The mystery

By Amy Reiswig, May 2015

The complexities of our relations with other animals are explored in a new anthology.

The recent Oak Bay deer cull, as Focus readers will know, provoked intense and conflicting reactions—reactions from both head and heart. In the recent anthology In the Company of Animals (Nimbus, September 2014), editor Pam Chamberlain writes in her introduction about the distinction between feeling and thinking about animals, and the need to do both. She decided to bring together 37 voices from across Canada, including 6 Vancouver Islanders, to recount remarkable animal encounters from various perspectives—environmentalist, hunter, farmer, artist, veterinarian, game warden and more. 

Covering everything from pets to predators, this isn’t a collection of superficial warm-fuzzy “awwww” moments. Rather, the book looks at our overall relationships to and with animals and offers important lessons about our fundamental perceptions: the way we pay attention, interpret, appreciate, learn. And this includes, ultimately, reorienting our notions of what it means for humans, too, to be an animal.

Throughout history, people have been fascinated by animals. Our conceptual approaches to them, which tell us a lot about ourselves, are diverse. We revere them as spirit guides, totems and teachers. We demonize them as monsters. We fight them as competitors for resources or as impediments to development. We rely on them as workmates and rescuers. We monetize and sometimes torture them for food or even entertainment. We love them as family. 

What we can’t do is fully understand the mystery, and so there’s a push and pull between attraction and fear, between a longing for connection with animals and a distancing of them as unintelligent or insignificant “other.” The reality of experience, as we see in the book, is more complex. 

Take, for instance, the experience of Victoria-based Michael Lukas, a PhD candidate and lecturer at UVic who has worked as a fishing guide, Alaska bush nanny, and environmental educator. In 2002 he came face to face with a mountain lion in a moment of mutual curiosity that defies easy interpretation. He writes: “I spun around to face it. With his right front paw raised in mid-step, the mountain lion froze. Only twenty feet separated us.” A short while later, as it continued to follow him, Lukas began talking to the big cat, saying: “Enough!... I wanted to see you, but this has got to stop!” The animal sat and listened. “There seemed to be no threat in him, just interest, and a demand for recognition, as if we were partners in a conversation left unfinished.” The mountain lion simply “sat on his haunches and cocked his head once more, listening to the warble of sounds coming from my lips. He settled in the middle of the trail, curling up in a patch of sunlight, his raised neck and head framed by wisping blades of grass and an impossible crown of golden-petalled flowers.” 

While friends speculated that the animal was either about to have Lukas for lunch or, conversely, appeared as a beneficent “brother,” Lukas—a philosopher and theorist—has no answers. “Everyone was convinced that they knew what was going on,” he tells me over beers at the Bent Mast. “I’m not. I love ‘I don’t know.’”

Clearly, he explains, something was going on, something was being communicated. It was a relationship he was negotiating in that moment which was, he says, not his alone to define. Currently working on his dissertation called “The Rhetoric of Wolves,” Lukas studies how we talk about animals and how that has influence—down to even the policies we make around, for instance, conservation or habitat protection. “Even something like ‘suitable habitat’ is a rhetorical term,” he tells me. “What is the truth? What is the truth about animals?” Ultimately, I think he likes that that pursuit is as elusive as the big cat following silently behind him, disappearing into the woods. 

This mystery of animals and animal relationships, whether momentary or long-term, is central to the book. Victoria writer and former farmer Anny Scoones, who has published four books, three of which chronicle her time on Glamorgan Farm in North Saanich, writes lovingly of two Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Mabel and Matilda, and the simple joys of caring for them—tender moments like: “The pigs have a lovely smell, especially around their eyes,” and “When I bend down and tell Matilda that I love her, she leans into me and gives a soft grunt in appreciation.” But the real passion happens when Buster the boar is brought in to service the girls but neglects them because he falls for Scoones instead! “When a boar loses its sex urges because it falls in love with a human, that’s powerful!” she laughs at her home in James Bay. While she finds it amusing, she also finds it amazing. “I’d like people to understand that animals feel deep connections with people. It’s important for animals and for us.” 

And why, she asks, should that be surprising? “It’s like dogs with dogs or even people with people,” she says. “We don’t always connect.” 

Why and how does connection form across species? So wonders Port Alberni writer Jacqueline Windh, who tended a treefrog that she’d raised from a tadpole, observing its specific personality (“frogality,” she calls it) for nine years—and its attachment to her. “It’s the mystery of life,” Scoones says, “a mystery of energy and connection. I don’t think—I hope—scientists will ever figure it out. They’ll never beat mother nature.” 

As Scoones explains, “We’re too conscious. We’re too much in our heads. We need to look under the conscious mind at intuition and instinct.” Pointing to salmon spawning and various migrations, she notes that animals have a powerful, non-rational knowing we don’t possess. She asks me, awed, “What is it that they know?” It’s precisely what Windh asks about her frog. “How much can a small, basic animal feel? How would I know for sure?”

The question about the limits of animals’ knowing thus gets turned on us as well. What do we know, and how? Sometimes with the body, sometimes with the brain, sometimes with the heart. And yet, “There’s always a lack of complete understanding,” Lukas says. For all of our rationality and nuanced verbal expression, humans still have a great talent for miscommunication, with sometimes catastrophic consequences. So why assume we’re superior? “What’s wrong with just seeing and appreciating difference?” Lukas asks me. “Instead of differences, we turn it into hierarchy. There is no reason to think it’s not just difference.” 

By Skype, Jacqueline Windh wonders at the big implications. “We’re all animals sharing the planet. We have a lot of power and a lot of choice. We have to apply our awareness to all animals. They have lives that are important on their own scale, meaningful and purposeful.”   

Scoones claims that when it comes to the mystery of animals, “We should be celebrating, not analyzing.” That’s a big part of what this anthology does. 

A fourth Vancouver Islander writer in the anthology, Tofino poet Christine Lowther, has contributed an essay on swimming with a harbour seal in bioluminescent waters. Of it she says, “I’m hoping people take away a sense of wonder regarding the mystery of wildlife and the beauty of the ocean…a delight in the grace of the young seal.” 

Readers get to delight with all 37 authors in their surprising, touching, sad, scary and beautiful meetings and partings with a whole host of animals. 

So no matter whether you’re a cat-, dog-, mouse-, raven-, coyote-, seal-, otter-, turtle- or any-other-animal-loving person, there’s something of interest In the Company of Animals because the book goes to meaning deeper than individual creature capers. You never know, it might just inspire you to take Scoones’ advice to me: “Stop and see what animals can show us. Stop and live life like a pig.”

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig feels loved by her rescue cat Myshkin, who at night wraps around her hand, tucking his hind feet into her palm like a gift.