OPINION: Love for animals

·5 min read

Jun. 13—I am wary of people who pay no attention to animals.

I know that many folks have allergies or family situations that prevent pet ownership. I am talking about total indifference, in a visitor, when Tabby or Rex tries to make friends.

Or indifference to photos of elephants or video of great lions. Or lack of concern for species endangered. To me this is odd, disconnected, opaque.

Even Richard Nixon had a dog in the White House.

So, the ultimate feel-good story of last week was the story of Bryson Kliemann, age 8, of Lebanon, Va. When his puppy, Bruce, stopped eating and was diagnosed with parvo, Bryson set up shop in his front yard and began selling off his Pokemon card collection. His plan was to help his mom pay the vet bills. She did not have $700 to spare, so it wasn't just a gesture. It was selfless, practical action.

And love.

What happened then is that, via social media, a lot of people got wind of the situation, and both animal lovers and just good folk came to the rescue. Donations without strings, and even new Pokemon cards, poured in.

The bill got paid. The puppy got better. Look at Bryson's smile.

But, especially, animal lovers came forth, because they knew what this boy was feeling.

I recall a vet telling me, when I was trying to save a young sick cat (and we both knew the probable outcome), "That's when you really get attached to an animal. When it is hurting and needs your help."

This makes me think of my brother, who has, many times, been an animal rescuer, including times he put himself at risk or absorbed great costs.

And of my late mother, who was a rescuer all her 78 years — dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, birds. You name it.

And of a friend, years ago, who was given an executive tour of a state-of-the-art modern zoo. She wept.

And all this, in turn, puts me in mind of two recent films — My Octopus Teacher and Dream Horse.

The first is a documentary about a guy who treats his own career burnout and depression with daily swims and free diving in the cold waters off Cape Town, South Africa's peninsula. (Craig Foster adapted to the water using no wetsuit and no scuba gear, instead building body and breath control.) And since he was a filmmaker, he began to shoot footage below the surface, in the kelp forest. Not only did he start to get amazing pictures but — it's totally weird but strangely and profoundly affecting — he developed a means of communicating with, and befriending, an octopus. He used small, hand-held cameras so as to be minimally disruptive to it and its neighbors.

Dream Horse, a fictionalized movie based on a true story, is perhaps even more touching. For one thing, a horse is several evolutionary steps closer to a human than an octopus. Also, it is an underdog story about both the horse and its owners. And, finally, actress Toni Collette, whose character's love for the horse is the centerpiece of the film, totally inhabits the character.

One scene of Ms. Collette talking to a majestic race horse, in close-up, is worth a hundred, or maybe a thousand, rom-coms.

At the end of the day, there is something cosmological about a human being's care for, and of, an animal. It mirrors, you could say, God's affection for humanity.

You could say that.

From the Lassie stories, to My Friend Flicka, to the Black Stallion books, to Jack London's stories, to Flipper, tales about the extraordinary bonds that sometimes develop between men/women and animals touch something deep within all of us, at least all of us not to the psychological right of Richard Nixon.

Actually, though, the animals in many of these stories are the caregivers. They save the people, rather than the people saving them. Lassie was a lot more savvy than Timmy. And Flipper was way smarter than anyone in his TV family.

Nobler, too, as animals often are. The last act of our last dog, Emma, was to lick our youngest son's face.

Yes, we anthropomorphize. We interfere. And we can muck nature up when we do. But humanity's link to animals is somehow essential, even if it is to a rodent or mollusk.

Animals draw us back to nature — just as the sea, the mountains, and the trees do. That has to be good in a world of tweets and bots and Facebook. We are of the earth, to which we return, not of the phone.

Animals remind us that we are all animals, for ill and good. But far more ill if we totally lose touch with this part of ourselves.

Animals require our sympathy and compassion, because they are generally less powerful than us. Sympathy and compassion, along with reason, are the only things that make us more than animals who can stand.

And, a contemporary bonus, love of animals can draw us closer to other human beings who are animal lovers. Almost all human associations and connections, without hidden motives or political litmus tests, make us better. (If you are into corgis or collies you don't care what the politics of other enthusiasts are.)

All of this is true, and more.

And all of it is inadequate.

Maybe, as the blessed Catholic sisters of my youth used to say, what animals do for us is finally "a mystery."

And that means — like moonlight, or the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John, or the music of Mozart — our love for animals can stand alone. It can be analyzed but not understood. It needs no interpretation. It is its own meaning.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburris@theblade.com)

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