Zoology as psychology

By Johannes F. Brakel, March 2013

A small patch of fur can trigger an outpouring of emotion: “Oh how sweet! May I stroke it?” in lower school, “Oh, how cruel! The poor animal!” among vegan middle school pupils and “Wow! Did you shoot that yourself?” from the cool upper school pupils. Adults feel inspired to crack jokes about fox tails and boy racers. But how can we recognise the essence of the animal?

©: Hansgeorg Arndt in: W. Schad, »Säugetiere und Mensch«, Verlag Freies Geistesleben

If even a dead animal provokes emotion – how much more so a living one! Taking children to the zoo is like a trip through a world of feeling which – ranging from enthusiasm and admiration through a sense of their elegance and beauty to anger, loathing and disgust – comprises the full circle of emotional possibilities. Because a good zoo offers significantly more than a zoological museum with its skins and stuffed animals. It lets us experience animals in motion. 

And animals in motion change: the elegant penguins in their dinner jackets do not cause amusement and gales of laughter until they begin to waddle clumsily about with their wings spread wide.

The massive sea lions awkwardly floundering about on land provoke wonder through their elegance and speed in circus-like underwater stunts. Even the fat walrus, weighing tonnes and rather grandfatherly with its bald head and moustache, metamorphoses into an admired underwater prince or ballet dancer as soon as it starts to move in its element and we can watch it through the reinforced glass of modern facilities. The polar bear, looking so cute and cuddly in the photos, is transformed as it begins to pace back and forth or when it suddenly rears up to its full height of almost three metres only a few feet from the visitor. Not until that moment do we become aware of the dangerous beast of prey that it is.

And the grumpy orang-utans, sitting behind the iron bars of their small cages like jowly gangsters, staring at the ground in loneliness, are transformed in the spacious enclosures of modern zoos into playful, intelligent and humorous climbers, fishing for treats and splashing water, and keeping a large audience amused for hours. But even a zoo does not yet reveal the whole animal. Characteristically, a certain, hard-to-articulate discomfort about zoos does not arise until adolescence, when young people begin to develop their own soul life, which in individual cases can go as far as a refusal to visit the zoo at all. What is missing?

“That was supposed to be a saddle-bill stork?”

Before going to Rwanda at the end of my studies, I regularly visited the zoo in order to familiarise myself with African wildlife. Apart from the birds, it was of course the large savannah animals, the elephants, hippopotami and giraffes, which I sketched and therefore knew well – or thought I knew well. On my first trip from Arusha to Nairobi through the Masai Mara steppe, I was left astounded. A swarm of long-legged and long-necked beings floated in slow motion through the red glow of the savannah in the evening sunlight. In that first impression it was more like a choreographed dance of angels, their wings beating, than the fleeing Masai giraffes which I recognised them to be after a while.

And, conversely, in Uganda I once found my first saddle-bill stork, which I had stalked for a long time, in a lonely salt flat in Queen Elizabeth National Park standing there in the shimmering midday heat. It was still a long distance away and difficult to see even through binoculars. The yellow and red colour of its mighty bill could only be seen in outline. Nevertheless, its straight, upright and dignified shape in the endless expanse of the flat, dusty pan was an impressive experience. Years later I stood only a few feet away from such a saddle-bill stork in a German aviary: very interesting, very detailed to see but hardly to be compared as an experience. That was supposed to be a saddle-bill stork?

An animal moving in its natural environment is something different, is more than a body which can be measured, weighed and sketched. Light, colour, the rustling of the wind in the branches, the swaying and undulating of the plant world – that is an expression in extended form of the soul life of the animal, just as it comes to expression in concentrated form only in the body of the animal itself. In other words, an animal is its contracted, concentrated environment. And conversely, the animal radiates its own soul world into the environment where it becomes visible to us. For a landscape in which butterflies and birds fly is a different one from a landscape without them. But only adolescents can begin to discern that with their individualised soul perception, in a rudimentary and uncertain way, and mostly without being able to describe it more precisely. Sometimes animals and environment almost fuse into one again, as Pablo Neruda describes in many of his poems in the volume Art of Birds:

Plumbeous Rail / Pardirallus sanguinolentus                             

The plumbeous rail glided through the shadow
to the shadow of the plumbeous rail:
it whistled and the evening turned to shadow,
summoned by the plumbeous rail,
which glided like a shadow,
emitting a whistle like water,
and the plumbeous rail could not be seen
slipping through between the shadow and the whistle:
the sabre of the plumbeous rail,
the feathers blurry in the shadow,
something passed in front of the plumbeous rail,
shadowy feather or shrill water,
the bent shaft of lightning of the plumbeous rail,
a shadow ran to the undergrowth,
a shadow disappeared from the undergrowth,
the shadow of the plumbeous rail whistled.

Even the squid is something familiar

The smaller the child – and the better the adult has preserved or rediscovered his or her childlike nature – the more exclusively can an animal be experienced as a soul feeling. The soul entity of the animal can only be experienced through our own soul life. That of course limits our perceptual ability and there is a risk that we only perceive ourselves instead of the animal. But the more differentiated our soul life, the more we can distance ourselves from ourselves, the more precisely we can experience the animal and describe it for the children. For when we tell something about the daily life of a fox or a hedgehog our story should fit into this overall soul image in terms of the mood it creates.

That is not easy, of course. Rudolf Steiner’s suggestions for the first zoology lessons gives guidance here. Squid and cow are extreme life forms. The squid corresponds to the “sensory human being” looking outwards with complete attention, going along uninterruptedly with all phenomena, carrying its own, inner soul life on the surface of the skin (or on the tongue). The cow, in contrast, corresponds to the “metabolic human being”, totally withdrawn from the outside world and turning inwards, which nothing in the world can disturb and distract from its calm digestive work. Neither of them are alien to us because we bear and find their life processes within us in a moderated form. The lion, too, as an animal of the rhythmical cardiovascular and pulmonary system, with its all-conquering predatory nature, is not unfamiliar to us in its extreme pathological form – even if the unprotected encounter in open nature is a totally unfamiliar and overpowering experience.

As early as class 2, with the fables and stories “to make you think”, we describe animals in soul images. But in the zoology of classes 4 and 5 it is a matter of integrating into these soul images more outward reality, more information worth knowing, sometimes also figures or records. But the emphasis here is on integration. And “integration” also means that everything is related to everything else – networked, as people say today. For a mere lexical list of sensational superlative results, as is unfortunately frequently presented, might lead to short-term intellectual interest but does not establish an inner relationship. The animal world, the world becomes uninteresting.

The child turns away from it and towards more exciting parallel worlds. Good zoology thus presents the adult with considerable challenges. But that should not deter anyone.

A caring effort in the sense described is a good start in any event. All the rest is practice. And what an examination of the animal world can mean also for the adult who makes such an effort, even if he or she is trapped in a variety of exhausting obligations, is described by Pablo Neruda, who was plagued with multiple political unpleasantnesses, at the end of his cycle of poems:

... I, poet
of the people, rural in origin, bird lover,
went through the world in search of life:
bird by bird I became acquainted with the earth:
explored where the fire flew:
the effort and my selflessness
were rewarded,
because, even if no one paid me for it,
I absorbed
these wings into my soul
and no inertia could stop me.

About the author: Johannes F. Brakel teaches biology, chemistry and geography at the Hamburg-Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School.