"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Don’t Do Animals

I am not a religious person, but there is one verse in the Bible which I like:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth – Genesis 1:26

I don’t do animals.

For years my ‘progressive’ friends (those that I still have left) have tried to save me from falling over some ethical and moral precipice and into the pit of libertarianism; and my religious ones have tried even harder to pull me back from the hellfire, the eternal damnation, and the abject loneliness of never knowing God.  I have paid attention to neither, although both have never ceased their efforts. I also get letters and frequent calls from my graduate school asking for donations to the alumni fund.  We usually just hang up, but one day my wife stayed on the line and said, “Don’t you get it?  My husband has never given you a penny in 45 years and will never give you a red cent.  Stop calling”.

Of course they kept up the calls hoping for a deathbed conversion.  At some point I would see the light and give them a generous donation.  My ‘progressive’ and religious friends were no different.  Regardless how firm and resolute I was, the imprecations continued and continue to this day. I might still find Jesus or liberalism.

None of this can compare to the blandishments of my animal-lover friends who have always gushed emotionally over the lions, elephants, and wildebeests on the Serengeti; the elk and moose in the valleys of the Rockies; the orangutans of Borneo; or the gorillas of the African high forests.   

I have always explained that I have no interest in animals and never have had any.  I had seen my share of wild animals in zoos and on TV and the odd bear in Yellowstone, and it did absolutely nothing for me. My friends persisted.  Every time they came back from Tanzania, Botswana, or South Africa, they showed endless pictures of wild game.  “You should go to a game park”, they said. “You will love it”.

“Why?”, I asked.  I was always looked at quizzically, someone as bizarre and undiscovered as the apes ogled in the forest.  It was obvious that no one had ever asked them that simple and basic question.

“Well, because….”  Here they always stumbled and fumbled.  How could they put into words the majesty of these great beasts, the sublimity of their line and form, their unique symbolism of Nature and expression of God’s great Creation.  “How….It’s…..You will never see anything like it”

It was bad enough to sit next to these bores at dinner, but in the field, it was far, far worse.  I was in Nairobi once on World Bank business.  I looked up some old friends who worked for a non-profit agency and they suggested that we make an outing to a nearby game park over the weekend.  I demurred, saying that I preferred to relax at the hotel.  They persisted.  The park was close-by, perhaps an hour-and-a-half at the most; and despite its proximity to the city, it was as primitive as you would ever find in anywhere in the Rift Valley, and I really owed it to myself to go. 

“Why?”, I asked. Again, the same quizzical looks, the same incomprehension that anyone would turn down the offer.  After all, why come all this way and not see the game parks?

“Well”, they invariably continued, “because….”; and here they almost always fumbled and searched for the answer to a question they had never been asked. 

I remember that weekend, the one I spent at the old Norfolk Hotel and not in the game park.  The Norfolk is an old British colonial hotel which has been kept up, restored, and preserved; and old Kenya hands tell me it is little different from the days of the Raj.  I love the Norfolk, the Raffles, the Galle Face, the Grand, and scores of other lesser-known but equally pukka hotels scattered throughout Asia and Africa. I stayed in one in Bamenda, Cameroon, high up in the hills of one of the English-speaking provinces.  I was invited to the Officers’ Club and played snooker with handlebar mustachioed majors, had gin fizzes on the verandah and a chota peg before dinner.  All these hotels have teak and polished brass fittings, planter chairs, potted palms, pictures of the Viceroy or the Queen, and are wonderful recreations of a storied past.  I ate Sunday tiffin, sat by the pool, enjoyed the verandahs and gardens, drank Tusker beer at the bar, and had a great time.

“You should have come”, my friends said the following Monday.  It was spectacular.  I didn’t repeat my unanswerable question ‘Why?’, and knew that this was not the last time I would be asked to day-safari.

Another time I was in Kigali and stayed at the Mille Collines Hotel.  The Mille Collines is now only associated with the genocide.  It was one of the few refuges available to Tutsis fleeing the murderous Hutus.  Now, almost twenty years later, it is one of the best hotels in Africa.  While it cannot compete with the five-star chains in major cities, for me it was perfect.  The lobby was open and breezy with polished marble floors, bright brass urns filled with tropical flowers.  From poolside the view was to the mountains in the distance or to the South Beach-style under-lit interior façade.  There were palm trees, bougainvillea, and tropical hedges.  The bar was lively and the watering hole for le tout Kigali.  The dining area was on the top deck and the view of the city at night was pleasant and he food good.  There was a massage parlor and for $7.00 I could get an expert, full-body, one hour massage by lovely Rwandan ladies.

