Monday, February 15, 2010

Animals and Imagination

I have long been mystified by lovers of animals. That is not to say that I don't find animals endearing and suitable temporary companions, but I never understood the intuitive bond many animal lovers claim to have with their pets. Today I visited the Lincoln Park Zoo and made a few stops to see a few of my favorite animals. The pygmy hippo and the tiger each looked a little sluggish and morose. Again, I am not sure if they were morose. Likely I impressed that upon their otherwise inscrutable animal countenances. The pygmy hippo and the tiger deeply intrigue me every time I see them, since each of them is solitary in the wild. Being solitary and having terrain to roam and claim as one's own might be affirming for an animal. But when a solitary animals are in captivity I am compelled to wonder: does their captive state bring them great distress, or does it bring them a sense of comfort? Another way to look at this question would be to imagine if a purposefully solitary person takes greater comfort fending for himself or herself in the world or being cared for in confined surroundings by another. I suppose it would vary, though I can't help but wonder if their solitary disposition trends toward a need for self-sufficiency.

Finally, I visited my favorite zoo residents: the meerkats. Meerkats are intensely loyal and familial, and have an adorable tendency to stand on their hindquarters in an alert posture. As I was the only person in the meerkat habitat today, I had a chance to really pay attention to their actions. None of them paid much attention to me as I stood there for the better part of twenty minutes; but, as I was leaving, each of them stood on their hind legs and stared fixedly at me as I walked out. I immediately conjured some idea in my own mind as to what they might have been thinking as I left. Then it occurred to me: animal lovers do just that. What creates the special bond between man and animal is not what the animal emotionally or psychologically provides. Rather, it is what the human imaginatively conjures and impresses upon the heedless animal. Now, no doubt, animals have some intuitive capacity, as they are developed, living creatures. Yet, I doubt their capacity for actual thoughts or mature feelings, as I would think most sane people would. But the bond between man and animal is not subverted by this limitation; it is validated. The bond between man and animal is an imaginative one, and that is a fundamental human need. Our only sense of freedom is imaginative, as our material circumstances bind us in every which way. And because animals are ultimately inscrutable creatures, we are left to imagine what they must really be and how they must really feel about us. It is a beautiful thing after all.

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