My oldest son once spent a summer on staff at a Scout reservation. Underneath his tent platform lived a family of skunks. They would amble by, mama and her kits (baby skunks are kits, as baby goats are kids), with nary a hint of animosity and rarely a spark of curiosity.
Who knows how many summers mama skunk had spent like that, but obviously she was habituated to the Boy Scouts. It was something to see, mama parading her kits through the campsite to and from their den, morning and dusk, without let or hindrance, scent glands notwithstanding.
Last week I enticed a finch on the wing to take food from my extended hand. With a flock of compatriots, he had been hanging out at our outdoor table along a stretch of food kiosks. The finches’ diet of scraps was eclectic, but they did reveal a fondness for tortilla chips. One chirped at us insistently. Toss him something and he would shut up. The other birds, of course, ganged the scrap and, once it was devoured, fled. Except for the chirper—he stayed and chirped for more.
I held out a morsel at arm’s length and waited. I did not wait long. Though obviously hesitant and cautious, the little chirper—the bravest of all—launched himself, fluttered above my fingers, and took the food. We did this, the finch and I, a number of times.
Doves nested on our patio, at eye-level on an open-shelf storage cabinet. They were right in our traffic flow. They raised three or four broods every year over a period of six summers. For the most part they ignored us and we never bothered them, except I did give myself permission to stroke their tail feathers while they were nesting. Doves can growl. Did you know that?
One summer we had an orphan robin. We raised it. It was a loud, voracious eater. We needed professional help to keep it fed, and I took myself to a bait shop every two or three days for night crawlers. The robin fledged, learned to fly, and stayed around all summer. When my wife was out weeding, though, it would flop down next to her and demand all the bugs and crawlies she could dig up. If she didn’t respond fast enough, it would peck at her bracelet.
Then—this is stunning—there’s the goose that sought help from a Cincinnati police officer. Her gosling was tangled in a balloon string and she summoned human assistance to release it. Task done, goose and gosling walked away.
I love these stories of wild animals with humans. They are something like a spiritual release for me, something unexpected, bumping into the numinous.
I speculate from time to time that we are seeing the faint but lingering residue of the Edenic cooperative ideal between human and animal hinted at in Genesis 2. Or perhaps, even more speculatively, an Edenic foreshadow is leaking through the here-and-now, a glimpse ahead, the curtain rising but slightly on creation’s fulfillment.
Humanity was formed from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7); so, too, were the animals (2:19). God’s breath animates humanity, though not the animals. Coming from the same source, animals and humans clearly are divinely related, and just as clearly they are separate. Animals arose by God’s will because Adam was alone and needed helpers. Adam named the animals, and the force of the text suggests that God did not know their names until Adam named them: “[God] brought them to the man to see what he would name them.” Adam, naming the creatures, revealed them to God. The creatures revealed are Adam’s helpers in his loneliness. Here are two separate tasks, one for Adam, one for the animals, but they are tightly linked. I can tease from the story an intended Edenic collaboration between Adam and the animals.
Humanity’s oldest myths center on human-animal interactions, even partnerships. Shamans’ paintings on cave walls, almost always depicting prey animals, simultaneously named an animal in their representations and summoned it to give its life for humans. Were the Yahwist writers and redactors of Genesis drawing on snatches of surviving Paleolithic myth?
Well, who knows? I just like conjecture.
All the same, you’ll excuse me if I prefer to think that the goose actively sought human intervention for her gosling, and the little finch was brave, because both were nudged in some small way by an intruding Edenic scene, one that we humans still share however slightly with the animals.
Russell E. Saltzman writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @RESaltzman. His previous First Things contributions are here.