On New Year’s Eve, in small towns throughout Kentucky and Louisiana, people celebrate as they always do by setting off fireworks. The eruption of noise and light startles flocks of blackbirds, which rise up into the tumult and quickly become disoriented. While the people below dance and sing and embrace, the birds, mostly unseen in the darkness, fly into electrical wires, water towers, and the sides of buildings, while others turn on one another in the frenzy, or are attacked by other, larger birds of prey. The fireworks go on longer than usual this year, as a need has been felt for a more than usually grand spectacle of hope and renewal, and so the avian panic does not dissipate quickly but spreads to other flocks and other species of birds, up and down the countryside.
The next morning hundreds of birds are found dead in the meadows and on the highways and streets. Still more continue to fall lifeless from the skies during the day in exhaustion. People in the area, not knowing the cause, are baffled and disturbed. Many are convinced it is an omen, or at least a sign, though of what exactly, none can agree.
From Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert, by Frances Gordon Alexander, 1912
“The Bedouin came originally from Arabia. Now he is a wanderer in the great Sahara, Libyan, Syrian, and Arabian deserts. A tribe will number from 3000 to 100,000 people, all owning camels, sheep, and goats. When it moves, the tribe sweeps over great tracts of country, forcing before it wolves, jackals, gazelles, and all the wild creature of the desert. The approach of these animals will often warn a tribe that another is advancing . . . .”
In our time very few Bedouin still follow their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Most of the animals are gone, too.
For the animal, happiness consists in enjoying life in the immediate present —not in the assurance that there is a whole future of joys ahead of him.
They can tell me the attack is in the past, but it isn’t.
—Patricia Van Tighem
The woman is on a Sunday afternoon hike with her husband, near the town of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies, when without warning two grizzlies suddenly burst out of the thick undergrowth in front of them.
During the attack there is scarcely time for fear, and no pain, as if this is happening to someone else and she is merely there to witness it, more spectator than participant. One detail alone remains alive in her, a sensation lasting only a moment, but even now, many years after the bears broke off their attack and disappeared back into the bush, leaving the woman and her husband clawed and bruised but alive, it is a moment that has never quite ended.
As she falls to the ground with the great mass of the bear on top of her, she reaches up to ward off the onslaught of claws and teeth and her outstretched hands sink deep into the grizzly’s fur. It is the softest, most beautiful thing she has ever felt in her life.
Israel and Palestine Share a Rapidly Disappearing Gazelle
—headline from Scientific American Online, September 11, 2015
We are the animals who talk the fables
in which the animals talk. We are talking
animals, claiming that animals don’t talk.
In her biography of her husband Richard Burton, the famous Victorian explorer and translator of The Arabian Nights, Isabel Burton mentions an incident that occurred early in Burton’s career, while he was stationed as an officer of the British East India Company in northern India:
“ . . . he at one time got rather tired of the daily Mess, and living with men, and he thought he should like to learn the manners, customs, and habits of monkeys, so he collected forty monkeys of all kinds of ages, races, species, and he lived with them, and he used to call them by different offices. He had his doctor, his chaplain, his secretary, his aide-de-camp, his agent, and one tiny one, a very pretty, small, silky-looking monkey, he used to call his wife, and put pearls in her ears. His great amusement was to keep a kind of refectory for them, where they sat down on chairs at meals, and the servants waited on them, and each had its bowl and plate, with the food and drinks proper for them. He sat at the head of the table, and the pretty little monkey sat by him in a high baby’s chair, with a little bar before it. He had a little whip on the table, with which he used to keep them in order when they had bad manners, which did sometimes occur, as they frequently used to get jealous of the little monkey, and try to claw her. He did this for the sake of doing what Mr. Garner is now doing, that of ascertaining and studying the language of monkeys, so that he used regularly to talk to them, and pronounce their sounds afterwards, til he and the monkeys at last got quite to understand each other. He obtained as many as sixty words, I think twenty more than Mr. Garner—that is, leading words, and he wrote them down and formed a vocabulary, meaning to pursue his studies at some future time. Mr. Garner has now the advantage of phonographs, and all sorts of appliances. Had Richard been alive, he could have helped him greatly. Unfortunately his monkey vocabulary was burnt in Grindlay’s warehouse fire, where his papers were in storage.”
—from The Life of Captain Richard F Burton, by Isabel Burton, 1893
Above the Falls
The elephant has the following attribute: when he falls down he is unable to rise again.
—from the anonymous bestiary Physiologus, 3rd century AD
in falling he seemed for a moment to rise
— George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
Someone shouts, There’s an elephant in the river!
