Bear People, Wolf People, People People

Image courtesy
Image courtesy

I’ve been thinking about that gorilla that just got shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The outpouring of sympathy for the poor, poor mother who only looked away for a few seconds, the tearful “You people just don’t know what it’s like being a mother!” is only one of the annoying mass responses.

Meanwhile, here’s this innocent gorilla, killed with no second thought, the moment a human child plops down in his enclosure.

Something I’ve said on social media:

What bothers me is that we’re framing the incident in this simplistic homocentric manner — the life of a human baby against that of a Dangerous Wild Animal — even though the issue is MUCH larger and more important.

The thing is, if we can’t keep ourselves from shooting to death an endangered animal WHICH IS ALREADY IN A CAGE and which is breeding stock to keep the species alive, we can’t keep ourselves from killing anything and everything. Which means, inevitably, WE WILL.

EVERY time the life of a human — or the appetite, or comfort, or property — of a human comes up against the life of an animal, we will kill the animal.

The calmer and more forgiving we are about that, the faster it will happen.

I have to imagine Native Americans — Stone Age people everywhere — thought of birds and animals in a dramatically different way than we do. Living with and among them day by day, they saw and understood things about them we modern people almost never even notice.

The modern idea is one of separation, differentness. They’re not US. We have nothing in common with THEM.

But living among them — living WITHIN nature rather than on the edge of it as we do today — depending on observing and coexisting with them, Native Americans would have seen those in-common things that really are there. Would have used them in their daily thinking. Would have felt closer to everything around them in a deep and profound way that we today are normally incapable of imagining.

I try to picture what that might have been like, and I think I have a handle on it with a simple linguistic transform that redefines the word “people” to mean a bit more than we normally allow it.

Currently we define it to mean US. To recreate something of our earlier commonality and connection, the word could be expanded to mean — well, still “us,” but an “us” larger than the human species.

Maybe we’d add an extra tag to each descriptive use of the word, identifying the species referred to. Thus humans would become “human people.” Likewise, dogs would be “dog people,” and the individual dog would be a “dog person.”

Extending it outwards, bears become bear people, or perhaps Bear People. Around us in the natural world there would be Bird People, Wolf People, Coyote People, Elephant People. Lion People. Mouse People.

It wouldn’t extend to everything. I’d include only those things that had brains and shared our common sensory and possibly emotional experience. (And undoubtedly, we would not like all of them. I don’t have any great fellow-feeling for alligators, for instance; I’m willing to see them as real, still don’t want them in my neighborhood swimming hole.)

But it would build a bridge for us to explore from our side, looking to understand — to FEEL — the commonality.

Without actually using the word “people,” a lot of us already have the strong feeling of connection contained within it when we think of our dogs. I have friends who see their horses and mules that way. But using the words out in public would send that message to others: There’s something here, a new viewpoint, worth thinking about.

We’ve spent several thousand years with the idea that they’re separate and lesser than us, and it’s freed us to kill and poison them, to level their habitat, to drive them out, to casually extinct them. Or to breed them down to defenseless and helpless forms that become permanent prisoners of whatever indignities we choose to heap on them.

Those people with small dogs, I’m often convinced they have no concept of what they have. They have in their heads some silly image of a disposable entertainment device, a toy, a comical baby — Oh, he’s so KYOOOT!! — and it never really occurs to them they have a BEING in their care, something, someONE, who would much rather run and swim and wallow in mud rather than spend time dressed in a costume, propped grossly overweight and gasping on a pillow, or imprisoned in a purse.)

We see them as inferior THINGS — either useful or annoying — rather than co-equal SELVES. The average city-dweller has zero respect for animals. (Hell, they have little enough of it even for their fellow humans.) But if we’re going to keep the world alive around us, we have to feel more than ownership for it and the things in it. We have to have fellowship.

I expect there will be plenty of people who won’t get it.

No doubt some will interpret what I’m proposing in that icky-sticky, bosom-clutching “animal spirits” way. “Ooh, yes, we’re all SPIRITS together, we and the little animals! We should go out into the forest and show them our love!”

Others will soundly reject the concept, crying “But they’re different! They’re not people! They’re nothing like us.”

But they are like us in so many ways, not least that they have our same feelings, the same sense of self, the same desire to live their lives. Anyone who works closely with horses, or elephants, or so many other critters, knows it. They’re People.

So the next time you see me, yes, I’m going to be using it. I’m going to speak to your dog, “Hello Dog Person!”, to your cat “Hey there, Cat Person!”

Hey, I might even manage to notice YOU. —Because that’s just the kind of People Person I am.