Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/June 1892/The Animal View of Man

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | June 1892


ONE of the most curious and unconsciously paradoxical claims ever advanced for man in his relation to animals, is that by which M. Georges Leroy, philosopher, encyclopedist, and lieutenant des chasses of the Park of Versailles, the vindicator of Buffon and Montesquieu against the criticisms of Voltaire, explains in his Lettres sur les Animaux the intellectual debt which the carnivorous animals owe to human persecution. He pictures with wonderful cleverness the development of their powers of forethought, memory, and reasoning which the interference of man, the enemy and "rival," forces upon them, and the consequent intellectual advance which distinguishes the "loup jeune et ignorant" from the loup adulte et instruit. The philosophic lieutenant des chasses had before long ample opportunities for comparing the "affinities" which he had discovered between civilized man and "instructed" wolves, in the experiences of the French Revolution; but without following his fortunes in those troublous times for game-preservers, we may perhaps return to the question of the natural relation of animals to man, which, as pictured by Rousseau to prove his a priori notions of a state of nature, so justly incurred the criticism of the practical observer and practiced writer, M. Georges Leroy.

That man is, generally speaking, from the animal's point of view, an object of fear, hostility, or rapine, is to-day most unfortunately true. But whether this is their natural relation, and not one induced, and capable perhaps of change, is by no means certain. Savage man, who has generally been first in contact with animals, is usually a hunter, and therefore an object of dislike to the other hunting animals, and of dread to the hunted. But civilized man, with his supply of bread and beef, is not necessarily a hunter; and it is just conceivable that he might be content to leave the animals in a newly discovered country unmolested, and condescend, when not better employed, to watch their attitude toward himself. The impossible island in The Swiss Family Robinson, in which half the animals of two hemispheres were collected, would be an ideal place for such an experiment. But, unfortunately, uninhabited islands seldom contain more than a few species, and those generally birds, or sea-beasts; and in newly discovered game regions, savage man has generally been before us with his arrows, spears, and pitfalls. Some instances of the first contact of animals with man have, however, been preserved in the accounts of the early voyages collected by Hakluyt and others, though the hungry navigators were generally more intent on victualing their ships with the unsuspecting beasts and birds, or on noting those which would be useful commodities for "trafficke," than in cultivating friendly relations with the animal inhabitants of the newly discovered islands. Thus, we read that near Newfoundland there are "islands of birds, of a sandy-red, but with the multitudes of birds upon them they look white. The birds sit there as thick as stones lie in a paved street. The greatest of the islands is about a mile in compass. The second is a little less. The third is a very little one, like a small rock. At the second of these islands there lay on the shore in the sunshine about thirty or forty sea-oxen or morses, which, when our boat came near them, presently made into the sea, and swam after the boat." Curiosity, not fear or hostility, was, then, the emotion roused in the sea-oxen by the first sight of man. The birds, whales, and walruses in the Wargate Sea and near Jan Mayen's Land were no less tame, and the sea-lions in the Southern Pacific, the birds that Barents first disturbed in Novaya Zembla, and even the antelopes which the early explorers encountered in the leastinhabited parts of central South Africa, seem all to have regarded the newly discovered creature, man, with interest and without fear. Sir Samuel Baker, in his Wild Beasts and their Ways, remarks on the "curious and inexplicable fact that certain animals and birds exhibit a peculiar shyness of human beings, although they are only exposed to the same conditions as others which are more bold." He instances the wildness of the curlew and the golden plover, and contrasts it with the tameness of swallows and wagtails. The reason does not seem far to seek. The first are constantly sought for food, the latter are left undisturbed. Perhaps the best instance of such a contrast is that of the hawfinch and the crossbill, birds of closely allied form and appearance. The hawfinch, which is probably the shyest of English small birds, seems to have acquired a deep mistrust of man. But the crossbills, on the rare occasions when they descend from the uninhabited forests of the North into our Scotch or English woods, are absolutely without fear or mistrust of human beings, whom they see very probably for the first time. When animals do show fear on first acquaintance, it is probably due, not to any spontaneous dread of man as man, but because they mistake him for something else. "Nearly all animals," says Sir Samuel Baker, "have some natural enemy which keeps them on the alert, and makes them suspicious of all strange objects and sounds that might denote the approach of danger ": and it is to this that he attributes the timidity of many kinds of game in districts where they "have never been attacked by firearms." A most curious instance of this mistaken identity occurred lately when Kerguelen Island was visited by H. M. S. Volage and a party of naturalists and astronomers, to observe the transit of Venus. There were large colonies of penguins nesting on the island, which, though the place is so little frequented by man, used at first to run away up the slopes inland when the sailors appeared. They apparently took the men for seals, and thus took what appeared the natural way of escaping from their marine enemies. They soon found out their mistake, for it is said that "when they became accustomed to being chased by men"—an experience for which the sailors seem to have given them every opportunity—"the penguins acquired the habit of taking to the water at the first alarm." In another colony, the nesting females would settle down peacefully on their eggs if the visitors stood still. "The whole of this community of penguins (they numbered about two thousand) were subsequently boiled down into 'hare-soup' for the officers and men of H. M. S. Volage," writes the Rev. A. E. Eaton, "and very nice they found it." We may compare with this destruction of the penguins, the letter of Hakluyt on the voyage to Newfoundland by Antony Parkhurst, describing with high approval the business facilities for the fishing trade offered by the taineness of the great auks—called "penguins" in the passage: "here are sea-gulls, musses, ducks, and many other kinds of birdes store too long to write about, especially at one island named 'Penguin,' where we may drive them on a planke into our ship as many as shall lade her. These birds are also called penguins, and cannot flie; there is more meat in one of them than in a goose. The Frenchmen that fish neere the Grand Bank doe bring small store of flesh with them, but do victuall themselves alwayes with these birdes."

