Thursday, September 26, 2002

Animal of the Month: in love and war

I'm considering making this a regular feature but probably won't. I find animals, like humans, in their anatomy and behavior, to be both beautiful and bizarre, admirable and disgusting, resourceful and lazy, abstemious and libidinous, ascetic and gluttonous, and adorable and frightening. We tend to despise humans possessing the latter traits more than we do animals, because the one thing we don't associate with animals is the ability to choose between them. I have written before of the sentimental attachments people form with their pets, the grief and tears that accompany the creature's demise, while you, the next door neighbor, should you lose your wife, will receive commiseration, an arm around the shoulder, and a "Please tell us if there's anything we can do." They might also bring you a cake or a ham.

At bottom, I suspect we don't like each other very much, and that's why it's important to fight so hard for the veneer of civilization, that we don't become like the furry things we admire so much simply because they can't help themselves. Even though many of our fellow men can make themselves difficult to love, I am one who stands guilty as charged by the animal rightists of the crime of "specieism", or whatever the word is; I'm not sure it's worth learning to spell correctly. I think we're at the top of this ladder of life, that we're worth more, and I find Christ's utterance that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God's notice rather bothersome. He does say that we are worth more than many sparrows, but the fact that he said it at all has led to no end of trouble, such as the errant philosophy of those animal fanatics who combine sentimental anthropomorphism and militarism into one movement. It causes me to look at my next door neighbor with a dog as a potential enemy: how can I know the depth of his attachment? When the dog bites me, whom will he side with? One day an older gentleman walking his dog, a boxer, passed in front of our house. I didn't know the man, but he was a regular. We often nodded and waved to each other. On this evening, as I walked from my car to the front door, the dog lunged at me with that throaty growl they have when they really want a piece of you, practically jerking his owner to the ground. The boxer's teeth missed my leg by a whisker's width. "Goodness!" said the old guy. "I've never seen him do that. You must have startled him." You see, it was my fault for going about my daily routine. I wanted to say something vile, but remained silent. The murderous look I gave his mutt was sufficient. I haven't seen the man lately. A friend of mine, less politic by nature, told me of the time a neighbor lady of his allowed her dog to defecate in his yard even as he stood watching. He went up to her and said, politely, "Ma'am, why are you letting your dog crap in my yard?" "Well," the lady huffed, "he has to go somewhere." "Yeah," my friend said, "but not here. I gotta mow the grass. I don't like stepping in it or getting it on the mower tires. Next time he shits in my yard, I'll kick him in the balls so hard his squeak'll be worse than his bark." Before you judge my friend too harshly, it is important to note he never saw the woman again.

There's another lady who pushes her dog round my neighborhood in a stroller, a baby carriage. She has clothed the poodle's thorax in some kind of garment and on its head sits a floppy, Santa-style hat. The stroller's canopy is always open to protect the pooch from the sun. She just walks on by, never smiling or waving, and I consider her somewhat deranged.

I offer these remarks as evidence that I am not a sentimentalist; but neither am I a scientist. I will never become like Ogden Nash's "The Purist" –

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist.
Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
"You mean," he said, "a crocodile."

Such detachment is beyond my abilities. But every now and then I catch sight of an animal who sits me upright with wonder and admiration. This time it was on an episode of National Geographic called "The Snake Killers of the Kalahari." I had seen this animal before on a Discovery channel program about a year earlier and knew that eventually I would have to write about him. He -or rather she - is the African honey badger. Discovery had followed a female badger on her nightly excursions (they are seldom seen during the day). I watched in amazement as the badger, black underneath with a silvery topcoat, invaded the underground hive of some African killer bees. There's a reason it's called the honey badger; it's got to have the stuff. It slurps the honey and devours the comb, enduring a frightening number of stings in the process. Periodically she exited the nest, snarling and biting at the bees in her coat, but always returning to finish the job. And finish it she did. Her persistence and tolerance for pain were dumbfounding. Later, she climbed a tree to steal a leopard's kill. When the leopard returned and attempted to regain possession, the badger had been joined by several others who helped her send the cat packing. The badger's guttural snarl, though not as deeply timbred as a big cat's, is even more off-putting in its fierceness. When alarmed or in the mood for aggression, the badger's fur stands up, making it appear to be twice its normal size of 2 - 2 1/2 feet in length and a foot high at the shoulder. Our female and her colleagues also drove off a couple of fearsomely jawed hyenas who had followed the carcass's scent. The female eventually returned to her den, or sett, as the naturalists call it, an old termite mound to where, at some point in the show, her powerful scent glands had summoned an eligible bachelor. There followed an elaborate and rather touching courtship involving a great deal of nuzzling, rolling around on the ground, playful wrestling, and eventual consummation. They disappeared into the mound for what the narrator called the "rites of matrimony." There is nothing matrimonial about it. The male, slightly larger in stature, does her and then returns irresponsibly to his bachelor's life. A badger family consists of the female and one, sometimes two, pups. They survive on their own, and quite well at that.

