The bond between women and animals

Intimate nature: The bond between women and animals

Douglas, Carol Anne

Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals

edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, and Brenda Peterson, Ballantine, Fawcett, 1998, paperback.

Do women have a special kinship with animals, a special ability to be close to them without dominating them? Certainly many women have a close connection with animals.

Animals “have been here since the first sacred times,” the introduction to this book says. They have been here longer than we have. Many peoples’ creation stories say the world was created by animals. “They have shared with us this land, water, and air.”

Women’s bodies remind us that we are animal, the editors write. “Like animals, we too have been hated.” They say that women can bring empathy to the study of animals. Empathy is “the ability to see the other as a true peer” the introduction says, and the many writers do bring that perspective. They do see animals as peers.

In the first section of this book, Native American women write passionately of their connection with animals. In a beautiful essay, Beth Brant tells how much great blue herons have meant to her. “You have taught me that it is possible to soar without benefit of wings.”

Elizabeth Woody tells how her people’s life is connected with the salmon, and how they are trying to fight against dams that keep the salmon from swimming to their ancestral haunts to spawn.

Hainani-Kay Trask says that the Native Hawaiian community was split over a Hawaiian man’s claim that killing an endangered monk seal was part of his heritage. There is no evidence that Native Hawaiians ever killed monk seals, and they certainly did not kill breeding females, as he did, she writes with disgust. They respected animals and tried to live with them rather than endangering them.

The Native writers point out that their traditions do not assume that people are superior to animals, but see animals and people as kin.

Other contributors to the book include women who have devoted their lives to studying animals: Jane Goodall, who studies chimpanzees; Dian Fossey, who studied gorillas; Birute Galdikas, who studies orangutans; Cynthia Moss, who studies elephants; and several women who study orcas (killer whales). I had read most of their books, but seeing the writing compiled together does give a sense that women may have a particular empathy for animals. Fossey describes trying to find a suitable gorilla group to take in a rescued captive baby gorilla. Galdikas tells how she formed a bond with female orangutan she helped raise, who later let Galdikas be close to her own baby.

Moss writes about matriarchal society among elephants, and other writers tell of the matriarchal society of orcas. It is interesting that both of these large mammals have formed matriarchal societies. The elephants’ daughters live with them forever; among the orcas (at least the resident populations, for there are different types of orcas), the sons as well as the daughters remain with their mothers for their whole lives.

There are more essays in the book about whales than any other animals. There are contributions from women who have studied whales just by listening to recordings of their sounds because they believe that going out in boats to be near them is intrusive, women who have swum with whales and dolphins, women who have worked to release whales and dolphins, and women who have worked with an orca for Sea World. The latter believe that they had a different attitude to the whale than male trainers did, with less interest in dominating him. When the orca was sent off for possible release, they were glad for him but extremely sad at parting with him.

These women have not just studied the animals, but have also felt compelled to work in efforts to further their welfare. Some women have, as mentioned above, worked for whale and dolphin release, while others have worked for conservation and preservation of habitat. Jane Goodall campaigns against the use of chimpanzees and other primates in “scientific” research. South African writer Gillian van Houten adopted an abandoned lion cub and moved her family to a tent in the remote bush to try to reintroduce the lion to the wild (where the lion was killed by other female lions who were jealous when their alpha male courted her). Other contributors have eased the pain of dying bears, helped feral cats, and worked for the conservation of desert tortoises.

The writers emphasize the dignity of all animals. One gem is a short story by Ursula LeGuin told from the point of view of a mouse or rat being used in research. It finds the outcomes of pushing different levers — small shocks to its feet or a pellet of dried food — equally repellent, so it pushes the lever that produces no result. It tries to communicate with the researcher but finds the researcher unable to respond.

Only a few of the contributors emphasize man’s brutality to animals, but the point is made. One particularly moving poem tells how Joan of Arc’s clerical tormenters burned her horse in front of her to press her to recant at the last moment before they burned her.

Some of the writers lament their own moments of arrogance toward animals. Deena Metzger regrets giving her son’s wolf away to a trainer, and killing a rattlesnake on her doorstep. She now lets the snakes stay there. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver tells how she moved to the desert and, for the first week, waged a war to keep the javelinas (wild pigs) from eating her flowers. Then she realized that she had to make accommodations to wild land, not expect the creatures to accommodate to her. “Life is easier since I abdicated the throne. What a relief to relinquish ownership of unownable things.”

The writers emphasize that people can learn much from animals if we only watch them respectfully. Many species are on the verge of extinction, and we stand to lose a great deal as we lose them. But the book is never preachy: the writers communicate what they have learned rather than telling the reader what to do.

The writers do point out that not all desire for contact with animals is good for the animals. For instance, dolphins in forced swimming programs with human beings get burned out by all the contact that is imposed on them rather than something they have sought out.

So if you want to read about women who actually have lived with wolves and tried to do it as much as possible on the animals’ terms, this is the book for you. This is a book to make you whinny, purr, splash, roar, and howl.

As the introduction says, “to honor intimacy across seeming boundaries of species is to return the sacred to the world.”

Photo (Zebra)

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Dec 1999

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