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Why Look For the Animals? photo

In this dappled language, like a woods painted by Neil Welliver, in and out of our attention, animals wander in the camouflage. They are highlighted by our attention: each stands in a yellow bar of notice. A porcupine overhead in a birch tree like a painful chandelier. A skunk ushering her kittens through an unfriendly neighbor’s open garage door. Three male turkeys that look exactly like crepe paper birds, plumage on full display, in a row on the roof of a Federalist-style house in November, practically a pun. You might be rewarded by the sight of an albino squirrel, moving as a patch of white-out above this sentence. Then come the packs, colonies, swarms, flocks, congress, troop, gang, congregation, mob, cast, brood, nest, school, company, bevy, horde and covey of creatures that are contained inside this paragraph without further detail. I am tempted to capitalize the nouns like Emily Dickinson or the German language. Skunk. Turkey. Porcupine. Bull Moose. It’s a game I play. Instead of a word count, an animal count.

Nature was previously my floor puzzle and spotting wild animals a private game. On Sunday afternoon car rides in the 1970s with my parents through the tedium of backwoods places called Rome, Vienna, and Mount Vernon, I’d count bird nests in the browse lines.1 In a childhood spent outdoors with my siblings—in the dumpsters behind our convenience store, down the gulley of loose fill, pant legs lifted over barbed wire, into the pastures, farther off into the woods, on foot or with cross-country skis—wild animals were the equivalent of an urban child’s casual acquaintances at a city playground. I trained myself to notice movements or new arrivals in this huge play area, just as how children notice a new toy at daycare or an acquaintance on the swing set. I’d note anything that twitched, flapped, attacked, dashed, called, plunked, soared, burrowed. Hunting, fleeing, fighting, playing, courting, parenting, dying, dining—dollhouse and toy soldier dramas—were constantly observable without need for a pet, though we certainly lived with our fair share of household mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians. Then in October and November in central Maine, no need to go looking for the animal—only at the animal. Deer lolled in the beds of pickups during hunting season when our gas pumps became an official deer inspection station. The animal’s eyes stalled into glass marbles, the final bubbles of its magic would be visible, at least to me, barely, escaping upward. My brother still has the long thin knife used to cut an incision in the legs of deer for the insertion of the State of Maine’s plastic tag. I also looked at, not for, the mound of a dozen dead moose outside a truck stop in Aroostook County as my grandmother and I drove past—legs multiplied, like a Sicilian Triskelion. Same for the buckets of cow eyes and stomachs the farmers donated to the elementary school so we could learn dissection on the long lunchroom tables. The cow stomachs I looked at contained one, sometimes two, ball bearings. 

Remaining vigilant, this looking for has continued throughout my life. Washing dishes at the kitchen window, I note squirrels crisscrossing in the winter Styrofoam. Turning from my desk to the compost pile, I search for the groundhog with tennis balls of fat or the squirrel with a hazmat orange tail. I’m not a hunter—not prey or predator—so what is it I gain by constantly searching for animals? Common animals. Ordinary, colorless lines of action, the wavy flight of a bobbing bird as nondescript as a comma, a slight movement across fallen leaves, a shape that turns out to be more than a rock, some change in the pattern of brown leaves-twigs-opaque branches-indifferent green that’s nothing special, that’s like a transition sentence or a topic sentence filled with “however” and “which.” For most people, birds’ nests in generic trees along a road are superscript to footnotes in a user’s agreement, or some other uninteresting transactional document. It’s a one-way noticing; generally, those creatures don’t return my gaze per se.2 I receive a boost in my alertness. Looking for animals doesn’t have to yield great surprises, as when I was studying on my canopy bed in high school and looked up to see the ground floor bedroom window had filled with brown-gray fur. I instinctively yelled to my mother, “It’s a donkey! A donkey,” reverting to my earlier childhood Spanish on a military base, when the female moose using the screen as a back scratch stepped aside. 