Tourists lounging sleepily on the hotel terrace after a dinner of sizzling kudu or wild boar cutlets leap out of their chairs with newfound energy. They hurry in a crowd across the sloping, well-manicured lawn to the shore, some still carrying their sundowner cocktails.
And there it is. The elephant is struggling to find a safe passage across the rushing Zambezi, only a few hundred yards above the cloud and thunder of Victoria Falls, the greatest cataract in Africa.
The elephant is attempting to cross from Zimbabwe to Zambia, the river marking the border here between the two countries. Its goal is most likely to elude poachers that have increased in number during the last few years of social breakdown and economic hardship (gunshots from the Zimbabwean side are a common sound here lately, one of the few noises that can rise above the ever-present roar of the falls). Two smaller, younger elephants wait on the shore for the older, more experienced elephant to find safe passage. This is an immemorial elephant fording place, but the river is higher and the current stronger than it has been in years. And on the Zambian side a brand-new five-star hotel has been built on a formerly much-traveled wildlife corridor, so that animals seeking to cross are forced to try less familiar, more risky channels.
While guests, staff, and wildlife officers gather on the hotel grounds to watch, the elephant struggles, flounders, finds a secure foothold and loses it again, gets swept into the current and battles his way back from the brink. People take pictures, shout encouragement, weep, angrily declare that someone has to do something. Whenever it can clear water from its trunk, the elephant calls to its fellows waiting on the shore, a shrill, exhausted bellow, more a scream, that they answer with their own cries. He may be warning them to keep out of the river. Or letting them know he’s still here, that he hasn’t given up yet. No one knows for sure.
The elephant makes it as far as the last rocky islet before the Zambian shore, and plunges into the final channel that will bring it to safety. But the long struggle has taken too great a toll. The elephant has no strength left to fight the current. While the onlookers watch in horror it is swept helplessly over the main part of the falls, plunging four hundred feet into the churning chaos known as the Boiling Pot.
Days later the elephant’s carcass is found downstream, washed up on the Zimbabwean side and stripped of its ivory tusks.
If I were a pig I would opt for gas.
A transport truck carrying pigs was involved in an accident while on the way to a pork processing plant in Burlington, Ontario. The crash occurred close enough to the entrance of the plant that employees were quickly on hand to help bring the surviving animals safely out of the wreckage. Of the 180 pigs in the truck, 138 were rescued terrified but unharmed. They were then herded into the plant for slaughter.
There are no reports that the brief disruption to the processing schedule of this one plant caused any significant delay in the arrival of bacon on breakfasters’ plates.
The meme was first expressed on May 28th, 2016, and demonstrated a remarkable evolution in only a few short weeks, mutating into new and surprising forms that few if any observers could have predicted. In the final months of the year the meme’s proliferation and dispersal slowed considerably, as other sensational events captured the internet’s fleeting attention, but experts predict Harambe may go on replicating itself virtually forever.
After the gorilla was shot, zookeepers hurried to the body, made an incision in the scrotum, and extracted sperm that is now being preserved in a “frozen zoo.”
There’s a future, the zoo’s director declared in a press conference. It’s not the end of his gene pool.
The killer strikes most often in the early evening. It waits at the edge of small villages, in the shadows and tall grass, for children. They come to play, or to relieve themselves, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. When there is more than one child, the killer will usually target the youngest and smallest. Bursting out of its concealment it snatches the child in its jaws, then bounds away into the dark. Sometimes clothing, a limb, a head, is later found. Sometimes nothing at all.
From 1996 to 1997 the central Uttar Pradesh region of northern India is terrorized by a series of wolf attacks. In one year more than seventy children are killed or injured.
Because there is never more than one attack on a single day, and the same village is never attacked twice, conservationists surmise that the attacks have to be the work of a single wolf pack roaming from village to village in this small, densely populated region, carefully avoiding places where they have already hunted human prey. There are estimated to be fewer than two thousand Indian gray wolves (Canis indica), giving the species an endangered status comparable to that of the Bengal tiger. Nowhere else in the world do wolves and such numbers of people coexist in close proximity. This may have disrupted the natural instinct of these wolves to avoid human beings and caused them to begin stalking humans for food.
In the face of such selective, widespread, persistent terror, not everyone believes the killer to be a mere animal in search of a meal. When a boy named Anand is taken near the village of Banbirpur, his ten-year-old sister Sita Devi witnesses the event and later tells her story. She describes how the wolf came slinking through the tall grass on all fours, but then, when it had pounced on her little brother, it rose up on two legs like a man. It threw Anand over its shoulder and ran away, the girl tells her fellow villagers through her tears. It was wearing a black coat, and a helmet and goggles.
