The Soul of All Living Creatures

What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human

by Vint Virga

Paperback, 224 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14.99 | purchase

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Title
The Soul of All Living Creatures
Subtitle
What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human
Author
Vint Virga

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NPR Summary

A distinguished veterinarian and animal behaviorist outlines a series of case studies with domestic and exotic animals that demonstrate how perceiving the world from the perspectives of animals can enrich human appreciation for life, improve relationships and reorder personal values.

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Excerpt: The Soul Of All Living Creatures

1

Connection

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

—­Ted Perry

From birth, even before we've begun to focus on what lies beyond our grasp, a world of strange and wonderful creatures gathers together to watch over us: soft bunny faces on plush baby blankets snuggle with us as we lie in our cribs; stuffed teddy bears with bow ties and peacoats stand at the ready to help ease our fears; animal alphabets, murals with monkeys, and paintings of elephants hang on our walls, inspiring us to think and dream and look beyond the world we know. And at last when it's bedtime, as we drift to sleep, Winnie-­the-­Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Babar, and a parade of storybook characters spring from the pages with lives of their own to become endearing childhood friends, their tales retold on countless evenings.

Though children may set aside these companions (except, perhaps, with the closest of friends) in their urgency to feel more grown up, as adults we very much interweave animals into the fabric of our lives, inspiring new symbols that still captivate us. The cars we drive and sports teams we cheer for invoke their image in using their names with visions of emulating some special trait: the stealth of Tigers, speed of Mustangs, sting of Hornets, or strength of Bulls. From the stalwart elk of the Hartford Group to the sleek, fluid borzoi of Alfred Knopf, icons of animals spark in our minds lasting impressions that span generations. In truth, who among us does not feel some longing—­an impulse to walk out on life as we know it (if merely for only a week or two)—­to flee to some destination down under simply by seeing the Qantas kangaroo?

What underlies this attraction to animals? Why are we humans so drawn to them? How is it that animals so touch our hearts merely by our naming them, seeing their picture? Why do their images echo inside us, move and inspire us to dare dreaming bigger, leaving impressions for most of our lives? Is the grip they hold on our cultural programming instilled by logos and ad campaigns or, perhaps, just a matter of constant exposure, beginning at the earliest age?

I believe our connection is rooted much deeper: lit by a spark before childhood memories, more profound than a yearning for superhuman traits, beyond the comfort we find in their touch, their listening ears, or their steady gaze.

What I see in their eyes is my own reflection and a sense that we share more than we recognize. The people and creatures I see in my practice share a bond that defies any logic or reason that explains what it is that they do to our lives. As I sit in between them and look back and forth from human to animal, in a very real sense I am watching a struggle that has occupied humans since our species began.

Outside the village of Vallon-­Pont-­d'arc in the Rhône-­Alpes region of southern France, the Ardèche River flows through sheer cliff canyons flanked by muted gray limestone walls. On a narrow terrace overlooking the valley lies the entrance to the Grotte Chauvet, a vast primordial underground cavern that shelters some of man's earliest art. Once a lair for Stone Age cave bears (the size of modern Kodiak bears), Chauvet in its floor holds their pawmarks and scratches and is littered with bony remains of their prey.

As we look to the walls a different picture unfolds. Trekking back from the ledge lined with scrub oak and ivy and into the mountain for a quarter of a mile, through a labyrinth of breathtaking chambers and galleries, is like plunging backward into the last ice age. Well after the cave bears abandoned the cavern for the tundra and steppe with spring in full bloom, the earliest humans ventured into Chauvet for some unknown reason and left a collection that transcends all time between then and now. Each painting, now thirty thousand years old, in its own right is a masterpiece—­strikingly rich in style, depth, and form—­which viewed together capture scenes from a world that footprints, pawmarks, fragments of bones, and carbon dating can't begin to convey.

More than four hundred animals that then roamed the continent—­with one human figure, a Venus, in their midst—­come to life on the walls singly and in panels. But beyond their artistry, what separates them from their brethren found in other caves lies in which creatures the artists portrayed. Aside from the prey then most hunted by humans (reindeer, horses, ibex, and bison), the walls feature many more dangerous species—­lions, rhinos, cave bears, and panthers, among other predators that once roamed outside. Yet, what stands out clearly and, perhaps, is most telling of what brought these artists inside Chauvet, is that the paintings do not depict a fear of these creatures, but instead celebrate their vitality.