A colleague asked me if I wanted to travel with him up to the game preserves in the northeast hills of the country near the Congolese border.  There, he said, we could trek into the forest and see silverbacks.  Silverbacks are mountain gorillas whose hair turns grey with age.  These males are big, loud, and domineering.  I once again demurred, saying that I preferred to stay by the pool; but what I really meant was that I had zero interest in travelling many hours by car, then trekking in tangled, wet, and steep mountain paths to see these animals.  I had learned not to ask ‘why’, but I always thought the question.  My weekend at the hotel would have everything – good food, sunny afternoons by the pool, drinks at the bar, delicious Nile Perch for dinner, and long uninterrupted hours of reading.  If I was lucky, I might meet someone interesting.  The laws of social intercourse change in the Third World.  Chatting up a young, attractive American or European at the bar is not thought of as an intrusion, but a meeting of like-minded development professionals.  During this weekend I would eat well, learn much from my books by Thucydides and Thomas Mann, feel invigorated after a good swim and massage, enjoy lively development stories at the bar and maybe start a romance.  Why on earth would I go trekking to catch a glimpse of the back of a gorilla?

The worst importuning came in Madagascar when I was asked by colleagues living in Antananarivo if I wanted go to a nearby game park to see the lemurs.  Madagascar is a large island in the Indian Ocean which has been separated from continental land for millennia.  As such, like the Galapagos, it has a variety of unique species of plants and animals.  The lemur is one of them.  It is basically a monkey with an especially long tail, raccoon-like rings on its fur, and wide, staring eyes.  I had bad experiences with monkeys in India where they were protected by Hindus.  The monkey-god, Hanuman, is a local folk hero and no one touches the hundreds of monkeys which perch on temple walls, pick pockets, beg for food, and bite.  I hated them.  Lemurs were no more than ringed monkeys, and even if I loved animals, I would stay away from them.

Tana is a pleasant city and the hotel, like the Mille Collines was an older hotel kept up but never renovated, so it retained more of a colonial feel to it.  I loved drinking pastis at the bar with French expatriates, talking politics, food, adventure, and Africa, and resting in my comfortable room with a view of the city.  Best of all Tana was famous for its fresh foie gras, and I went out every night to the many small French restaurants which served this delicacy.  I had foie gras, local fish, French wine, espresso, and a digestive.  I loved it.  I was content and happy.  I had no interest whatsoever in lemurs.

My colleagues were the most persistent about seeing the country’s special animals of any in any country.  Never in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, or Botswana did I encounter such a passionate attachment.  It was obvious that the lemurs were more than just unique animals.  They symbolized Madagascar and love of them was a defiant justification of living in one of the world’s backwaters.  Again and again I was asked; and again and again I demurred. 

I am equally unimpressed with trees.  I have been asked many times to see the redwoods, the old-growth forests, and the stands of high-country cypress, and have refused them all.  It is not so much that I don’t like them or being around them – the case with animals – it is just that I would rather be doing something else with my time.  The older I get the more hurried I am to learn what I never learned, to search out answers to questions I have asked for decades, to experience theatre, the genius of Faulkner or Shakespeare; to travel through the Deep South and collect an oral history of Reconstruction and even the Civil War.

And I have never found the wood revealing, spiritual, or uplifting.  I remember reading Wordsworth in college and wondering at the passages about climbing Mont Blanc, the clouds and the mist, and the sudden clearing of the mountain.  Wordsworth was moved; but try as I might, the woods were always buggy, tangled affairs and never did anything for me.

The most interesting part of this story is not about me or my indifference to the wild, it is the passionate defense of it that I find everywhere.  There are many kinds of animal lovers – those that love little puppies and who are convinced that their Lab really can think; those that raise the bar and act in defense of all animals; and those that love wild animals and will do anything to protect them and their habitat.  Of all of these, the wild ones are the most insistent and demanding.  I think it is because they see something spiritual in the wild, especially in the wild tigers, elk, elephants, and wildebeests.  My indifference to animal rights (I would rather eat chickens than worry about how happy they are) is understandable to these true believers – I must have other political causes that take up my time – but how could I be so indifferent to something that was close to God?

In any case, I still don’t do animals.  I still hang out at bars and pools, keep my nose in Shakespeare or Southern history, and make few excursions out of DC except to other cities. If I go on anything even approximating animals or trees it is because of the company, the good friends who have been companions for decades.  They don’t really understand, but we are such good friends it doesn’t matter.

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