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The Conquest of Nature (and What We’ve Lost)

Posted on Mar 13, 2013
ajari (CC BY 2.0)

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

This essay will appear in “Animals,” the Spring 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version first appeared at
TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

London housewife Barbara Carter won a “grant a wish” charity  contest, and said she wanted to kiss and cuddle a lion. Wednesday night  she was in a hospital in shock and with throat wounds. Mrs. Carter,  forty-six, was taken to the lions’ compound of the Safari Park at  Bewdley Wednesday. As she bent forward to stroke the lioness, Suki, it  pounced and dragged her to the ground. Wardens later said, “We seem to  have made a bad error of judgment.”

—British news bulletin, 1976

Having once made a similar error of judgment with an Australian koala, I know it to be the one the textbooks define as the failure to grasp the distinction between an animal as an agent of nature and an animal as a symbol of culture. The koala was supposed to be affectionate, comforting, and cute. Of this I was certain because it was  the creature of my own invention that for two weeks in the spring of  1959 I’d been presenting to readers of the San Francisco Examiner prior to its release by the Australian government into the custody of the Fleishacker Zoo.

The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper, the features editor not  a man to ignore a chance for sure-fire sentiment, my task that of the  reporter assigned to provide the advance billing. Knowing little or  nothing about animals other than what I’d read in children’s books or  seen in Walt Disney cartoons, I cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Phascolarctos cinereus, ash-colored fur, nocturnal, fond of eucalyptus leaves), but for the most part I relied on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh,  the tales of Brer Rabbit, and archival images of President Teddy  Roosevelt, the namesake for whom the teddy bear had been created and  stuffed, in 1903 by a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn.


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Stouthearted, benevolent, and wise, the koala incoming from the Antipodes was the little friend of all the world, and on the day of its arrival at the airport, I was carrying roses wrapped in a cone of newsprint. The features editor had learned his trade in Hollywood in the 1940s, and he had in mind a camera shot of my enfolding a teddy bear in a warm and welcoming embrace. “Lost child found in the wilderness,” he had said. “Lassie comes home.” The koala didn’t follow script. Annoyed by the flashbulbs, clawing furiously at my head and shoulders, it bloodied my shirt and tie, shredded the roses, urinated on my suit and shoes.

The unpleasantness didn’t make the paper. The photograph was taken before the trouble began, and so the next morning in print, there we were, the koala and I, man and beast glad to see one another, the San Francisco Examiner’s very own Christopher Robin framed in the glow of an A-list fairy tale with Brer Rabbit, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winnie-the-Pooh, all for one and one for all as once had been our common lot in Eden.

The Pantomime of Brutes

Rumors and reports of human relations with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves, inscribed in the languages of Egyptian myth, Greek philosophy, Hindu religion, Christian art, our own DNA. Belonging within the circle of humankind’s intimate acquaintance until somewhere toward the end of the nineteenth century, animals appeared as both agents of nature and symbols of culture. Constant albeit speechless companions, they supplied energies fit to be harnessed or roasted, but they also were believed to possess qualities inherent in human beings, subject to the close observation of the ways in which man and beast both resembled and differed from one another.

Unable to deliver lectures, the lion and the elephant taught by example; so did the turtle, the wolf, and the ant. Aesop’s Fables, composed in the sixth century BC, accorded with the further researches of Aristotle, who, about 200 years later, in his History of Animals, set up the epistemological framework that for the next two millennia incorporated the presence of animals in the center ring of what became known as Western civilization:

“Just as we pointed out resemblances in the physical organs, so in a number of animals we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning… Other qualities in man are represented by analogous and not identical qualities; for instance, just as in man we find knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity, so in certain animals there exists some other natural potentiality akin to these.”

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