Eyewitness accounts like Sita Devi’s fuel fears that the attacks are the work of werewolves, a belief passed down through millennia in tales about such creatures. Others dismiss this as folklore and argue instead that the attackers must be men disguised in wolf pelts, most likely “infiltrators” from Pakistan, India’s hated enemy.
Now that they have gone it is their endurance we miss.
In 1934 a female black panther escapes from the Zürich Tiergarten and survives through two months of a Swiss winter, before being shot for food by an itinerant laborer in the mountains near Saint Gallen.
The animal’s escape and disappearance quickly become sensational news. During the time the panther is at large, the authorities receive hundreds of reports from people claiming to have glimpsed the fugitive, some from the most far-flung corners of the country and beyond. There is never a confirmed sighting. Suspicious tracks in the snow always turn out to be those of dogs.
A certain religious sect asserts that the panther is demonic and should be exorcized by a pastor from their church. A clairvoyant from Paris travels to Zürich and offers her help to the searchers, claiming she’s had a vision of the panther hiding in a cave of ice high up on a glacier. The clairvoyant is politely asked to return home.
The panther survives by way of her instinctual stealth and her learned distrust of human beings. She hunts mice, voles, and hares in the snow-mantled forest, as far from human habitation as possible, and makes herself a den under the roots of an ancient stone pine, from which she emerges only when hunger drives her.
One evening the panther comes upon two ravens perched on a dead fir tree, croaking softly to each other. The panther knows from previous experience that where there are scavengers like ravens, there are likely to be people. Her time in captivity has does nothing to lessen her innate distrust of humans, but where they are there is always food.
A squirrel in a nearby tree is chattering at the ravens, scolding them or perhaps even mocking their harsh voices. The birds are doing their best to ignore the squirrel and carry on their own conversation. The panther has come upon the scene from a direction that conceals her presence from the other animals. She is famished, having had no luck catching anything to eat for three days.
The squirrel suddenly darts part of the way down the tree’s trunk and freezes there, watching the ravens to see what they will do. The squirrel’s perch is now close enough to the ground that the panther might possibly reach it with a quick pounce. She steals up on her prey from behind, but the ravens see her. They halt their banter at the unaccountable sight of this strange creature, and the squirrel senses danger. In an instant it has scurried back to the safety of the treetop.
The panther leaves the ravens squawking about this unexpected turn of events and prowls on, further down the mountain, finding her way at last to a small graveyard ringed by trees. Hunkered in the concealment of a thorn bush at the edge of the burial ground she can smell dead human. Eating things she has not killed herself is not in her nature, but surviving is. Still, she must be careful. She remembers how the humans first caught her. How they had a thing made of wrong-smelling vines that fell on her so that she couldn’t get away. She has been boxed up, shackled, whipped. She will not move until she is certain there is no hidden danger here.
The panther waits. Humans come. There are many of them, some carrying a thing made of pieces of tree. They carry the thing to a hole in the ground. They set it down. One of them utters that strange flat barking that only humans make. Some make other noises, like the cries and whimpers the panther heard from other caged creatures around her in the place the humans kept her before she escaped.
After a short time most of the humans leave. Two stay behind and cover the hole with earth. Then they leave, too.
The panther waits until it is well past dark and then she pads silently into the burial ground. She reaches the fresh grave and slowly, with many pauses to listen, digs away the loose soil. She claws and bites at the flimsy thing made of wood and two of its pieces move apart and now she can get at what’s inside. The panther hauls it out and drags it to her hiding place to eat. The dead human is small. It was weak and sickly, the panther knows when she tastes its flesh, which is dry and joyless fare. But it will sustain her.
Later a fall of large wet snowflakes patter softly on the bare branches, on the panther’s fur, on the damp earth. The panther has rested after her meal, and now, in the grey light just before morning, she moves on.
Here she is now, a dark shape against the snow. We can only glimpse her from our thicket of language, at the edge of a great silence. If we come any closer she slips away, disappearing into the white page.
1558: Aboard the ship bringing French explorer Jean de Léry home from Brazil, the “Land of Parrots”, an eerie silence prevails. All through the voyage the crowded decks have resounded with the calls, grunts, hoots, and seasick whimpers of the exotic New World animals de Léry has collected and that he hopes to present as gifts to noble patrons upon his return. But the ship has run into punishing storms and strayed into unknown waters, and with food running out and starvation looming, the crew turns at last to de Léry’s menagerie for salvation. One after another into the cooking pot go monkeys, lizards, birds, and other creatures with no names as yet in the tongues of civilized men.
