As a child, I was once taken to a small sad zoo near the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. There were only a handful of animals and my attention was quickly drawn by a solitary chimpanzee.
We soon sat face-to-face within arm’s reach, exchanging calls and became absorbed in what seemed like communication — even if there were no words. Before the eyes of another primate we see mirrors of inquiry. Just as much as I wanted to talk to the chimp, it seemed like he wanted to talk to me. His sorrow, like that of all captives, could not be held tight by silence.
The rest of my family eventually tired of my interest in learning how to speak chimpaneze. After all, talking to animals is something that only small children are willing to take seriously. Supposedly, it is just another childish exercise of the imagination — the kind of behavior that as we grow older we grow out of.
This notion of outgrowing a sense of kinship with other creatures implies an upward advance, yet in truth we don’t outgrow these experiences of connection, we simply move away from them. We imagine we are leaving behind something we no longer need, whereas in fact we are losing something we have forgotten how to appreciate.
Like so many other aspects of maturation, the process through which adults forget their connections to the non-human world involves a dulling of the senses. As we age, we become less alive, less attuned and less receptive to life’s boundless expressions. The insatiable curiosity we had as children, slowly withers as the mental constructs which form a known world cut away and displace our passion for exploration.
Within this known and ordered world, the idea that an adult would describe herself as an animal communicator, naturally provokes skepticism. Is this a person living in a fantasy world? Or is she engaged in a hoax, cynically exploiting the longings of others such as the desire to rediscover a lost childhood?
Whether Anna Breytenbach (who features in the video below) can see inside the minds of animals, I have no way of knowing, but that animals have minds and that they can have what we might regard as intensely human experiences — such as the feeling of loss — I have no doubt.
The cultural impact of science which is often more colored by belief than reason, suggests that whenever we reflect on the experience of animals we are perpetually at risk of falling into the trap of anthropomorphization. The greater risk, however, is that we unquestioningly accept this assumption: that even if as humans we are the culmination of an evolutionary process that goes all the way back to the formation of amino acids, at the apex of this process we somehow stand apart. We can observe the animal kingdom and yet as humans we have risen above it.
But instead, what actually sets us apart in the most significant way is not the collection of attributes that define human uniqueness, but rather it is this very idea of our separateness — the idea that we are here and nature is out there.