Animal Teachers:
When depth is on the surface

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

Emir Kusturica's amazing film Underground is about the 50 years of war that have plagued the former Yugoslavia. It opens with one of the most harrowing glimpses of war I've ever seen in a film. Instead of the usual human carnage, it shows a zoo being bombed.

It is a surreal collage. A wounded tiger is assaulted by a goose that he destroys in an annoyed gesture. An elephant steals a man's shoes from their place on a window ledge. (The man insults the elephant by calling him a "big horse.") A young, terrified chimpanzee, clings to the zookeeper, watching his bloodied mother die. The zookeeper shuts the dead monkey's eyes tenderly.

The rest of the movie is a bizarrely slapstick parable of that nation's sad history. It slowly collects pathos until its Marx Brothers-like images are overtaken by unforgettable glimpses of absurd human death. The story of the orphaned chimp and the zookeeper is integral, often rising from the status of subplot to precipitate major turns in the story.

How is it that a chimpanzee successfully carries such significance in a film about the depth of human cruelty and suffering?

Of course, it is because the monkey is so like us and at once not like us. We have become inured to depiction of the suffering war causes human beings. Seeing another being, an animal, suffering reminds us in a vivid way of the cruelty and suffering we experience in our human but very animal hearts.

I have been thinking a lot about the psychological value of animals to human beings lately. Partly, it's because I live a few blocks from Zoo Atlanta. Sometimes I take clients to the zoo and ask them just to pick an animal and pay attention to it, to describe to me every detail of its appearance and behavior, as if I were blind.

As they articulate the details of the animal, they are inevitably shocked to find themselves in the presence of another being -- a kind of being for whom everything is on the surface. That's the thing about animals, as James Hillman notes: All their depth is right on the surface in the way they display themselves. But they are also very shy and tend to hide themselves. In that, they are very much like the parts of ourselves we don't accept. Our "complexes" are always out front despite our efforts to hide them. When we start playing with them, treating them with some respect, they begin to behave differently

I think all animals remind us of the unseen beauty that is waiting to erupt in our lives if we give it sufficient invitation and patience.

A month or so ago, I had the idea to place a bird feeder in the narrow strip of wooded area outside my library window. My computer faces the window and I thought it would be interesting to watch the birds when I tired of writing. It will be no shock to veterans of this practice, but I was outraged that the feeder was immediately overtaken by squirrels. For hours every day, while the birds sat on a fence and watched forlornly, the squirrels engorged themselves at the feeder. Two- Porky and Petunia, as I named them - became acrobats, hanging upside down, even swatting at blue jays that dive-bombed them. My cat Mr. Mew sat on my library table, often with a paw on the window, his claws fully exposed in the apparent hope that a creature would magically come through the window into his grasp.

In the very brief interludes when Porky and Petunia were too sated to eat more, the feeder attracted gorgeous cardinals, blue jays, and the mother from a nearby nest of brown thrashers.

I returned to the store where I bought the feeder. Unless I could set the feeder in the middle of a space about the size of a football field and put shields on the top and bottom, I was stuck with the squirrels, I was told. An alternative was to buy, for nearly $100, a special "squirrel-proof" mechanical feeder. When the squirrels put their weight on the perch, the feeder closes. Cool!

I installed the new feeder and, indeed, Porky and Petunia went mad with frustration. They repeatedly tried to break into the feeder, repeatedly losing their balance and repeatedly falling to the ground. "Strike!" I'd scream, leaping from my chair, with every failure.

I'm sure you can guess what happened. I looked up two days later and saw one of the squirrels eerily wapped about the feeder. With one paw, he was bouncing the perch up and down and, as it went up, he'd insert a foot and grab a seed or throw some to the ground.

I was reminded I could adjust the feeder, making it even more sensitive. I did. In fact, the squirrels seemed quite discouraged. But the adjustment made it hard for large birds, like the blue jays, to feed. I tinkered some more and got it to a position that the squirrels had to work very hard to get a single seed. The birds began to spend more time than the squirrels at the feeder.

Then, one day, last week as I was writing, I looked up and saw what I thought was a very large cat lumbering about the base of the feeder. It turned, reared back on its hind legs and stared directly into the window. It was a huge raccoon. While the squirrels watched from nearby branches, the raccoon climbed onto the fence, stood up, stretched over to the bird feeder and, putting a paw in just the right position, began feasting. I banged on the window. He hopped down, came closer and astonished me by stretching over to the window for a close look at me. We do this daily now. Moreover, the birds now often fly over to the burglar bars on the window and tap on the glass. One of the squirrels does the same thing.

I'm sure the irony is clear to you. I, not them, am behind bars. They are coming to the window to look at me as much as I watch them. This reversal astonishes me! Of course, I have given up the battle against the squirrels. I figure if I banish the raccoon, a skunk will appear. Perhaps an elephant will escape the zoo and take to stealing sunflower seeds from me and then put his trunk through my window!

The world really does call our animal hearts to engagement at all times.

Do yourself a favor. Join Zoo Atlanta (404-624-5600) or the Atlanta Humane Society (404-875-5331). At the least, install a bird feeder. Canine Showcase and Wild Bird at Ansley Mall (404-875-0611) has the best selection in town.

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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