The point of view from which the lion or tiger looks on man is perhaps not so far removed from that of the non-carnivorous creatures as might be supposed. Man is certainly not the natural food of any animal—except of sharks and alligators, if he is so rash as to go out of his native element into theirs—and if the item "man" were subtracted from the bill of fare of all the carnivora, they would never want a meal. The notion of the natural attitude of a lion to a young lady—

"When as that tender virgin he did spye,
Upon her he did run full greedily,
To have at once devoured her tender corse,"

is still popular, but hardly correct. More probably the lion would get out of the way politely—if we may judge by the pacific behavior of those in our last-explored lion-haunt, Mashonaland. M. Georges Leroy's contention for the natural affinity, or semi-sympathy, which should exist between man and the intelligent hunting animals is no doubt partly reasonable. Leigh Hunt was unpleasantly struck by the incongruity of the notion of being eaten by a wild beast "the hideous impracticable fellow-creature, looking one in the face, struggling with us, mingling his breath with ours, tearing away scalp or shoulder-blade." But the "fellow-creature" is not nearly so impracticable as he is supposed to be. More human beings are probably killed by tigers than by any other wild beast, except by starving wolves. Yet this is what Sir Samuel Baker has to say on the subject: "There is a great difference in the habits of tigers. Some exist upon the game in the jungles. Others prey especially upon the flocks belonging to the villagers. A few are designated 'man-eaters,’ These are sometimes naturally ferocious, and having attacked a human being, may have devoured the body, and thus acquired a taste for human flesh; or they may have been wounded on more than one occasion, and have learned to regard man as a natural enemy. But more frequently the ’man-eater’ is a very old tiger, or more probably tigress, that, having hunted in the neighborhood of villages and carried off some unfortunate woman, has discovered that it is far easier to kill a native than to hunt jungle game." As a rule, the tiger is only anxious to avoid men; and it is noticed that in high grass tigers are more dangerous than in forests, because in the former they can not be seen, neither can they see, until the stranger is close upon them. An ancient instance of the opposite behavior is that recorded of the new colonists of Samaria, whom the lions attacked, and "slew some of them." A curious inversion of this experience occurred when the islands in the Brahmaputra, which were swarming with tigers, were first cultivated. The natives, mainly by the aid of traps set with a bow and arrow, killed off the tigers so fast that the skins were sold by auction at from eight annas to one rupee apiece. In this case, the tigers were the first aggressors by carrying off cattle. But it seems evident that there exists no a priori reason, founded in natural antipathy, why man and animals, if we could reconstruct a "state of nature" in which we could put civilized, not savage man, should not dwell together in profound peace, or at least in such peace as obtains between accidental neighbors. The only ground for quarrel that seems inevitable is the everlasting one between the shepherd and the wolf; and that, after all, is a question not of prejudice, but of property.—The Spectator.