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Connecting to Ourselves Through Animals

I am continually amazed at the diversity of perspectives that people bring to the Los Angeles Zoo, where I work. On some occasions I overhear parents and teachers patiently explaining basics of evolution and natural selection to children, and on others I hear adults emphasizing the wonder of God's creations.

Animals have always carried a diversity of meanings for people. On a concrete level they serve as beasts of burden and provide us sustenance, though people are less aware of this today than they have been in the past because few of us live with animals other than pets. The animals that "work" in laboratories and those that are raised for food are largely invisible to us.

On another level, animals have served symbolic functions for us—functions that are more abstract but also a vital part of culture. In the human imagination, they embody elements of ourselves and the world around us that are intangible, making it easier for us to transmit ideas and values. In fables and bestiaries they represented (and still represent) the qualities we love and hate about ourselves—thriftiness, envy, spite, perseverance, altruism, selfishness, etc. Yet the naturalistic representations of artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Jean-Baptiste Oudry capture something slightly different and even more elusive.

We often forget (or prefer to ignore) that we are animals too, but just what is it that divides us from our fellow creatures? We used to believe that it was language and tool making and altruism, but numerous species have proven that these attributes are not unique to humans.

Dead Crane / Oudry  
Dignified and noble: Dead Crane, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, oil on canvas, 1745
Staatliches Museum Schwerin
In the bible, Adam and Eve dwell happily in Eden along with all of God's other creatures until they give in to the temptation to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge. I've often pondered just what that disastrous information was. Calculus? The wheel? The solution to the Rubik's cube? Fire? How to produce a perfect Titian red? After much contemplation (with some input from C.S. Lewis), I concluded that the knowledge that destroyed our innocence (and sundered us from all other animals) for all eternity is the awareness of time and therefore our own mortality. This knowledge is at the root of some of our worst atrocities and at the heart of our greatest accomplishments as a species.

The lost innocence of living only in the moment is something for which we still yearn. After all too short a period of purely existential living during childhood, we have to work to attain a sense of timelessness, which we attain only fleetingly when we are fully engaged with something outside ourselves. When we look into the eyes of animals, I believe we catch a glimpse of that long-lost innocence. Even the most ferocious predator kills with a lack of self-consciousness that would be entirely pathological in a human.

Oudry's body of work includes works that treat animals highly symbolically, for example the fable of The Wolf and the Fox and the portrait of the dead crane, shown here. Yet they are depicted in a naturalistic, dignified manner that ennobles them, elevating them to the status of portrait subjects. The dramatic crane composition evokes scenes of the crucifixion of Saint Peter, which depict Peter being nailed to an upside-down cross, according to his wishes, in deference to Christ.

For some people the lost innocence we see in animals elicits a kind of contempt. For others it is a connection to a part of ourselves that we long to embrace. And while Oudry's works are masterpieces in the deft way that he captured gesture, expression, and physical detail, it's the nobility of spirit behind each creature that makes the paintings so compelling.

Come visit us at the Los Angeles Zoo. Take a Summer Safari to see an Indian rhinoceros, cassowary, African lion, spectacular African crowned crane, and other animals like the ones Oudry painted.

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