Reverence, fear, disgust, delight—these are just some of the responses that spontaneously, and uncontrollably, arise in me upon contact with different individuals of various animal species. How I feel morally and intellectually about a particular individual, a select species, or even that vague abstraction that somehow refers to all nonhuman animals in a simple, all encompassing term—animals—often differs from my somatic and emotional response in a concrete situation. I do not have a universal relationship to the multitude of species we humans call “animals,” because there is nothing universal about this homogenized Other, except that we name them so. Or is there?
My relationship with animals began at birth, the moment I became a separate animal being from the body of my mother. I cannot say that relationship began at conception, because until I actually passed through the birth canal my mother and I were one animal organism. But relationship begins with duality, and as I gazed back on the being who birthed me my first relationship formed. But my first relationship with an animal outside of my own species? I cannot name the first nonhuman animal I encountered, because it was earlier than my first memory. Perhaps it was a deer, or a bird, as we lived in a redwood canyon on the Big Sur coast. I do know the first species to have a major impact on me though, and their presence has remained a constant throughout my life: Felis catus, the house cat.
Since I was a young child I seemed to be a magnet for cats. If I entered someone’s home and a cat was present, she or he would usually find me. If the cat happened to be shy, I usually would find her instead. I would delight in their softness, their playfulness, the mature dignity and kittenish adolescence constantly co-present in one, small, furry body. Cats and I have always seemed to have an understanding, an easy, almost telepathic communication. There is no hierarchy, we both seem to feel like we are equals. To the surprise of several people I know, cats will almost always come when I call them by name. And of course, I too come when I, by them, am called.
Perhaps as a karmic twist to this lifelong species bond, I have never really had a cat of my own. Perhaps I am not able to “own” a cat, and therein the problem arises. Twice I tried to be the companion species to a cat, but both times ended in tragedy. My first kitten I was forced to return to the animal shelter because of the unfortunate allergic reaction of a family member. My mother and I called constantly for days until we heard he had been given another home. I never forgot him, and often still wonder where he made his new abode. This was now twenty years ago. My other cat, who I brought home in high school, lived two delightful years in my house before dying of an unexpected blood clotting condition. He died, ironically, of an oversized heart.
The cats that came into my life were not mine to own, but rather visitors that came through as a reminder of the human ability to communicate with other species, if only we humble ourselves to try. My most recent feline engagement has been with a large, champagne-colored tomcat with crystal blue eyes by the name of Shasta. My first evening, just two months ago, after moving into my new house in the Sunset district of San Francisco I saw Shasta’s pale and eager face peering in the study window from the garden. I sat on the doorstep and we exchanged pleasantries. Now Shasta returns every day, often three times a day or more, for a chat, some affection, and a little play. The relationship is purely social, and because we do not feed Shasta there is no hierarchy or relation of dependence between us.
But what of other nonhuman animal species besides Felis catus? The cat is a species I am rather biased in favor of, and if I am honest I must admit that I feel far less of a desire for intimate communion with most other domesticated species. At ages eighteen and nineteen I lived on a biodynamic farm where I was given the task of caring for—feeding, watering, herding, milking, and shearing—the cows, sheep, chickens, and horses resident there. Although excited for this chance at connection and even education, I found I did not have the same high rapport with the particular members of these species as I did with Felis. Some individuals I connected with more than others, as would be expected, but I never felt I could communicate as well as I would like. I often felt clumsy and awkward with these animals, unable to fully grasp what was needed of me, or maybe even what it was I was asking of them. Perhaps it was the inherent hierarchy already established, before I ever set foot on the farm, between the human species and these nonhuman individuals, that got our relationship off to this uncomfortable start. As much as I wish not to admit it, I have at times even found myself to be disgusted by these particular domestic species, finding their pungent smell and unclean fur and feathers to be repulsive. This is not something I admire in myself, and I must ask myself why this unwelcome reaction arises within me.
A domesticated farm animal is brought into the human realm, but not usually welcomed in as a member of the family—of course, blessedly, there are exceptions. The odd juxtaposition of a nonhuman animal, with its instincts and biological necessities, with the human realm within which it is contained but can neither influence nor alter, indeed makes for an uncomfortable situation. Long removed from even a memory of native habitat, these domesticated nonhumans live in much closer proximity to the full cycle of their biology than any wild animal or domesticated human is almost ever expected to do. Eating, shitting, sleeping, mating, birthing, all take place within a much smaller habitat than these animals’ wild ancestors once enjoyed. Is my own felt disgust not of, but rather on behalf of these domesticated beings? What, rather, is it in the human condition that I find disgusting when such an encounter is taking place? Does my disgust really have anything to do with the cow who stands before me, or is it a disgust with my own species, a disgust even with myself, with my own animal body whose biological necessities I would rather not own or acknowledge?
Over the course of my life, my relationship with wild animals has been radically different than with domesticated animals. The inherent otherness, the mystery created by distance and a sense of freedom, all give to my encounters with wild animals—from deer to snakes, mountain lions to hawks, butterflies to owls—a mixture of reverence and fear. This response, like that to the domesticated farm animals, seems to arise out of a pre-given intuition of hierarchy. The wonder I feel at the glimpse of an animal whose presence is fleeting seems to inform me that I am not an equal to this being. Indeed, in my human ordinariness I am not at the pinnacle of any hierarchy. Perhaps this is the reason that animals are able to become religious and spiritual symbols for the human species: they are beings that live outside the realm of common day. They can run from us, hide, attack, or ignore. They do not come when called because we have never been told their names.
But what of the miracle, the delight, when one of these beings does respond to our attempts at communication? It is as though a god has peered back at you, as though you could speak a language you did not know already resided in your heart, in your blood, in the beating rhythm of your consciousness. When a deer takes a step toward you rather than away, when a hawk looks you straight in the eye, a butterfly comes to a quiet rest in your palm, or an owl clings to the ledge of your kitchen window while beating his wings against the glass as though he has an urgent message only you can hear, somehow the distance between human and animal has been bridged. Remember me, their voices seem to say. Remember yourself. We both come from each other.