Saturday, January 15, 2011

Born Free?

Last night, PBS aired "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story," an interesting documentary on the real lives of Joy and George Adamson and their work with African predator cats. A comment struck me, that before the Adamsons, no one viewed wild animals as having personalities and being individualistic in their natures (paraphrased). One of their greatest achievements was demonstrating that humans and wild animals can connect with one another, and can love one another, thus giving validity to universal worth of life.

Yes and no. 

Yes, all mammals should be appreciated and treated with respect. Yes, animals are incredibly complex and (like humans) can often be trained with love, calmed with music, manipulated with kindness, especially from infancy. Yes, we can feel intense love, awe, protectiveness, and loss in regard to our relationship with animals, whether they be our old tabby house cat or a wild leopard.

Both the documentary and the movie Born Free evoke intense jealousy in me, as I watch the Adamsons and the actors interact with the big cats, playing, petting, and tussling with them. I believe the film was so popular because we all dream of having that intimate relationship with a huge and powerful kitten; once that fantasy has been fueled, then we can transfer our affection to caring for cats in the wild, even if we are not the ones that actually get to do it. Nothing wrong with that at all. We must always personally identify with something or someone to truly desire to help; compassion and empathy require some level of love.

But no, perfect harmony between humans and wild animals does not currently exist, partly due to their (and our) natures. Humans' survival instinct is usually manifested through power, whether it be war, violence, competition, or merely a snide remark. Wild animals' survival instinct is almost always manifested through violence, specifically killing and eating. Yes, there are wild animals that survive as herbivores and some that are like us humans and are omnivores, but the ones that fascinate us are the carnivores. We are enthralled by their apparent indiscriminate ability to kill at will. Watching "Wild Kingdom" as a kid was always much more exciting when Jim fought to stay alive while Marlin Perkins calmly described the attack. National Geographic's nature shows always made us cringe when we saw the cheetah attack the young wildebeest, pulling it down. But we never changed the channel. We humans consider ourselves civilized, so our killing is either justified or condemned, but never neutral.

The documentary told what the movie did and could not. A later lion George attempted to rehabilitate to the wild attacked a child and later killed a man, requiring the lion to be put down.

My trip to Kenya affected me more than I can yet comprehend. It was the closest to both heaven and hell that I've ever encountered traveling. I stood (in a Range Rover) not 15 feet from 5 lionesses and their 10 cubs, lounging under the sun, grooming and playing with each other. Pure beauty, love, trust and happiness in the moment. 
I saw grown lions walking calmly by elephants, neither bothered by the other. I saw giraffe mothers watching their young playing amongst zebra. 
Yet, I also witnessed crocodiles tearing down wildebeest as they crossed a river, terrified, struggling to get away with broken legs, bleeding while others crushed by. 
I literally cried when I watched a hungry baboon eating a baby gazelle alive, with absolutely no compunction whatsoever, totally unmoved by its death cries. 
We were not created to be enemies toward each other, yet due to our own actions and choices, the world suffers. Enmity between man and snakes, the concept of eating meat, the fear between men and animals, have all been the result of our own selfishness. But, one day, harmony will truly exist again.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear, 
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the ole of the cobra, 
and the young child put his hand into the viper's next.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9

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