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Animal Stories

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By David Futrelle

Animal Stories

It was a story that refused to go away. Over the course of its nearly weeklong run in the local media, it would slip to the back pages of the newspaper one day only to reemerge the next on the front page, propelled not by new information (there was none) but simply by the continuing public fascination with the story--and with the story's colorful main character, a true hometown heroine.

The heroine in question, of course, was Binti Jua, the eight-year-old western lowland gorilla mama who came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who'd landed smack-dab in the middle of her living room. It was a story that had "family values" written all over it.

I suppose the media could have chosen to focus on the sordid details of the case--Binti Jua was, after all, an unemployed, unwed mother (and a very young one at that) living an indolent life off the largesse of others. But the media (and Binti Jua's growing legion of fans) chose to focus on the positive: on Binti Jua's compassion--and, by extension, our own.

"Ape's heroism has a human touch," a headline in the Tribune declared--even though there is no reason to suspect that heroism is in any way a distinctly human attribute. "Scientists are becoming increasingly aware that animals have complex cognitive functions that are similar to what we recognize in ourselves as thought and feeling," Peter Kendall and Jeremy Manier wrote in the pages of the Tribune.

But it isn't exactly clear why we should conclude from this that animals are more "human" than we've previously thought; a more balanced view would suggest that we are more like our animal cousins than we often like to admit. And we are especially like the apes.

As Midas Dekkers notes in Dearest Pet, a surprisingly erudite reflection on bestiality (among other things), there is no animal encounter quite as unnerving as the encounter between free human and caged ape at the zoo. "However keen we are to identify ourselves with distant relatives such as the tiger...or a chic-looking gazelle, we become uneasy when we are close to the animals that resemble us most closely," Dekkers writes. "Laughing sheepishly at their 'silly antics,' we are embarrassed at the unfortunately irrefutable fact that of all animals these obscene, childish creatures are our nearest relatives; a feeling familiar to many people from family get-togethers."

We are, as Desmond Morris famously observed, but "naked apes." And the apes are as aware of it as we are. Indeed, as Dekkers notes, many of our most famous monkeys get an undeniably prurient thrill from looking at the unclothed forms of their human cousins: Washoe the chimp enjoyed leafing through Playboy magazine while perched in a favorite tree. And Lucy--another of the "talking" monkeys--is said to have used Playgirl as a masturbatory aid. Monkeys share our vices as well as our virtues--or, to put it more precisely, we share a set of vices and virtues with the animals closest to us in design.

So is it any wonder that we feel, perhaps, a certain guilt at placing these undeniably intelligent creatures in what after all is little more than a glorified jail--their only crime that of being caught? (It is true that keeping animals in captivity keeps them safe from human poachers, but the bargain we are giving the captive apes is something of a bleak one: live free and die, or spend your life staring through bars or across a moat at screaming kids.)

Is there anyone who hasn't felt a twinge of guilt when looking down at the apes in the zoo, wondering if these animal relatives might not resent their captivity as much as we would if put in a similar position--say, by giant talking apes?

Binti Jua's "heroism" inspired us so, I suspect, because it suggests that all is all right in the jails we call our zoos--that the animals there, instead of resenting their captivity, actually feel a certain gratefulness for our "protection." Binti Jua, in this view, was merely repaying our kindness with kindness of her own.

The coverage of the Binti Jua story managed to avoid dwelling on such unsettling concerns as the morality of zoo keeping. Indeed, it managed to elide such issues whenever they threatened to poke through the comforting narrative of simple maternal virtue.

In order to illustrate the "human nature" of some of our animal friends, the Tribune related the story of a polar bear whose compulsive pacing came to an end after it was given a dose of Prozac--which has proven effective in controlling obsessive-compulsive disorder in humans. The story didn't go on to note that the bear's compulsive behavior was almost certainly a reaction to its imprisonment in a zoo, and that many animals--lions, tigers, and bears--take up compulsive pacing because they are, quite literally, being driven mad by the misery of life in a cage.

Humans feel a terrible ambivalence toward the other inhabitants of the animal kingdom. We love some animals; we hate others. Some we pamper; others we slaughter--and sometimes we do both to the same species. Many people keep dogs as pets; a few people eat them. Many people eat pork; a few keep pigs as pets. We root for Babe the talking pig, and try not to think too much about the unsettling scene at the start of the film in which Babe's brothers and sisters are taken off to slaughter.

