There’s a certain kind of interaction that happens, sometimes, between animals and people–or between animals and other animals. These interactions can happen regularly or only once, and can last for a long time or for just a few seconds. They’re moments when the people and animals involved (especially the animals) step out of their regular, natural roles, and into other, more mysterious ones.
Whenever or wherever these step-out moments occur, they tend to strike a curiously strong emotional chord with people. The Internet is full of clips of such moments. As I write this, the one making the rounds features a lion named Christian. As a cub, we are told, Christian was purchased by two men who saw him for sale in a London department store and took pity on him. A pastor friend of theirs allowed Christian the run of the grounds of his church. Christian grew, and eventually the men decided that even with all that grass to run on, he would be better off in the wild. They returned him to Africa and set him free. A year later they returned to pay him a visit. The Internet clip shows what happened when they did. Christian sees his former owners, runs toward them, leaps up, and--in an extraordinarily affectionate and strangely human-like way--embraces them.
Step-out moments between animals and other animals (usually a predator and a prey species) are equally popular. A few months back, several people sent me a photo of a group of huskies playing on the Arctic ice with a polar bear.
Why are scenes like this so powerful?
I suspect it’s because they remind us that all creatures, both animals and humans, are not just the flesh-and-blood beings we see on the surface, but spiritual beings: beings who are, in many of the things they normally do down here on earth, playing roles.
Myths and legends from around the world speak of a time when the rules that make the physical world the strangely problematic place it is (rules such as the one that declares that a certain kind of creature must prey on another kind of creature in order to survive) did not yet exist. This was the time of Eden--the time before the world became the broken, diminished, conflicted, and hopelessly confusing place that Saint Paul declared it is for all the earth’s creatures--not just humans.
Step-out moments involving large, ferocious animals like lions and polar bears are especially attractive because they speak directly to the profound impatience that all of us, deep down, feel at living in such a dog-eat-dog kind of world. Lions kill and eat other animals. Christian, we can assume, was not living as a vegetarian out there on the African plains before his adoptive human parents came to visit him, but spent his time chasing after gazelle and antelope. What we see in the clip is not this game-chasing predator, however, but a very different being: one who’s behavior hearkens back to the time that each and every last one the word’s countless myths and legends of paradise speaks about: a time when all creatures lived unburdened by strife and violence, by the need to eat and the danger of being eaten.
When a cat and a mouse, or a coyote and a rabbit, or a dolphin and a shark step out of the roles they ordinarily play in the earthly ecosystem, a deep part of us instantly travels back to that time. Yes, that part of us says, this is how it’s supposed to be.
Step-out moments are, by their nature, fleeting. That’s part of their magic. The graceful, gravity-free relationships that the players in these moments enjoy are not the kind that the world we currently live in can support for very long. But by happening at all, they remind us that this world, and the rules by which it operates, are not the only kind of world there ever was, or ever will be.
Not by a long shot.