Penguins, parrots, bears, and humans

Not to hurt or humble the animals is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission, to be of service to them whenever they require it. If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.—St. Francis of Assisi

How can we be of service to animals or include them in the shelter of our compassion? Three recent documentaries address this question, obliquely or directly. March of the Penguins suggests that we can learn about the lives of wild creatures and understand that in some ways, as the narrator of the film says, we are not so different from them after all. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill shows how one human found a way to relate to wild birds and balance respect for their wild natures with the ability to provide help when they needed it. Grizzly Man is a disturbing look at what happens when a human identifies so strongly with wild bears and wants so urgently to help them that he gives his life for the chance to be near them.

The penguins

When I went to see March of the Penguins, I didn’t know much about penguins. I had a mental image of a creature so absurd it’s endearing, a waddling bird/fish in a tuxedo. I found that they have as dramatic a story as any living thing, and display great endurance in carrying out the task of not only surviving but bringing new penguins into the world.

The movie, narrated by Morgan Freeman and based on a story by Luc Jacquet, covers a year in the life of a group of Emperor penguins. We are told at the beginning of the movie that their home, Antarctica, is the darkest, coldest, windiest, driest place on earth. During the relatively warm months of summer, the penguins swim in the cold water and eat fish. With the approach of winter in March, they begin a long trek to their breeding ground, many miles from shore (at least during the colder months when the ice extends out over the water).

At the breeding ground, they pair off in couples; penguins, like some humans, are serially monogamous, pairing off anew each breeding season. After the mother lays an egg, it must be protected from the harsh environment if it is to hatch. Penguins shelter the eggs with their bodies, cradling the eggs on top of their feet and shrouding them with the lower parts of their bodies. One of the severe tests of a couple’s parenting skills comes long before the egg hatches: the female must transfer the egg to the male, and quickly, before it has a chance to lose too much heat. When that is accomplished, the female sets off for the ocean again to eat and bring back food for the baby that will hatch while she is gone. The males hunker down to endure most of the long cold winter alone, keeping the eggs warm.

The film makes it plain that penguins are winnowed out of the race to reproduce at every stage. There are more females than males, so not everyone finds a mate. Not every pair manages to successfully transfer the egg from female to male. Not every father makes it through the winter. Not every mother evades the hungry seals and comes back with food. Not every hatchling survives the cold and the predators. Every ungainly velvety gray chick waddling around on the ice looks like a lucky miracle of survival.

The narrative talks of the mother, father, and baby as a family, but they don’t really spend much time together. The fathers head for the water as soon as the mothers get back, because they desperately need to eat. Then the parents take turns going to the water and staying with the babies. At the end of the first year, the babies are old enough to be on their own. At first I thought that calling the three penguins a family was a somewhat strained analogy, because the penguins are so different from human families. But if you think of families as groups of individuals whose purpose is to rear a new generation of their kind, then I guess these penguin groupings qualify. And there’s certainly no reason that the way they do it should be like the way we do it. The undertaking requires what looks to me like trust, patience, perseverance, and affection.

It’s hard telling what it looks like to the penguins, though. I don’t know the degree to which they’re responding to instinct or hormones in caring for their young (but then how much of love between people is mediated by hormones?). I’m not sure how much sense we can make of the idea that the penguins are brave or loving, and I hesitate to assume that that they are like us when I just don’t know. It was surprising, though, how human some of their behavior seemed. There was a moment when the hungry males, nurturing their offspring while besieged by violent winter storms, first hear the approach of the returning females. Every head lifts and turns at the same instant; I’ve seen similar moments in human crowds. And the noises they made were surprisingly expressive. Early in the journey to the breeding ground, one penguin slid down a slope and into the back of another penguin, who turned to deliver what sounded for all the world like an irritated scolding. When the camera watched one couple fumble their egg transfer, the penguins made low mournful noises as the doomed egg froze.

This movie left me much more aware of some of the other rhythms of life that are going on all over the planet. It fosters a sense of kinship with other lives even though they’re very different from anything we could possibly experience for ourselves. Maybe you’ve seen the software that shows you on a map which parts of the earth are sunlit; I’ve been watching how the distribution of sunlight is changing as we move toward northern-hemisphere fall. I don’t like to see the light retreating toward the south, but as I watch the white bulk of Antarctica touched by the returning sun, I think of those penguins and I’m glad their long vigil is nearly over.