The blink of a horse's eyes. A thrust of a rhino's head threatening to charge. The outward stare of a pride of cave lions, furtively stalking and ready to pounce. Scraping layers of clay to uncover the limestone, sketching and adding dimension in charcoal, painting in pigments with nuance and shading, the artists inspired their creatures to life. In the flickering torchlight, with blackness around them and their breath alone breaking the silence of the cave, the painters descended the depths of the earth to focus their vision on animals: their behaviors and patterns, the life force within them, and a sense of the deep-­rooted kinship we share. In spite of a rock slide ten thousand years later that cached them in rubble for twenty thousand more, these paintings convey Chauvet's sacred importance as a place where man pondered his connection with animals.

Around the world, from culture to culture, our histories, traditions, and lifestyles as humans intrinsically mingle with animals' lives and many times depend upon them—­for giving us food, clothing our bodies, and hauling our belongings around the countryside. Yet, at the end of the day, once their roles are fulfilled, we still feel a sense of connection to them. That perennial place that they hold in our psyche, the strength of their image we cherish as symbols, the parts that they play day-­to-­day in our lives: All exist because of our kinship with them. As our ancestors found in the Grotte Chauvet, we are drawn to bring animals into our lives because we see ourselves reflected in them.

Though, no doubt, the creatures we see now are different from those that once roamed the steppes outside Chauvet, it seems we are no less beguiled by their presence. Nearly two out of every three American families currently share their homes with pets. This amounts to an impressive 90 million cats, 74 million dogs, 151 million fish, 13 million reptiles, 16 million birds, and 24 million small mammals of sorts. Joining this impressively popular tribe, four million families own one or more horses, with three out of four horses living steps from their doors.

Reaching much further than the walls of our homes, we thrill at the chance of finding wildlife in nature. Impressions of paw prints emerge from the brambles, wander across our path, and lead off into the shadows. A fresh pile of scat with a few tufts of fur buzzes with flies at the edge of the trail. Claw marks in tree trunks so deep that we can't fathom the strength of a bear's paw swipe command our attention. Dare we go further? Due caution forewarns us . . . but the thought is enticing.

Craving more contact than we find in nature, 143 million guests flock to zoos and wild animal parks each year in North America. On paved-­road safaris through mock African savannahs, dark winding trails in lush aviary glens, and footpaths weaving back and forth between a maze of habitats past impalas, kangaroos, zebras, and bears, we at last catch a glimpse of our favorite creatures, even if we stand apart behind a fence or across a moat.

On a drive up the freeway to a conference in Boston, I smile as my mind drifts to what lies ahead—­not as much to the meetings as where I'll be staying—­a chance to return to a favorite haunt, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. My delight in this grand old dame lies not in her history or stately decor, but instead in my times spent there with an old friend. The first time I entered the hotel lobby, Catie greeted me with the same doe-­eyed look I've come to expect every time I see her. Raised as a puppy since seven weeks old to serve as a guide dog for the blind, she came to the Fairmont as a two-­year-­old Lab after a screening before her adoption revealed a small cataract in her left eye. Though her vision then, as now, was essentially sound—­aside from the tiniest error, at times, when tracking a ball tossed high in the air—­it disqualified her as a seeing-­eye dog. Hired as the Copley Plaza's canine ambassador, with an e­mail address, appointment book, and business cards of her very own, Catie commands a devoted clientele for jogs to the commons, walks round the square, or strolls through the shops of Newbury Street. For me, my day just seems to flow better knowing most times I end up in the lobby, there's a good chance I'll find her there patiently waiting—­ready to offer a welcoming wag, a kindhearted face, and a tummy for petting.

A travel-­weary, bedraggled couple, spent from their flight and with bags still in hand, set all aside to crouch down by Catie and linger awhile, petting her on the rug before, at long last, going up to their room. A middle-­aged man in a trim business suit on his way to a meeting room somewhere downstairs risks wrinkles and dog hair on his pants, sleeves, and coat in exchange for a moment to nuzzle with her. The flush, tear-­stained cheeks of a young red-­haired girl—­perhaps five years old—­not wanting to go home break with a smile as Catie leans into her arms. As I watch from a corner, in the course of an hour, a stream of admirers shower Catie with affection. With an open-­armed ease saved for familiar friends, they speak to her with blissed squeals of excitement, cooing oohs and baby talk, and softly murmured confidences. Furrowed brows wrinkled with worry and stress softly melt as her eyes meet theirs and she gazes at them with unguarded acceptance. One after another, the change is uncanny.

