Animals and Environment

Thinking With Animals


In thoughtful times, what Canadian doesn’t turn to Leonard Cohen?  Consider one of his most famous songs. Suzanne, the lyrics go, takes you down to her place by the river and ‘feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China’.


Oolala, Leonard - all the way from China?  But this was written in 1966  when China might reasonably be seen as far away, both in imagination and geography.  Now goods cross international borders, span what we once thought of as vast oceans, fly the (pre-pandemic) crowded skies and arrive in our stores at a fraction of the price of mandarin oranges in Cohen’s era.


But at what cost?  What does it cost us to curtail production here and take advantage of cheaper labour costs in other lands, to fly fresh produce around the world, to truck pigs, cattle and poultry across borders as though they were no more sentient than crates of oranges?


If the world seems close and perhaps claustrophobic to us now, we are left to imagine how the walls of civilization are closing in on the biosphere of other life forms with whom we share this blue and green planet.  Other species who once had the luxury of space separate from human inquiry & exploitation.


Charismatic fauna like tigers, elephants and mountain goats have long felt the impact of human encroachment both territorially and as objects of cultural significance.  Animals that are hunted not for meat but for what it means to have their hides or heads adorning our spaces.  Others, like the pangolin are less famously centred in our awareness but are of increasing importance as the most heavily trafficked wild mammal across the world today.


Famously studied by Mary Douglas working with the Lele of Central Africa (circa 1964) pangolins are described as a scaly anteater with the body and tail of a fish yet with four legs used to climb in trees.[1]  Pangolins (Manis tricuspis) do not fear people and reproduce like us, usually having only one live child at a time. These anomalies suggested to the Lele a special link between humans and animals – a creature that could spiritually mediate between the two.  Killing a pangolin, they said, brings animals to hunters and babies to women - both of which were highly desired.


For all the curiosity of pangolins, neither their threatened status nor their presumed medicinal qualities are unique - many animals perform a similar role as anomalous creatures believed to bridge the worlds of spiritual and secular. Many believe we can incorporate the special qualities of an animal in a number of ways but most usually by hunting and eating.  All the science in the world can prove otherwise, that pangolin meat has no liver enhancing qualities, for example – yet humans persist in making the animal a way to think about or gain favour for ourselves within the cosmosphere.


Origins of the current pandemic are not settled, but certainly viral diseases have long leaped from animals to human.  Spanish flu was an HIN1 virus from presumed avian source, AIDS resided in primates and seems to have jumped to humans via consuming monkeys or apes. Our modest pangolin may have been an intermediate host for bat to human transmission of Coronavirus. In fact 60% of infectious diseases that affect us are zoonotic, having originated in animals. More than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.[2]


Many of us are anxious to get back to normal after the lockdown lifts but what version of  ‘normal’?  Can we develop a more harmonious relationship with the natural world?  Admire animals not for the way they help us think about us – but for what they intrinsically are?  Can we set aside tracts of land for them, lands like Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) where we tread lightly, sacrificing some of our freedom for their very survivability?  Can we begin to think of our relationships on earth not only in terms of sustainability but  'abundability' as Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge carrier Joe Martin relates. [3]


Cohen has passed on to whatever lies beyond, but his songs remain for us to ponder and enjoy.  Like animals in traditional Lele cosmology, his music is good to think with.  Like animals worldwide, life is not only analogies and poetry, but the reality of a warm beating heart – good to think and good to respect.

1. Douglas, Mary
              Implicit Meanings
              2003 Routledge (original 1975)

2. Robbins, Jim
              The Ecology of Disease
              14 July 14 2012

    New York Times Article Link.

3.  Gilpin, Emillee
              COVID-19 not the first pandemic Indigenous Peoples have quarantined from
              2 April 2020

    National Observor Link.  

Further Information:

Coronavirus: China’s farmers offered buy-out to grow plants instead of breeding wild species in clampdown.

COVID-19, Brought to You by Globalization.

Don't blame the bats for the Coronavirus | Dr. Jane Goodall | SVT/TV 2/Skavlan.

'Tip of the iceberg': is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

Zoonotic transfer study fuels call for ban of wildlife trade, markets and medicinal use.