It’s a running joke in our house. My ability to spot animals is attributed to my backwoods upbringing in Maine, not that my husband’s home state of New Hampshire is arguably different. In the way I’m good at finding misplaced cell phones, appointment reminders, tickets, car keys, necklaces, shoes, library books, I am the first to notice every animal that crosses our suburban lawn incongruously filled with potential wild life. Our house is so close to I-93 that I see metal flashing in the balding woods every two seconds—and the surrounding power lines, strip malls, shopping areas, stop lights, bar with loud rock bands, and utility station aren’t exactly a nature preserve. I was the first to note two bull moose spooning near our back deck, a hairless coyote suffering from mange napping on the compost pile, the fox that jogged right up to Simone and I while we waited for the school bus, fisher cats, deer, wild turkey, raccoons, an oversized skunk, opossum, owls, bobcat, turkey vulture. In a car, I’ll be on the look-out for highway deer. I note kamikaze animals crouching curbside and suppress my alarm because it could distract the driver.3 At dusk in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, my husband chided me for raising our young daughters’ hopes—I had turned to them in their car seats, “it’s a good time of day to see a moose, girls”—and ten seconds later all tourist traffic halted for the pedestrian moose. One summer twilight in Tuscany, we were walking in the ancient Etruscan landscape of a near pitch-dark vineyard, bleached walls, groves of olive trees somewhere off to our right. We were holding glasses of wine from the vines around us—when I saw what I took to be a wild boar, as still as a dining room table. I hesitated, not wanting to be wrong, could be a large tree root. “That’s possibly a boar up ahead,” I finally confessed, and after a pause long enough to let the jokes about an upbringing in Maine commence, the dining room table snorted and ran off.4  It’s an honorary position, to be the family’s tracker, a hunter without harming an animal.

I have been called the patron saint of animals, a kind of St. Francis of Assisi, a wildlife whisperer. In these wordless interactions, I turn off my human rhetoric.5 I have given chest compressions to a chipmunk and brought it back to life. I have waited on the front porch with a juvenile woodpecker in my open palm, a curious sight for a passer-by—a red headed woman holding a red headed bird in her hand. I have typed at my desk with a chickadee, recovering from a window encounter, standing on a notebook near my elbow for twenty minutes. A baby porcupine played a game of tag with me as I sat in a woods one afternoon when I was in high school until its mother showed up on a nearby log. With the help of my older daughter, I’ve talked a tom cat down from its wildness, moving it from feral to stray to domestic pet, and then we encouraged his sister to follow suit. 

I’m putting the animal on notice, saying, I notice you, and I notice that you’ve noticed me. I am not one of those oblivious humans. You can’t fool me. You can’t slip past. This involves a power differential since I’m usually larger than the observed creature, though not faster. By looking at, I’m almost forcing myself on wild animals, violating a rule, like observing a few seconds too long a stranger on a bus. Occasionally, I’ve been fooled into thinking the animal and I share motives and values. Outside a hotel convention center in Tampa, I stood against the flow of pedestrian traffic along with a man in a suit. We were the only two people interested in the adult squirrel transporting a second adult squirrel. Furtive, the first squirrel paused inside the human foot traffic. The other squirrel, slightly smaller, had its paws around the first squirrel’s neck, riding along the squirrel’s underbelly, bloody marks on its neck. The crowd pushing around us, the man and I cheered on the good Samaritan squirrel as it reached a palm tree. Later, my mother-in-law said “that squirrel was planning on eating the other squirrel,” a cannibal squirrel. 

Certain wild animals are categorized as “mythic,” creatures of my imagination. It’s like I am the sole human to have witnessed a narwhale-unicorn-singing-fox in the fairy tale woods. I am reduced to a jumping up and down, gesturing, pointing, and by the time my husband turns around, the animal has vanished. I am the only one in the house to have encountered fisher cats or even, as impossible as this seems given their horrific noise, have heard fisher cats at night. The only fisher cat my family has seen is a taxidermied specimen in a “New Hampshire wildlife diorama” near the restrooms at Canobie Lake Amusement Park. I caught one fisher cat pushing its snout through a gash it had made in a patio screen in a face-off with one of our cats. Once when my husband was chatting in our driveway with a visitor from New York City, a chocolate brown fisher cat, a beautiful specimen in the prime of its life, crossed behind him. He had just joked about my animal-spotting abilities to the visitor when this alleged new spotting occurred. As I revised that sentence just now, I glanced out the window: an usually large coyote, gray and brown-red, was watching me. It almost perfectly blended into the March dead leaves and receding snow, except for its sharp eyes.6 While my daughters have witnessed the banshee yips and whines of the coyote pack outside our house, my husband was soundproofed in the shower. Once, after a few nights of scratching sounds, I was sure an animal was under our bed. We turned on the lights, moved all the furniture, opened the patio door. An emaciated chipmunk, misplaced cat toy, dashed outdoors behind my husband’s back, my proof disappearing. He even refused to believe the pellets of chipmunk scat under the bed. Another time, we were at the dinner table when I was startled by an alien silhouette, part huge bird, part hose, that dropped from the sky behind the oaks—a turkey vulture had caught a long water snake. Usually, it’s a sudden movement, a change in pattern, an arrival that I notice like a card slipped behind a human conversation, a group activity, a dialog, around a gathering or during a decision.

