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Talk with the animals and learn about life


Changa is a calico cat whose idea of a hot date is Ted Koppel and "Nightline." We tune in regularly, bundled up together in bed -- unless of course she's up for hide-and-seek, in which case she paws my face and leaps into her paper sack. I always give chase. It's the least I can do for her.

Changa thinks nothing of sitting on my stomach while I have a good cry or sitting in my lap as I wait and wait and wait for a human voice on the other end of the phone. She comes when she's called and doesn't laugh at my rickety Spanish. In short, she's this woman's best friend.

Do I anthropomorphize, projecting human attributes onto her rather than acknowledging her essential otherness? Of course. But according to one observer of the natural world, seeing animals in human terms makes them great teachers for us.

"It's how we become better people," says author Gregory McNamee of Tucson, Ariz.

McNamee is passionate about what he calls "the moral possibilities of the study of nature," and his books about rivers, wolves and much more reflect this possibility.

His most recent book, A Desert Bestiary: Folklore, Literature and Ecological Thought From the World's Dry Places (Johnson Books), is a meditation on 45 animals from around the world.

McNamee's point of departure is the bestiary, an encyclopedic collection of stories or facts about animals (real or imaginary) that, especially in medieval times, was interpreted in moral terms. Thus have we inherited images of the lion as king of beasts, the snake as symbol of sexual power and evil, and so forth.

Everyone has their say in A Desert Bestiary -- from Aesop to the Aztecs to Aristotle.

The latter, in his History of Animals, carried on at some length about hyenas. Aristotle wrote that hyenas could bewitch dogs under a full moon or, more prosaically, attract dogs for dinner by imitating the sound of a man vomiting.

McNamee is a witty and masterful wordsmith. Biology becomes poetry in his hands; the history of human perceptions about animals is glimpsed in all its tragic and comic elements.

It comes as no surprise that human beings make so many ominous appearances in this book. What we have done and what we have failed to do has ensured the extinction and near extinction of mind-boggling numbers of species.

McNamee evokes the "leopard-haunted hills" of the Song of Songs, then reports that leopards, like other big cats, are gone from Europe and fast disappearing from Asia and Africa. Only the snow leopard is holding ground, thanks to a U.N.-sponsored biodiversity program in Mongolia.

How ironic that perhaps "lowly" animals will end up teaching human beings about the wise use of power!

I asked McNamee if he got depressed writing about the natural world. He said no; he still believes that all of us can provide a voice for "the kinds of things that need resurrecting."

We don't have much of a choice. To believe that "the environment" is somehow distinct from human culture is to believe a lie. We are, all of us, endangered, afloat on an ark with no shore in sight.

Demetria Martínez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997