The badger looks like a little bear, as do its cousin badgers and the wolverine of North America and Europe, but is in fact a member of the weasel family, relating it to polecats and skunks. When we call a human a 'weasel' we are not paying a compliment, and this probably ought to change. Another weasel, the ferret, has gained popularity as a pet. It is said that badgers also make good pets if caught before half-grown, but authorities are doubtful due to its habit of rubbing its musky scent glands all over everything and of throwing destructive tantrums when left alone. The badger will eat almost anything: insects, fruits and berries, rodents, and animals many times its own size. It forages with its nose to the ground because it can smell a rabbit or rat in its underground lair. Upon catching the scent, the badger can excavate such a hideout within seconds and make a meal of the contents. He can eat tortoises after cracking the shell with his strong teeth. A ranger in the Kruger National Park came upon a badger attacking a 10 foot python. Stones and dust flew everywhere, but the python eventually succumbed, looking as though it "had been run over by a truck." Horses and cattle are sometimes attacked, especially if they wander by its burrow during breeding season. There is even a record of a Cape buffalo, whose dangerous reputation is known to all, especially lions, being knocked down and killed. There are even reports of badgers engaging a pack of wild dogs and, after a battle of dust-flying, hair-raising, eye-gouging, bear-snarling proportions, trotting away leaving the dogs exhausted and wounded. According to one resource, they must be "the most ferocious animals for their size, if not the most ferocious of all animals" on the planet. They can, however, be prey for others, but only when very young or very old. The cubs are sometimes taken by leopard, lion, hyena or jackal, but these on the whole prefer to leave the adults alone. The more recent National Geographic program showed a leopard going after a toothless, crippled old female. An hour later, the badger hanging from the leopard's jaws, its throat ripped open, the old female was still twitchingly alive. Unlike buffalo and other prey, who will eventually lie down to await death, the badger will not cease struggling, will not "go gently," until the last flame of life has been forcibly extinguished. It seems not to know surrender or fear in any measure, no matter the opponent.

In one astounding scene on this same program, our badger heroine took on a puff adder, a member of the viper family gifted with an insidious camouflage: it accounts for many deaths among people who step on it without ever having seen it. The badger attacks by employing an incessant circling motion, thrusting in and backing off like a fencer, a technique that clearly drives the snake to distraction. It tries to escape, and in the process the badger finally gets a clean shot at the back of the snake's head. Then it's over and she settles down to her meal. It has long been thought that the badger is so bold because its rubbery hide beneath the fur is impervious to snake bite. This may be largely true, but as the camera lingered on the female enjoying her meal, a strange thing happened - her eyes became glassy and her chewing slowed. She appeared drunk. Then she fell over on her side and lay there, her breathing having slowed to an alarming rate. Eventually she had about her all the appearance of death. Our two British guides, a man and a woman wearing Crocodile Hunter clothes and sporting Monty-style hats, just watched. They must have subscribed to the Starship Enterprise non-interference directive. They're always complaining about man's encroachment being the cause of these animals' diminishing numbers, but when it comes to actually saving one, they just sit there, lauding the moment as another opportunity for science. Our guides could see that the badger had been bitten, not on its hide, but on the side of its face, which was noticeably swollen. I suppose we should be glad that they had chosen to merely observe because, two hours later, the badger began to stir itself to life. It lifted its head, cleared its eyes, and resumed its meal, devouring the adder to the last remnant. She possessed some level of immunity to the snake's venom. Was there no limit to the gifts God had given this creature? In another segment she climbed to the top, into the highest, thinnest branches, of a thorny acacia tree where she corralled a fleeing cobra. A very large cobra. She dragged it to the savanna floor where she finished it off.

But we all have our limits. As I mentioned before, the badger loves honey with a gluttonous passion. It has an interesting relationship with a bird called the honey-guide. This bird will find the hive and then tell the badger where it is by singing. In this particular scene the female goes after a killer bee hive in the hollowed out trunk of a large tree. The bees' stinging attack is, as you can imagine, extremely intense. But she goes in snarling and comes out the same way. She bites the bees on her, realizes the futility of it, and returns to the attack. In this case she was successful, consuming both honey and comb, or most of it, leaving the leftovers, including dead bees deprived of their sting, to the honey-guide. I am sorry to say, however, that the recently dead bodies and long-dead skeletal remains of badgers have been found within the shelter of a killer bee hive.

Shadowing our female throughout most of the program was her male pup nicknamed "Little Man." He was as cute as you might expect, but I'm also sorry to report that, while his mother was out hunting, he was mauled and killed by a boar, a male badger. He was not eaten, but this sometimes happens. Cannabalism and destruction of one's own kind is not limited to humans and is in fact widespread throughout the animal kingdom.

The badger is also considered one of the cleanest of animals. It frequently changes the bedding in its sett. No, it does not sleep in the dirt, but rather drags in leaves and shrubs. Further, it does not defecate within its living quarters, instead digging a latrine perhaps some twenty yards from the sett itself. This animal has even contributed to the English language. The term "to badger" is derived from a charming old British custom of trapping a badger in an artificial hole, such as a barrel, and then setting dogs upon him. Eventually the badger was dragged out and subjected to further harassment. Given his will to fight, I'm sure it was a very prolonged and torturous event, allowing much pleasure to its human instigators.

In his book "The Problem of Pain," C.S. Lewis even has a chapter on animal pain in which, starting from the premise that the animal world may have already been corrupted by Satan before the advent of man, resulting in the incessant viciousness which so distresses us, he makes a hypothetical case (entirely hypothetical, he admits) for some sense of the immortality of sentient creatures, for their possible ascent to an afterlife where we might still enjoy their company. Something about animals finding their true personalities in their relationship with man, much as we find ours "in" our relation to Christ. It was a bit too mystical for me, requiring too much blurring of the boundary between nature and supernature, and yet just mystical enough to make you wonder if it could not be true. Frankly, I had trouble taking it seriously and considered that, if widely disseminated, which it is, it would only add to the sentimental mischief. But I must confess that, were it my regrettable destiny to be ultimately cast into the outer darkness, I could do worse than to go into that night accompanied by the spirit of this fearless, indomitable little warrior who appparently knoweth not the difference between good and evil. I think he just might recognize Satan for what he is, and I doubt the old devil would stand a chance.


Bernadette said...

I think C.S. Lewis is on to something... :)

William Luse said...

Let's hope so.