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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Thinking About Animals

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery has been thinking about the historical relationship between humans and other animals.


MAN: This is all over, all over the world now, isn't it?

(Waves and fog horns continue)

MONTGOMERY: All over the world, human cultures have taken great pains to preserve the knowledge that animals are our teachers, our protectors, our kin.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery has been thinking about the historical relationship between humans and other animals.

MONTGOMERY: For most of human existence animals have brought us extraordinary perceptions. They have brought rain and drought. They've provided us with meat and clothing. We have valued fellow creatures as beings who should be imitated, sought, and consulted. Among the North American Oglala Indians, a person on a vision quest would often seek an animal who would share with the person its particular secret. Sometimes it might be necessary to actually merge with the animal. Malay shaman, for instance, become possessed by the spirit of a tiger in order to heal illness. Among the Yanomamo Indians of Peru, a shaman might appear to you in the form of a jaguar. It's said there's people in Sumatra who are part tiger, part person; you can tell because they lack the groove in the upper lip. So strong is our intuitive kinship with fellow animals that the idea of creatures part animal, part human, recurs throughout our history. In the hundreds of Paleolithic rock paintings in the caves of Trois Freres in France, one image dominates: a being with antlered head, the pricked ears of the stag, the round eyes of the owl, the tail of the wolf, the paws of the bear, and the beard, legs, and feet of a man. The man animal image appears again and again, from the sphinxes and bird men of ancient Egypt to the animal garb worn by aboriginal people from North America to Australia.

There's another place you can see this, too: under the microscope. We can look at the human embryo as it develops. First we look like tadpoles. A few weeks later we look exactly like embryonic birds. At points in our development we have gills like fish, we have tails like dogs. Quite late in our development in utero, we are completely indistinguishable from fetal monkeys. Each of us, in the very plan of our bodies, remembers this important truth. There is no sharp dividing line between animals and people. We are not enemies, but co-players in the drama of life.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives in New Hampshire with one of her favorite animals, a 600-pound pig named Christopher Hogwood. She comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio.



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