sheep in a field
December 11, 2020

Animal Fables

by Lloyd Den Boer

“Going down a rabbit hole,” we call it. For me, it happens like this. Skimming wearily through my social media account at the end of a day, I pause to watch a video of a dog teaching a kitten to climb stairs. The dog is persistent, patiently nudging the kitten to hop up a step. Nearly frozen with dread, the kitten is contrary. Eventually, the dog concedes, and, taking the kitten in his mouth, he carries her to the top of the stairs. Now at the top, the kitten’s demeanour changes from dread to delight, as the dog and the kitten settle at the head of the stairs, gazing down contentedly on the world below. Charmed by this pair, I watch the next video, and then another, until I have seen a heroic dog who rescues a shoebox of abandoned kittens and a loyal dog who has a long-lasting bond with a deer. Each video seems more touching and, frankly, more improbable than the last. These displays of generosity between dogs and other species soothe my spirit whenever danger, incivility, and cruelty dominate the news cycle.

When it comes to animals lifting human spirits, I can think of no better example than newly pastured lambs. As a boy, I liked to sit on the top of a hill when my Dad released his flock into the pasture for the first time since lambing. From my high spot, I could see how sheep, enclosed for months, would react to green grass, hills and rocks, and space. The ewes grazed eagerly, hardly moving, but their lambs frolicked from one end of the pasture to the other, bounding up and down hills and springing on and off rocks. Light on their feet, the lambs seemed ready to take flight with every leap, and I felt the same way — so elated I could soar. Most of us have had similar experiences, perhaps while listening to birds in full-throated song, observing fox pups at play, or hearing the eerie bugling of elk in a mountain park, when the behaviour of animals seems to replace cares with joy, delight, or awe.

Of course, not all animal behaviour does that. In fact, most animal behaviour seems “red in tooth and claw” as a troubled Tennyson wrote in his poem, “In Memoriam,” back in 1850. Take, for instance, one of the natural wonders of the world, the migration of wildebeests across the Serengeti plains of southeastern Africa. Each year, one and a half million wildebeests travel a huge loop, following the rains that provide their grass and water. During the trek, the wildebeests must cross and recross rivers. At each river crossing, wildebeests gather at the river’s edge, until the pressure of the herd overcomes their fear of the river. At each river crossing, some wildebeests are lost to the crocodiles lying in wait, and the vultures that follow. Does this animal behaviour suggest a troubling possibility about life on earth, that danger and cruelty lurk at the heart of things rather than values like kindness, generosity, or love? That was Tennyson’s fear so many years ago.

Such fear is easily understood. We all want a world with nobler values, more like kind dogs than rapacious crocodiles. Maybe Tennyson wanted noble behaviour from the wrong creatures. After all, wildebeest herds have trekked their yearly trek from time out of mind, replenished by new calves each year, just as each year they suffer losses along the way. Similarly, crocodiles have their cycles, and wildebeests play a part in them. Animals are not here to be kind, generous, or loving. The creatures with that responsibility are people. If we want a world with nobler values, people need to build it.

Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator. His career spanned every level from elementary school to university-level teacher preparation.