Not Kansas: Learning From Animals

I learned two things from animals this week. One at work, one at play. One late afternoon I was riding my bike on the new eastern border road with Syria (incredibly quiet and serene). I was going downhill, looking at the small farming villages in Syria and how sad the situation there is today. As I was coming up to a sharp turn, two gazelles suddenly jumped out of nowhere in front of me and crossed the road. At first they crossed slowly, because they didn’t realize I was there. But after a few seconds, they turned their heads towards me, froze for a split second, and then *bounded* off to safety across the road. But what they couldn’t see – or at least so it seemed – was that there was a high fence just a few meters from the road they had just crossed. They sped across the road, continued a little farther in the high grass, and then came face to face with a…fence. A very high fence. I’m not sure if gazelles gulp, but if they do, they would have gulped hard. Since I hadn’t yet come to the curve in the road, I was coming at them full-speed – or so it certainly seemed to them – and they were now existentially trapped. They can’t go back across the road, and they can’t run sideways, and they certainly can’t clear that fence without any momentum, which they lost already. As I got closer and closer, almost in whispering-range, they both bounded up into the air almost vertically, aggressively pushed their bellies up and over the fence, and lunged to the other side, with their back legs hitting the top of the fence – but only lightly. They landed on the other side and bounded to safety into the endless high grassy fields of the Golan Heights. I was amazed. How did they possibly do that? It seemed ergonomically impossible! Scientists might say they were built just for such tasks. Animal psychologists might say they were motivated by fear. But I have a gut-feeling it was sheer gazelle willpower. If I could read gazelle-minds, it wasn’t so much the thought of “We gonna DIE” that propelled those gazelles over the fence, as much as it was the thought of “So this fence is higher than we can jump; SO? What, we can’t get over the fence just because it’s higher than we can jump? Yes we CAN!” And they jumped. And I thought: Wouldn’t it be great if more humans were able to gather so much gumption when we come up against the high fences and even brick walls of our lives? Two days later we were having a snake workshop in the living room of my house. Among the activities we did in the workshop was observing the similarities of design between the most venomous and aggressive snake in a country, and the most docile and defenseless snake. There was a direct correlation of color and back-pattern between most dangerous and most harmless. We could observe this phenomenon by comparing vipers (oy) and sand boas (ah) in Israel, in Kenya, and in India. We held live sand boas from these three countries, and compared them to pictures and models of vipers from the same countries. This phenomenon, called mimicry, is explained by researchers as a “defense” by the more “harmless” snakes to piggy-back on the wave of fear that a certain color and design on vipers instills in those who meet them. A bird (or human) sees a black zigzag line on the back of a snake, and “remembers” (perhaps genetically) that this is a life-threatening sign. This mimicry often saves their lives, since their potential enemies will prefer to search for easier and safer prey. But sometimes – especially with humans – this blessing can become a curse. People who mistakenly think that the sand boa is actually a viper might kill it in order to evade danger. Mimicry, it seems, is a two-edged sword. We passed around the sand boas and the pictures of their neighboring vipers, and examined them from up close. At this point, one woman exclaimed: “Wow, how lucky we humans are that we don’t have to mimic others!” Immediately, a number of people loudly and simultaneously disagreed. “You wish! We humans are great mimics!” And they gave a number of examples: the modern-day western fascination with celebrities. Entire magazines, television shows, and internet sites dedicated to the life of famous/rich/powerful people. Full-size posters of musicians, athletes, movie stars, models. Hairstyles, clothes, and Halloween costumes (of the same people) worn by children and adults alike. Hours of conversation dedicated to the lives of these people. The lack of individualism, creativity, courage, and imagination that stems from such a lifestyle of mimicry. The same woman then answered: “You didn’t understand me. I agree with you! I was trying to say that we humans don’t *need* to mimic others. The fact that we do, greatly saddens me! I think we need to encourage and educate people today – especially children – that we can just be ourselves.” Another man added: “But wait! Sometimes it’s a good thing to have role models. I’m referring specifically to people who have good character traits that we can emulate, that can help us strive to become better people.” In the end, the group agreed with the following statement: “Emulating other people’s good character traits can be a worthwhile thing. Mimicking others because of their status can be dangerous to your health – body and soul.” As they left our house, picked mulberries, and continued on an archeological tour of the Golan Heights, I thought: How lucky we are to have gazelles and snakes as our teachers. To quote a verse (out of context) written by King David: “From all my teachers I have learned.”

Michael Even-Esh
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Michael was born and raised in Kansas City. He received a degree in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism before moving to Israel in 1979. Michael served in the IDF Paratroops, was a nature guide in the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, led exploration teams for the Israel Cave Research Center, spent time as a... Read More