Apr/May 2001 Salon

Walt, Dian, the animals, and me

by Paul J. Sampson

Walt Whitman, who probably didn't mean it, said "I think I could turn and live with animals." Dian Fossey meant it, and did it. Me, I vacillate.

Even Whitman, the most gregarious of men, had enough of his own kind now and then, and here is how he said so:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd;
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

[Leaves of Grass 32, ll.682-689]

But he got over it; I suppose someone as garrulous as Walt needed a more responsive audience than animals provided. Besides, the people of his time already "lived with animals" to a degree we would find astonishing today. For instance, even the most citified, like Walt Whitman of Brooklyn and Manhattan, dealt with horses every day. That's a lot of animal company.

Dian Fossey was another, sadder story. If you have seen the film "Gorillas in the Mist," you know the outlines of her life, including its unhappy ending. You can read a good brief version of it on the Internet.

Briefly, in 1967 Dian Fossey turned and lived with the animals, especially the gorillas, of the Virunga Mountains in what is now Zaire, then the Congo. Eventually she was forced by local wars to move to neighboring Rwanda, where she established the Karisoke Research Center. A shy and reclusive person, very much like the creatures she studied, she became a fierce advocate for the gorillas and an enemy of the humans who threatened them.

She was also apparently a near-recluse, according to The National Geographic: "Shy by nature, Dian increasingly felt drawn to the gorillas and alienated from her own kind." Other sources add that she began drinking a great deal, which seems plausible, given her pattern of isolation and anger.

At last it all ended in tragedy. From the Geographic: "She... became more and more aggressive in dismantling snares and intimidating poachers. On December 27, 1985, Dian Fossey was found murdered in her cabin at Karisoke. Although the killing has remained unsolved, it was most likely linked to her war on poaching." She was 53 years old.

There was a time in my own life, also ending in the mid-1980s, when for most purposes I lived with the animals myself. Or at least one animal, an old Border Collie-Springer Spaniel mix named Yippie. Alas, I did not do groundbreaking work in biology like Dian Fossey. Also alas, like Fossey, I drank a good deal too much. And like her, I turned further and further away from people, preferring to talk to my dog. Eventually, the dog died in her sleep, and the world forced itself in on me again. With a lot of help, I found my way back to other people.

But that is another story. This is not about recovery, but loss.

I know why someone turns to animals and away from people: because the animals give their simple hearts completely and forever, passionately and unequivocally, with every evidence of joy. After prolonged, exhausting failures in loving our own kind, we embrace these guileless friends with all our failing hope.

What do they give us? Most fundamentally, they recognize us. They know us as individuals. "See? He knows me," says the bag lady who feeds the pigeons. "They all know me." And indeed they do, and she knows them. I am the Good Pigeon Feeder; I know my flock and they know me.

Fossey on her mountain with her gorilla cemetery; the old woman with an apartment full of cats; and for a long time, me with my frail old dog—and all of us drunk a good deal of the time. Not what Whitman had in mind.

Solitude is, after all, the second most terrible punishment we mete out to prisoners. Short of death itself, solitary confinement is the worst threat we use to frighten convicts. Think of the heartbreaking tales of prisoners' pets. Then reflect on any lonely person's pets. They are the sparrows on the prisoner's window-ledge, the cricket in the corner of his cell. Sometimes they are the last living link that holds the lonely mind together.

Of course this isn't "enough," but it sustains us for a while, and if we are lucky, we can gather strength from it and return refreshed to our own world. The temptation is to stay there, and the punishment for doing so is to become queer, crabbed, unreasonable, unreachable, unfairly fearful of our fellow sufferers, afraid to be enmeshed in their demanding lives. And this progression neatly reinforces itself; we become more and more unlikeable, and less and less likely to find the kind of human company that can reclaim us.

Then not even the animals can save us.


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