Like many of you, I hope, I have been mesmerized every Saturday night these past few weeks, watching Planet Earth II. I loved the first one–we even bought the DVDs, and I used some of them in class for a few years–and this one has been just as good; in some ways, even better.
Anyone who knows me even a little knows how much I love animals, and how interesting I find them, and how much I enjoy learning about them. This has been true ever since I was a young girl, and as I get older and older, I find that my passion for them has not waned, but only gotten stronger–and even more urgent, as the number of extinctions is rapidly increasing, and diverse animal habitats are rapidly decreasing. We simply can’t predict how much longer some of the most well-known, beloved animals in the world will be with us; and sadly, all too many animals, lesser-known & lesser-loved, will go quietly out of existence without anyone to mourn them.
We were talking about this in class last Tuesday, in the context of a doctrine of creation, and one of the things that I realized is how important it is to both love locally and learn globally. What I mean by that, is that, following Annie Dillard, the best way to cultivate compassionate relationships within the animal kingdom is to love the non-human animals you live with: cats, dogs, birds, sure, but also chipmunks, squirrels, robins, rabbits, and sparrows–you get the idea. Sallie McFague talks about how important it is to cultivate a “loving eye” in our relationships with animals, such that we are able to see them as subjects, not objects, and respect/know them with their own integrity. (She contrasts this to seeing with an “arrogant eye,” where we use our gaze in a controlling, domineering way–she argues this is the kind of subject/object relationship that zoos cultivate.) Loving locally, we are more able to love deeply; it creates a foundation of love on which we can build, expanding ever outward to include more and more of our animal neighbors.
And it is in this “expansion” where I see the critical place of a program like Planet Earth II. Without nature programs, I wouldn’t ever be able to see a snow leopard hunting, or a narwhal swimming among icebergs; or reindeer making the dangerous trek across a mile-wide river; or a great white shark crashing through the surface of the water to catch a seal. Seeing these animals, and learning about them, allows me to cultivate an appreciation for them, and a better understanding of what they need to survive. In this way, I can develop compassion for them, and find out what concrete steps I can take to protect and preserve them. In short, I can come to “know” them in a different, but still important way, expanding my mind and heart, increasing my circle of animal care.
The last episode of Planet Earth II is on “Cities”–increasingly, wild animals are having to adapt to living cheek to jowl with human animals; and they are figuring out how to hunt and reproduce right under our noses–sometimes with our help, and sometimes in spite of our hindrances. It makes me sad, in some ways, to think that the most concentrated leopard population in the world is in Mumbai, India–it seems like such a tenuous, compromised existence for them. But, it is the reality of our life together these days. If we are going to avoid overrunning our animal neighbors altogether, driving them out of existence, we have to learn how to better live with them, too. It is their planet, too, after all.