A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Animals, humans talk in new fable

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Jan. 23, 24 or 25, 2017

The literary/cultural tradition of animals teaching people can be an effective way to reveal a lot about ourselves, from Aesop to Orwell. There are children’s books (“Charlotte’s Web” and “Dr. Dolittle”), nonfiction (Jane Goodall and Cleveland Amory), fantasies (“Watership Down” and the semi-autobiographical “All Creatures Great and Small”), plus movies like “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” and the new film “A Dog’s Purpose.”

Now, a 217-page fable by consumer advocate Ralph Nader offers another compelling tale.

“Animal Envy” (Seven Stories Press) is at once charming and challenging, daunting and heartening.

The premise is that a technological breakthrough has enabled animals to talk to human beings, and communication not only offers enlightening conversations, it enables equalization in some ways. (It’s reminiscent of an aunt’s rhetorical question; “What if we could hear fish scream?”)

Here, the animals (who to each other call the human animal “the king of beasts”) decide to seize the opportunity and try to build a bridge from humanity to Everything Else. Organized and led by a dolphin, elephant and owl – dubbed the Triad – Earth’s animals plan a sort of world-wide reality-TV special titled “The Great Talkout,” a 100-hour global assembly in which various species try to explain themselves, their values, and the demands they endure from human interaction or domination.

Even as animals show that they know humans are “depressed, self-doubting and shrinking in self-esteem,” they note that humanity’s aggressiveness is a cover that hurts their neighbors: the animal kingdom. The huge human audience is spellbound, having been somewhat aware that elephants have amazing memories and many creatures are intelligent, but clueless that many animals show compassion and courage, love and sorrow.

There’s some dissension, such as reptiles’ resentment of mammals, and insects’ revolt after feeling their numbers, variety, beauty and impact on humans deserves more airtime. (They organize a parade to impress The Triad of their importance to the environment and their ability to command the attention of humans who fear them.)

Some species want to flatter humans; others resist the mutual self-interest approach and stress how humans can learn from animals’ superior physical capabilities and unique relation to their biological environments, from bees and beetles to spiders and worms.

But there’s collective action, too, like dogs going on strike over contaminated pet food from China. And most messages are universal. A wolf says humans have endangered not just them, but buffalo, beavers and entire ecosystems. A shark questions “shark fin soup.” A giraffe scoffs at zoos, saying, “Give me the freedom of the grasslands… I’ll take my chances with the lions,” and feral animals agree en masse.

Domesticated animals, led by horses and dogs, describe how selfish human systems and lifestyles bother them. Horses wish they had indoor plumbing; dogs remind people that their sense of smell makes cohabitating occasionally overwhelming. (“You’re fortunate that your noses are more decorative, apart from breathing,” they say.)

Some warn people to retreat from the sense of supremacy. For instance, the emerald ash borers, who‘ve destroyed millions of ash trees, ask that their message be conveyed: “Humans … you can’t stop us from our meal. Neither Chinese wasps nor birds, like those hated woodpeckers, can stop us. They can eat a whole lot of us, but we still multiply. You need to be more humble, but humility can become a great asset to your survival and health.”

Other animals concede that humans love and save animals, from household companions to stranded whales, but one predator adds that all animals cannot adjust to “the marauding human.” They point out they give humans excitement, jobs, etc., but “gratitude is a two-way flight,” exclaims a condor. They criticize “wildlife agencies” as rogue outfits that kill them by the millions, and they show Earth’s “dead zones” caused by humanity. Further focusing on climate change, animals bemoan the melting permafrost as forcing polar bears to choose between drowning or starving.

“Animal Envy” is unusual (the fable has nine pages of footnotes offering attribution to animals’ claims) but, like the best fables, it’s thought-provoking, strongly suggesting how humans should – maybe must – coexist with other living inhabitants of a planet we share.

The Triad wraps up the animals’ effort with “gratitude, optimism and humility,” and the owl adds a human philosopher’s remark: “The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’ ”

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