Noticing wildlife is omen.7 I’m looking for signs with the confidence of a special ability, like someone who reads tea leaves or palms. Looking for animals comes with the sensation that I summon the animals by looking. When a crow attacked a robin’s nest causing it to fall out of an oak, the three naked fledglings raining around my head, it was at the precise moment my young daughters and husband were passing somewhere overhead on a flight to Colorado without me. Each year between June 5 to June 7, I’m hoping for no incidents with the cats because my day will be shot trying to find a veterinarian or a rehabilitation center to admit the robin with a broken wing, the battered chipmunk. On that anniversary of my daughter’s premature birth, I am compelled to give succor to any animal that needs help. Twice so far, noticing an animal has steered the direction of my life around friendship, first love/romance, career.8 Through a circuitous path of events, I spent time with my first boyfriend as house guests of a Nobel prize winner because of an abandoned Maine coon kitten I discovered years earlier mewing in a ditch. 

In contrast to wild animals, pets are timelines left on the floor. These models of accelerated, abridged lives can be found to the right of the Lazy Boy and the magazine rack.9 These timelines vary in size based on species of pet: the parakeet’s timeline the size of tweezers, the Guinea pig’s timeline the size of a pocket comb, the golden retriever’s a yard stick. With the death of a pet, an era in our lives ends (“our childhood,” “our single years,” “the years before we had kids,” “our thirties”). If we procure the pet from a breeder, we see the pet from conception to end, meeting the parents before the dog or horse existed. We witness the animal’s death, the euthanasia off-hours at the vet’s office, the final exhalation on the bed, if the relationship is sustained to its conclusion and the animal is not abandoned, brought to the animal shelter, released outdoors, found a new home. Pets’ hopes, needs, and dilemmas are visible in miniature and can be addressed by our easy, beneficent acts. We give them trinkets, smaller signs of our lives, like toys and blankets, collars with names, a special food bowl, a cushion. Pets receive nicer meals on Fridays or holidays. Presents are wrapped for them under the Christmas tree. Favors granted. Mistakes forgiven, even unthinkable cruelty or greed, cardinal sins. Death on a smaller scale. Love on a smaller scale. Childhood on a smaller scale. Occasionally parenthood.10 

With pets, I look for them as animals, but with a portion of at. It’s not the brief interaction as with wildlife. Pets remind me–the zebra finches, the miniature rabbit who never had enough living space, our golden retriever, our cocker poodle—of the limits to my empathy and attachment. To not give animals too much attention. To not become the work acquaintance who let her terrier lick the inside of her mouth. And yet the tracks of grief run deep from regrets. I think with pain of how our cocker poodle died, blind from cataracts, circling alone in the woods during a snow storm (a neighbor later reported), after wandering off from home. During a January blizzard two years ago, I watched and watched for my daughter’s tom cat, a former stray. The tough looking nicked-eared cat’s timidity a source of humor because so incongruous with his bobcat looks—I’d teasingly kicked the cat outside when the first flakes began to fall. And when he didn’t come home and the blizzard drifts piled up, and the temperature dipped ten degrees below zero and stayed that way all night and into the next day, when he didn’t return, I was surprised by how deeply I mourned, how my daughter and I sat on the couch for two days, not eating, not moving. I reverted to looking for—obsessively checking windows and porches until we decided to give up. I agreed to give up but took one more look—and I spotted snow-blue footprints in the deep drifts on the back deck, then the front porch, then at the front door, a second chance, a kind of tracking, around the pattern of my human heart.11


1 “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”)

2 “[A]nimals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”)

3 “[T]he life of a wild animal becomes an ideal, an ideal internalised as a feeling surrounding a repressed desire.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”)

4 A few years later, my husband spotted his own wild boar in the vineyards. He was the first to notice a sow the size of a dorm mattress with her brood before any of us. He was visibly proud, suggesting he might want to more regularly look for animals rather than at animals.

5 “Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”)

6 “The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”)

7 “Animals were seen in eight out of twelve signs of the zodiac. (John Berger, “Why Look At Animals?”)

8 “Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”)

9 “An animal’s life, never to be confused with a man’s, can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge and after death, perhaps cross over to become parallel again.” (John Berger, “Why Look At Animals?”)

10 “The animals, isolated from each other and without interaction between species, have become utterly dependent upon their keepers. Consequently most of their responses have been changed.” (John Berger, “Why Look At Animals?”)

11 Animal count for paragraph, “Nature was once my floor puzzle”: four. Word count: 378.
Animal count for third paragraph: three.
Animal count for fourth paragraph: eighteen.
Animal count for fifth paragraph: seven.
Animal count for sixth paragraph: one (cannibal squirrel).
Animal count for seventh paragraph: eleven.
Animal count for eighth paragraph: five.

image: Doug Paul Case