We reach out to people as well as animals out of a longing we hold deep within to not be alone, to share what we feel, to relate in some way to the world around us. We yearn to be accepted for who we are, warts and all. We spend much of our lives in an unfolding saga, sorting among all the others we meet to find those who we believe best understand us, with whom we can feel free to just be ourselves. Yet with animals, I find, we do so quite differently.

By their sides we let down our guard and show them more of who we are.

Within the shelter of our own homes, one-­half to two-­thirds of us look on our pets as full-fledged family members. We speak of our pets as if they're our children, invite them into our beds with us, celebrate their birthdays, take them on vacations, and even chat to them on the phone as we leave messages on the answering machine. While we all talk to animals in one way or other, an astounding 94 percent of us speak to them as if they were human. And more than 90 percent affirm that our pets indeed respond in turn to our human fancies, emotions, and moods. By the same token, just as many believe our pets share human personality traits, such as being inquisitive, outgoing, or shy. Considering how we regard our connection with them, perhaps it's not surprising at all that slightly more than half of us would willingly risk our lives for our pets, and even more believe that our pets would devotedly rescue us.

Based on the findings from a recent survey, should fate somehow leave us for the rest of our days on an island living with one single companion, most of us would choose a dog or cat above a human (stranger, family, or even best friend). Perhaps even more telling, when asked, "Who listens to you best?" almost half of us confess that we feel most heard by our animal companions. And yet, though these may seem remarkable statistics, from the close bonds I've forged with my clients through the years—­the stories they've shared, the relationships I've studied, the ties that I've witnessed between people and their pets —­I simply accept them as a matter of truth.

Why would we choose to spend the rest of our lives with a pet as our partner instead of a person? How does an animal, simply with their presence, bring us more comfort than the arms of a friend? Why do we feel other species listen better, understand our emotions, and attend to our feelings more than our fellow human beings do?

I believe the answers to these questions lie in the sense of belonging we feel in the company of other creatures. In the presence of animals, we find true acceptance. Unlike with our peers, we feel no need to explain ourselves. Alone with them, our self-­consciousness dissolves. With radios turned up as we drive down the freeway, we croon, trill, or belt out our songs with abandon, mindless of our dog panting in the seat behind us. Stepping from the shower to dry ourselves on the bathroom mat, we stand stark naked toweling off despite the gaze of our loitering cat. Upset and shaken by a fight with a friend, with our dog in our lap closely snuggled in our arms, we let the tears roll down our cheeks and confess to them where we went wrong.

We trust less conditionally in the bonds we share with animals. Unfettered by the judgments of others, in their silent presence we feel free to be ourselves. In place of solutions or answers to our questions, we gratefully welcome their quiet attention. Whether joining them in silence or relying on our words, we sense their regard for our thoughts and feelings. And we respond to our animals in kind.

Each day in my practice, I witness this kinship tested and proven strong time and again. Perhaps even more than with medical issues, the behavioral concerns that lead my clients to me challenge the very essence of what binds them to their animals. The zookeeper ambushed each day by the emu and the client whose cat howls all through the night share a desire to heal the bond that, somehow, has changed from what it once was. In their stories, filled with hours of struggles and worries, I hear their devotion to care for their animals. The lines on their faces and the look in their eyes convey without words the connection they share and how precious it is to them in their lives.

Regardless of how many years I have practiced, the faces of clients often linger in my thoughts not for the details involving their cases, but instead for the bond they shared with their animals and the lessons they taught me about that connection. Among those I've worked with who come to mind often, William and Margaret Robinson stand out for their selfless acceptance of their beloved Prudence and the ties they shared through the course of her life.

I'd first met the Robinsons at their front door after they'd called less than one week before, desperate to see me as soon as they could. It appeared from their story, as Margaret explained, that Prudence, their twelve-­year-­old calico cat, had switched personalities just overnight, though she'd never done so before in her life. After a week though, she hadn't changed back—­not that they'd really believed she would—­and Margaret and William didn't know what to do.

Excerpted from The Soul of All Living Creatures by Vint Virga, D.V.M. Copyright 2013 by Vint Virga. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.