The police advised us to leave the city of Los Angeles and go home the day after the riots had erupted, and we heeded it. The surface streets were relatively deserted, but the freeways were nearly a parking lot — in both directions. It was three in the afternoon, the air was saturated with radio news emitted from the open-windowed vehicles as they jockeyed around me, and in the rearview mirror, the sky was black with smoke. A military helicopter passed overhead, transmitting subliminal images of Vietnam; police cars and motorcops, sirens wailing, weaved their way through heavy traffic.
But despite the noisy trucks and radio commentators urging everyone to get off the streets, the entire L.A. basin seemed strangely quiet. Fear gripped the city, strangled everyone, and for a few hours on that long, bumper-to-bumper, inch-by-inch drive home, we all felt connected to the shame that had blanketed our horizons.
In the back of my mind, I remembered world-renowned whale biologist Roger Payne, telling his interviewer, after being asked whether he thought whales had intelligence, that if intelligence were defined and measured in human terms — by a species that had toxified the world environment, annihilated other species into extinction, tortured other beings in the name of progress or science or fashion, slaughtered billions more for its taste preferences, wreaked violence and hatred, murder and terror on its own species — then, no, he said, whales were not intelligent.
We think we’re it; some of us think that, anyway. Not me. But without boats and cameras and oxygen tanks, we wouldn’t know anything about the underwater world within our world. We wouldn’t know about singing humpbacks, dancing dolphins, eyeless crustaceans walking the ocean’s floor in darkness so black not even the sun can penetrate. So why are they there? The technological age is young. Nonhuman animals roamed the planet for eons — without any of us here to see them, hear them, study them, know them. A whale gives birth to her calf far from the human eye, and that miracle of life is held sacred in her embrace, not ours. We don’t know her. We don’t see her. She does it without us — out there in the middle of seemingly nowhere. She doesn’t need us to see. She doesn’t need us to know. Her life is complete without us.
The ironic thing is that we would miss her. She, wel, she isn’t missing anything. Nonhuman animals have been on Earth millions more years longer than human animals. And we (never let it be said that arrogance is a whale-thing or a monkey-thing or a parrot-thing) think it is us who have evolved so highly on the scale, it is us who have consciousness and morality and compassion. It is us, we say. Rudyard Kipling wrote: “We are the best in all the jungle; we all say so and so it must be true.”
The day my cat Mouser died, I sat alone on my living room sofa, in the dark, and tried to contemplate an observation that had been put to me by a companion at the time. “It’s as if you’ve lost your best friend, isn’t it? like you’ve lost your child?” It was that and more, I thought, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
When my friend Ed Duvin called that night, I knew he would know. He always seemed to, well … to just … know. But there was only “hello” this time and then silence. After a minute, he exhaled some of the pain I was feeling. “Losing an animal is different from losing a friend or a child,” he said, “it’s different from losing a human being who has been close to you. Do you know what implicit trust and unconditional love are?”
Yes, Eddie, I answered him. I did know what implicit trust and unconditional love were, but I didn’t learn them from human beings. In all honesty, from human beings I have only learned their counterparts — betrayal and manipulation, and of those, I learned them most from humans who professed to stand for implicit trust and unconditional love. I hate what human beings do — I hate their stupidity and their callousness and their hypocrisy and their violence and their arrogance and their, did I say stupidity? — then I say it again to emphasize it — but I don’t hate human beings. They break my heart and they make me sick with their holier-than-thou attitudes, but they also make me laugh and sing and dance and, sometimes, even feel proud to be one. It’s rare but the moments are absolutely priceless.
But only a cat can bring out the very best in me — all the time — only a whale can connect me to that indescribable place of peace of mind — and heart and soul. Only in the company of animals can you get a fleeting glimpse of what, I think, we humans profess to be. All of our virtues. None of our vices.
As I scanned the smoke-filled sky under which humans had — once again — gone to war with other humans, I felt my heart break. Were it not for us — what an epitaph! — but were it not for us, we wouldn’t need to do anything but mend the wounds caused by natural disasters. As I felt the hurt deepen, saw the fires spread and the fear and rage mount over Los Angeles (you know, the City of Angels), I wanted, really, with all my heart, to help the human condition. I do what I can, in my own way, but as violence escalates and human populations increase, I resign myself to the reason I am here.
I know why I fight for animals. In the scheme of things, they’re it.