Why do we need to think that animals feel grateful for our presence on the earth? Some animals--beloved pets, for example--undoubtedly do. Others--say, veal calves--endure the human presence on earth as a horrific succession of tortures ending in death. But that's life. We don't all have to become vegetarians. It would perhaps be more honest to simply admit that we are animals like the rest, and that the animal kingdom is not always a nice place.

Indeed, another news story from the Week of Binti suggests as much. As Chicagoans congratulated themselves for nurturing such a noble creature as Binti Jua, the sordid details of another animal story were beginning to leak out of California's Yosemite National Park--the story of an interspecies encounter with a much less happy ending. It didn't quite get the same play in the Chicago press, so perhaps I should explain.

Though the details of the encounter are a matter of some dispute, the basic outline of the story is this: A youngster went exploring the woods with his mother. The two came upon a gang of animals from a particularly ferocious species who attacked them almost at once. The youngster was killed, as forest rangers later concluded, from "blunt force trauma."

What gives this story its unique twist is that the youngster--perhaps a year and a half old, weighing 75 pounds--was a bear. The attackers were, of all things, Boy Scouts and their leaders, who apparently stoned the creature to death when it wandered into their camp in search of food.

The scouts insist the bear was killed by accident, in self-defense. You see--scout's honor!--it was night, and a pair of bears had slipped into the campsite to steal food. The scout leaders threw rocks and pine cones at the intruders to scare them off. One of the rocks evidently hit a bear. "I heard a thud," Ron Roach, a financial planner turned bear-killing suspect, told the press. "It was pretty gross."

The next morning, the scouts discovered the baby bear was dead. They felt pretty bad about it all. "The media is making it sound like Lord of the Flies, as if the bear was stoned to death in a pit. That's not what happened at all," Roach complained to reporters.

Park officials aren't so sure. The initial investigation suggests that the bear wasn't killed in self-defense. "There does not appear to be a good reason for what they did," chief ranger Don Coelho told the press. "It looked like it had been stoned to death."

Whichever version of the story turns out to be true, it's not one that gives much hope for the future of human-animal understanding. But what can we do about it? To paraphrase the advertising slogan of a video from several years back that depicted a series of horrific animal attacks, that's why they call us animals.

Everybody's Just a Critic

Not since Princess Di's visit to our humble city have so many journalists been assigned to cover so little. At the conventions of 1996 there have been more reporters than delegates--and still none of them can find anything novel to report.

So they chatter with one another, offering mostly amiable theater criticism of the dull plays put on before them, carefully overlooking "the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only to be reported" (in Joan Didion's telling phrase). True, a few journalists have actually displayed a smidgen of initiative, poking around backstage and reporting on some of the big-money men and women behind the curtains--as the Tribune's Ellen Warren did in her revealing, if impressionistic, report on the corporate-sponsored yacht parties where the real business of the Republican convention took place.

But most journalists have been content to sit, like us couch potatoes at home, and merely watch--or, donning massive high-tech headgear, to make small excursions onto the floor among the delegates, who (as little more than pawns in the game) have nothing particularly insightful to add.

Which, perhaps, is why when Ted Koppel packed his bags and left the Republican convention early, his departure inspired a bout of self-righteous posturing among journalists convinced he was abdicating his duty.

"Despite all the hand-wringing and public disinterest in the conventions, there's still life and purpose and stories to be told at a convention," Tribune political reporter Mitchell Locin sniffed. "If Ted Koppel can't find them, he's not looking."

An admirable sentiment, perhaps--at least in theory. But Locin seemed unable to imagine anything better than the coverage we already had. He was happy to serve as little more than a glorified theater critic, and not a terribly critical one at that. He enthused about the media's role in conveying the "thrill" of the roll-call vote, and in capturing for posterity the "electric moments" that interrupted the tedium in the Republicans' big tent: "Elizabeth Dole's tour de force performance...John McCain's stirring nomination of a fellow war hero..."

If that's the best our journalists can do, they might as well all go home.

Scooped

The reports of Carol Moseley-Braun's less than excellent Nigerian adventure hit the Chicago press in waves: the story made it to the front page of the Sun-Times on Tuesday, August 20; the Tribune caught up with a front-page story the following day. The story inspired a number of political figures to go public with criticism of the ethically challenged senator--criticism long overdue.

One hopes the story might lead the two dailies to consider their own priorities as well: both papers were scooped by none other than Newsweek on a story in their own backyard. Last week's issue of the magazine (which arrived in my mailbox August 19) contained a detailed account of Moseley-Braun's venture, complete with telling details that never managed to make their way into the Sun-Times and Tribune accounts. And I suspect there are more stories to be told.

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