Universal Notebook: The arrogance of the human animal

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Just about the first thing you read when you open the Bible is that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” If by “dominion” we mean the power to capture and kill animals, it’s probably true. But if we mean the power to control them, I’m afraid that’s just anthropocentric arrogance.

A poor trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando found this out the hard way last month when a killer whale she was putting through its paces suddenly grabbed her by the ponytail and pulled her under to a watery death. An orca’s revenge? I don’t think so. An angry killer whale could easily have dismembered and devoured the woman, perhaps swallowed her whole, Jonah-like. It’s always a mistake to project human motives and emotions onto wild creatures, but I’m pretty sure that whale was just playing with his trainer. You opt to mess with wild animals and sooner or later you’re going to end up as a toy or a meal.

Arrogance is really the only explanation I can think of to explain people such as Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man, who seemed to believe he was protecting bears by living among them. He got himself and his girlfriend eaten for his trouble. And then there’s Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, stabbed to death by a stingray he was bothering, Roy Horn, of Siegfried & Roy, mauled by a white tiger he was “taming,” and the Connecticut woman whose “pet” chimpanzee savagely attacked another woman.

I prefer a good nature documentary to a network sitcom any day, but it does occur to me as I watch them that just about every alligator, elephant, polar bear, rhino and shark in creation must have been pestered by a film crew by now. That’s why, back in 1997, environmental activist Bill McKibben called for a voluntary moratorium on wildlife photography. Enough already. Leave the animals alone, McKibben argued. We’ve got all the pictures of wild animals we’ll ever need. To which I can only add my environmental purist mantra – the best thing you can do for the wild is to stay the hell out of it.

We de-natured humans seem to have a horrid fascination with violence. Otherwise how to explain television channels filled with cage fighting, car chases and animal attacks? Sooner or later, I have a sick feeling that video of the SeaWorld trainer being playfully drowned will surface on some reality cable show.

I may be projecting again, but I tend to think that Tillikum, the whale implicated now in three deaths, was just having a wild moment in captivity. In “The Panther,” one of my favorite poems, Rainer Maria Rilke describes such a moment, a great cat caged in a Paris zoo “weary,” “dazed” and “stunned” by days of endless pacing behind bars.

But there are times the pupils of his eyes

Dilate, the strong limbs stand alert, apart,

Tense with the flood of visions that arise

Only to sink and die within his heart.

Unfortunately, in the SeaWorld incident, it was the captor who sank and died. A wild animal does not belong in a cage any more than a human being does. If you hold another being captive, don’t be surprised if one day it turns on you.

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.