What Animals Taught Me About Being Human
Surrounding myself with animals to feel less alone was a mistake:
The greatest comfort is in knowing their lives are not about us at all.
The greatest comfort is in knowing their lives are not about us at all.
The New York Times by HELEN MACDONALD
Long ago, when I was 9 or 10, I wrote a school essay on what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ll be an artist, and I’ll keep a pet otter, I announced confidently, before adding, “as long as the otter is happy.”
When I got back my exercise book, my teacher had commented, “But how can you tell if an otter is happy?” I boiled with indignation. Surely, I thought, otters would be happy if they had a soft place to sleep, could play, go exploring, make a friend (that would be me) and swim around in rivers catching fish. The fish were my only concession to the notion that an otter’s needs might not match my own. It never occurred to me that I might not understand the things an otter wanted, or understand much of what an otter might be. I thought animals were just like me.
I was an odd, solitary child with an early and all-consuming compulsion to seek out wild creatures. Perhaps this was unfinished business related to losing my twin at birth: a small girl searching for her missing half, not knowing what she was looking for. I upended rocks for centipedes and ants, followed butterflies between flowers, lay facedown in meadows breathing in the perfume of roots and decay, transfixed by the sight of tiny insects the size of punctuation marks making their laborious way up blades of grass. I pored over field guides trying to learn the names of all these creatures — it seemed polite, like knowing the names of my classmates at school. Viewed close up, the profusion of life in a few square feet of vegetation astonished me, radically shifting my sense of scale and widening my world beyond the modest familiarities of classroom and home.
The creatures I met in the fields and woods around my house came to feel like a secret family, though I spent a lot of time chasing and catching them and not thinking much about how that made them feel. I was a child kneeling to extract a grasshopper from the closed cage of one hand, solemn with the necessity of gentleness, frowning as I took in the details of its netted wings, heraldically marked thorax, abdomen as glossy and engineered as jewelry. I wasn’t just finding out what animals looked like, but testing my capacity to navigate that perilous space between harm and care that was partly about understanding how much power over things I might have and partly how much power I had over myself, knowing that I could so easily hurt them. At home I kept insects and amphibians in a growing collection of glass aquariums and vivariums arranged on bedroom shelves and windowsills. Later they were joined by an orphaned crow, an injured jackdaw, a badger cub and a nest of baby bullfinches rendered homeless by a neighbor’s hedge-pruning. Looking after this menagerie taught me a lot about animal husbandry, but in retrospect my motives were selfish. Rescuing animals made me feel good about myself; surrounded by them, I felt less alone.
My parents were wonderfully accepting of these eccentricities, putting up with seeds scattered on kitchen countertops and bird droppings in the hall with great good grace. But things weren’t so easy at school. To use a term from developmental psychology, social cognition wasn’t my forte. One morning I wandered off the court in the middle of a netball match to identify some nearby birdcalls and was bewildered by the rage this induced in my team. Things like this kept happening. I wasn’t good at teams. Or rules. Or any of the in-jokes and complicated allegiances of my peer group.
Unsurprisingly, I was bullied. To salve this growing, biting sense of difference from my peers, I began to use animals to make myself disappear. By concentrating hard enough on insects, or by holding binoculars up to my eyes to bring wild birds close, I found that I could make myself go away. This method of finding refuge from difficulty was an abiding feature of my childhood.
By the time I was in my 30s, I thought I’d grown out of this habit. I had been a falconer for many years, which was a surprising education in emotional intelligence. It taught me to think clearly about the consequences of my actions, to understand the importance of positive reinforcement and gentleness in negotiating trust. To know exactly when the hawk had had enough, when it would rather be alone. And most of all, to understand that the other party in a relationship might see a situation differently or disagree with me for its own good reasons. These were lessons about respect, agency and other minds that, I am embarrassed to confess, I was rather late in applying to people. I learned them first from birds.
But when I was 37, my father died, and all these lessons were suddenly forgotten. I wanted to be something as fierce and inhuman as a goshawk. So I lived with one. Watching her soar and hunt over hillsides near my home, I identified so closely with the qualities I saw in her that I forgot my grief. But I also forgot how to be a person, and fell into a deep depression. A hawk turned out to be a terrible model for living a human life. Once again, I had tried to escape emotional difficulty by filling my mind with a living creature. It was a failure, a mistake that revealed in retrospect the deepest lesson that animals have taught me: how easily and unconsciously we see other lives as mirrors of our own.
Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves. The purpose of animals in medieval bestiaries, for example, was to give us lessons in how to live. I don’t know anyone who now thinks of pelicans as models of Christian self-sacrifice, or the imagined couplings of vipers and lampreys as an allegorical exhortation for wives to put up with unpleasant husbands.
But our minds still work like bestiaries. We thrill at the notion that we could be as wild as a hawk or a weasel, possessing the inner ferocity to go after the things we want; we laugh at animal videos that make us yearn to experience life as joyfully as a bounding lamb. A photograph of the last passenger pigeon makes palpable the grief and fear of our own unimaginable extinction. We use animals as ideas to amplify and enlarge aspects of ourselves, turning them into simple, safe harbors for things we feel and often cannot express.
None of us see animals clearly. They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them. Encountering them is an encounter with everything you’ve ever learned about them from previous sightings, from books, images, conversations. Even rigorous scientific studies have asked questions of animals in ways that reflect our human concerns.
In the late 1930s, for example, when the Dutch and Austrian ethologists Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz towed models resembling flying hawks above turkey chicks, they were trying to prove that these birds hatched with a hard-wired image resembling an airborne bird of prey already in their minds that compelled them to freeze in terror. While later research has suggested it is very likely that young turkeys actually learn what to fear from other turkeys, the earlier experiment is still valuable, not least for what it says about human fears. To me it seems shaped by the historical anxieties of a Europe threatened for the first time by large-scale aerial warfare, when pronouncements were made that “the bomber will always get through,” no matter how tight the national defense.
Simply knowing that fragment of history, and knowing that domesticated turkey chicks freeze when hawks fly overhead, make them more complicated creatures than farmyard poultry or oven-ready carcasses. For the more time spent researching, watching and interacting with animals, the more the stories they’re made of change, turning into richer stories that can alter not only what you think of the animal but also who you are. It has broadened my notion of home to think of what that concept might mean to a nurse shark or a migratory barn swallow; altered my notion of family after I learned of the breeding systems of acorn woodpeckers, in which several males and females together raise a nest of young. No one I know thinks that humans should spawn like wave-borne grunion or subsist entirely on flies. But the various lives of creatures have led me to feel there might not be only one right way to express care, to feel allegiance, a love for place, a way of moving through the world.
You cannot know what it is like to be a bat by screwing your eyes tight, imagining membranous wings, finding your way through darkness by talking to it in tones that reply to you with the shape of the world. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel explained, the only way to know what it is like to be a bat is to be a bat. But the imagining? The attempt? That is a good and important thing. It forces you to think about what you don’t know about the creature: what it eats, where it lives, how it communicates with others.
The effort generates questions not just about how being a bat is different but about how different the world might be for a bat. For what an animal needs or values in a place is not always what we need, value or even notice. Muntjac deer have eaten the undergrowth where nightingales once nested in the forests near my home, and now those birds have gone. What to my human eye is a place of natural beauty is, for a nightingale, something like a desert. Perhaps this is why I am impatient with the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are. They are not there for us alone.
For some weeks, I’ve been worried about the health of family and friends. Today I’ve stared at a computer screen for hours. My eyes hurt. My heart does, too. Feeling the need for air, I sit on the step of my open back door and see a rook, a sociable species of European crow, flying low toward my house through gray evening air.
Straightaway I use the trick I learned as a child, and all my difficult emotions lessen as I imagine how the press of cooling air might feel against its wings. But my deepest relief doesn’t come from imagining I can feel what the rook feels, know what the rook knows — instead, it’s slow delight in recognizing that I cannot. These days I take emotional solace from understanding that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all. The house it’s flying over has meaning for both of us. To me, it is home. To a rook? A way point on a journey, a collection of tiles and slopes, useful as a perch or a thing to drop walnuts on in autumn to make them shatter and let it winkle out the flesh inside.
Then there is something else. As it passes overhead, the rook tilts its head to regard me briefly before flying on. And with that glance I feel a prickling in my skin that runs down my spine, and my sense of place shifts. The rook and I have shared no purpose. For one brief moment we noticed each other, is all. When I looked at the rook and the rook looked at me, I became a feature of its landscape as much as it became a feature of mine. Our separate lives, for that moment, coincided, and all my anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else pulled me back into the world by sending a glance across the divide.
Helen Macdonald is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of the best-selling memoir “H Is for Hawk.” She last wrote for the magazine about Brexit and the ancient British ritual of swan upping.