cup of birdseed. He tosses handfuls of birdseed while nervously backing away, but to no avail. Gasoline on a fire. News travels fast in the bird world. My son is trapped in an Alfred Hitchcock satire.

Joseph settles the matter by tossing the cup into the fray like a fleeing felon ditching contraband or stolen money and bolts for the safety of his father's arms.

The Las Vegas zoo is cool. Of course, it's not San Diego or St. Louis. But, relative to its size and history, I'm grateful to the people whose vision and dollars make this place happen.

I'm sorry animals have to be in zoos. But I support zoos because I think zoos can make us more human. Because animals can make us more human.

Aboriginal peoples are correct. Animals carry "totem energy." Fauna does not merely exist; the beasts of the earth bear vital symbols for us. They carry and reflect the great archetypes of human identity. They enrich and deepen our understanding of ourselves. In right relationship with creatures, we find meaning and make meaning.

Animals come to us in dreams. Animals are Big Medicine. Some bigger than others. I can't explain why a timber wolf carries "bigger medicine" than a garden slug, I just know that it does.

When our relationship with animals is alienated, we are alienated. From ourselves. When we are hostile, cruel and exploitative of animals, we injure ourselves.

I take pride in being nonjudgmental. But I'll never get men who, when they see something as magnificent as a Mohave rattlesnake, think it's some kind of masculine duty to kill it. Just 'cuz. Because they can. Look, here's a dead rattlesnake. I killed it. Wheeee.

Hey, let's get in my Jeep or my airplane and go kill some coyotes. Or kangaroos. Or whatever moves and therefore deserves to die. 'Cuz that's fun.

Such things evidence a disturbingly savage part of the masculine. And it's stupid and cowardly. It's ungrateful, arrogant and small.

Don't misunderstand. I don't believe a defensible argument can be made that hunting, killing and eating animal flesh is, in itself, immoral. We primates are omnivorous. I made Thai chicken last night, and it was yummy. I bought my eldest boy an NFL football for Christmas, which before it was a football, it was a cow.

But cruelty and exploitation are other matters entirely. Animals do need advocates, and I respect anyone whose mission is to remind us we share this planet with the finned, feathered and four-legged. And, because there are those people who simply won't be reminded, we need people willing to protect the animals and, when necessary, to bring to justice folks whose wanton disregard cannot be tolerated.

In the Hebrew creation myth, God gives us "dominion" over the animals. But the word means something more akin to stewardship. It is the darkness in us that distorts God's call for dominion into the blind arrogance of domination.

There is a small plaque riveted to a cage on a walking path at the Las Vegas zoo:

"When the last individual of another living species breathes no more, another heaven and earth must pass before such a one can be again." -- William Beebe, 1877-1962, New York Zoological Society.

I read it. I breathe it in. How can we not see that a world without tigers is an impoverished world? How can we not see that driving a species to extinction is not merely illogical, not merely a breathtaking hubris, but an incomprehensible loss of what it means to be human?

Roy, Jeff, Paul and I float around Mission Bay in San Diego. Just for the hell of it, I'd thrown a frozen squid on a hook and dropped it in the water. Suddenly the line spins out with a hiss. Four men gathered around the line. It takes 20 minutes before a huge stingray breaks the surface.

The creature is magnificent. He is beautiful. He is perfect. We let him go, and we watch awed and silent as he glides back into the deep.

All four men are changed by this encounter with a stingray. And changed for the better. And I can't exactly tell you how or why.

Originally published in View News, Oct. 21, 2008.