The explorer manages to keep his most cherished specimen alive and hidden from the crew for several days, but at last he is forced to surrender a magnificently-plumed parrot, as big as a goose, that “uttered words freely like a man.”
Giddy with hunger, de Léry imagines Noah and his family on the ark, out of provisions and deciding which of the animals will be sacrificed to save the last remnant of humanity. The ones they chose struck forever from the roll of God’s creation. The guoto. The malabee. The speckled orotain.
Five days later the lookout sights land. The decks resound again as the men cry to the heavens in thanks for their deliverance.
Some words for animals in languages that no longer have native speakers:
fish, Ubykh: psa
fox, Woccon: Tauh-he
mouse, Thracian: argilos
worm, Anglo-Norman: achée
turtle, Kansa: ke
cattle, Norn: kye
hummingbird, Taino: colibri
wolf, Old English: wulf
lion, Vaal-Orange: !hoeti
buffalo, Chinook: moos-moos
horse, Phoenician: ss
dog, Mbabaram: dog
When the last tiger is gone we all get to be tigers.
As wild animals vanish from the physical world, they have begun to proliferate in the digital realm. The videogame Grand Theft Auto V contains more animals than any previous version of the popular title. Among the animals one may encounter while stealing and murdering one’s way through the game’s fantasy of consequence-free mayhem are dogs, cats, monkeys, chickens, cows, pigs, rabbits, rats, hawks, pigeons, crows, seagulls, butterflies, houseflies, fireflies, cockroaches, snakes, voles, coyotes, wild boar, mountain lions, elk, deer, various species of fish, dolphins, humpback whales, sharks, stingrays, and even, it is rumoured, a sasquatch.
Curiously, there are no horses.
Most of the wild animals players encounter will run away at the approach of a human. On one of the game’s missions players can hunt deer and other animals in the mountains outside the city and earn money for each kill. Players can also just kill animals without incentive, shooting them, bludgeoning them, or running them down with vehicles, as a diversion from the game’s other brutal amusements. Every so often predators such as mountain lions turn the tables on a player who ventures into the wilderness. It is also possible for your game avatar to consume peyote plants and enter a psychedelically colourful hallucinatory state in which they become an animal. When they find themselves in an animal body the game’s three protagonists, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor (who may or may not be a cannibal), will babble to themselves in stunned, stoned amazement at what they are experiencing:
Damn. I ain’t never had no antlers before . . . .
I’m a wild boar! I’m a badass wild boar!
Is this happening? This is happening. Shit, look at me. Does everyone become a dolphin?
Oh man, I feel weird. What is this . . . ? Oh. Oh my lord. Hey. This is amazing! Wow. Look at you, Trevor. Look at you. No one is laughing at you now. No one. They’re all losers, and you’re a crow. A fucking crow. Hah! Whoo! Okay, let’s party! Flying . . . flying . . . . Oh, Trevor. Oh wow. Look at your beak. Great! Look at your black wings. Great! You’re amazing! This is the future . . . this is evolution. Man-crow! What’s a man? No idea. An idiot? Yes, a man is an idiot. You’re not an idiot, you’re a crow. Oh wow. Haw haw. Yesssss. This beats eating policemen any day.
The Cliff’s Edge
Inside the egg the heron dreams of flight
The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) is driven to extinction in the modern era by Europeans who hunt and kill the bird for its down, used to make pillows. The bird’s demise is hastened further by its own increasing rarity, as museums and collectors are willing to pay enticing sums for specimens, money that proves irresistible to poor fishers and sheepherders.
The very last colony of great auks survives until the middle of the nineteenth century, on the nearly-inaccessible island of Eldey, off the coast of Iceland. On July 3rd, 1844, three men sent in search of great auks by a wealthy collector find what is possibly the very last breeding pair of great auks in the world, incubating a single egg. One of the men, Sigurður Ísleifsson, later described what took place.
The rocks were covered with blackbirds and then we saw the geirfugles (the auks) . . . They walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but mine was going to the edge of the cliff. It walked like a man . . . but moved its feet quickly. I caught it close to the edge, a precipice many fathoms deep. Its wings lay close to the sides, not hanging out. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.
The third man, Ketil Ketilsson, finds the nest and, acting on a familiar human impulse which has yet to be fully understood, smashes the egg with his boot. That night, he and his companions return home from their long, exhausting day and fall asleep quickly, their heads filling with phantom people and scenes that vanish into nothingness and are left unrecorded when they wake.