The parrots

I knew a little bit more about parrots going into The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill than I did about penguins. My brother Vinny has several birds and he also provides a foster home for birds who have been neglected or mistreated. In fact, Vinny sent me a copy of Mark Bittner’s book of the same title for my birthday this year. The book and the documentary describe Bittner’s discovery of a wild parrot population in San Francisco, his efforts to make friends with some of the birds, and his relationship with the flock.

There was a lot I didn’t know, though. For example, San Francisco is not the only major city that has a group of wild parrots. No one’s sure exactly where San Francisco’s parrots come from, although there are several stories. Some cities have populations near the airport; perhaps the birds escaped from a shipment destined for a pet store. Parrots are smart and resourceful enough to find food and make their way in a strange environment. (As a matter of fact, I blogged a story awhile back about how brain size is inversely correlated with a tendency to migrate: the bigger the average brain size, the less likely a species of bird is to be migratory. This might be related to the ability to find food without having to travel somewhere else.)

Many birds migrate to warmer places in the winter not because they can’t deal with the cold, but because their food sources are not available during the winter. So they evidently do all right in Chicago because they can find things to eat. In fact, some cities have parks that use plants that are native to where the birds are from, so they can eat what they’re used to. I was intrigued by the idea of both the birds and their food being imported to the city for different reasons and then meeting up again, so to speak, on strange new turf.

For all the legitimate concern about invasive species of plants and animals, I was glad to hear that these transplanted birds are by and large doing all right, especially after I learned about the sometimes brutal and destructive practices that people have used to catch birds to sell.

Bittner was a lonely, somewhat rootless “dharma bum” of middling years when he discovered the wild birds in his San Francisco neighborhood. He was fascinated and tried to learn more and to get to know them. He succeeded so well that they would flock to his balcony for feedings, climbing all over him, sitting on his head or his arms. He got to know individual birds and gave them names based on their personalities or physical characteristics. In the movie they were sometimes like a large rowdy group of kindergarteners, mostly silly, one or two of them more reserved or shy or dignified or aggressive. A number of them were clowns, doing goofy stunts evidently for the sheer joy of it. I knew from my brother that birds have distinctive personalities, and even from my relatively short exposure to the birds in the film I could see that they were not all the same.

The subtitle for the Wild Parrots book is “a love story with wings”. Bittner found companionship with the birds, forming individual friendships. He also learned a great deal as he became more and more involved with the birds, from the history of his own neighborhood to the natural history of the birds. Eventually his involvement with the birds led him to the human companionship he sought. The birds led him toward, not away from, other people.

His relationships with the birds were fascinating and often charming. He wrote in the book that while parrots “aren’t exactly like human beings”, he believed “that each bird is no less an individual personality than I am.” They were social creatures, and it’s obvious that many of them felt trust and affection for him. There is a delightful moment in the film where Bittner is playing the guitar and singing the blues and a bird called Mingus is listening interestedly and bobbing with the music. It was a great example of two species finding some common ground. As he formed emotional bonds with some of the birds, though, Bittner worried sometimes about whether he was anthropomorphizing them and assuming they were more similar to humans than they really are. He also wrestled with questions of how to help a sick or injured bird, recognizing that it’s important both to preserve their lives and to preserve their spirits as wild creatures.

As with any relationship with other animals, not all the stories are happy. Several of the birds died. Toward the end of the movie Bittner described the death of a young bird called Tupelo after an illness, in particular the emotional bond he felt with her and the feelings that he felt she was expressing at the end: sadness, a wistful desire to be comforted, resignation. I was not the only one crying by the end of that part of the film.

In a chapter of the book called “Consciousness Explained”, Bittner describes what he learned from the birds. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful, moving meditation on his beliefs about the nature of consciousness and life, and our relationship to other creatures. He articulates a Buddhist philosophy that accepts scientific explanations for the origins and workings of life, and seeks beyond science for spiritual meaning. The chapter concludes with Bittner’s realization that humans and parrot alike are finite pieces of a larger consciousness.

A story that came late in the movie illuminated more or less the same truth for me. An older bird, Connor, was killed by a red-tailed hawk. This kind of thing happens in nature all the time, of course. Birds of prey have to eat too. (Bittner wrote in the book that he wasn’t mad at the hawk.) What struck me was that although you can understand the food web and the way ecosystems work all you like, it still hurts that that bird died that way. He had a name; he was an individual. You miss that one, that particular bird. It’s exactly the same realization that led me to the idea of thinking meat in the first place, years ago. We are prey to large predators and small bacteria and the imperfections and vulnerabilities of our own bodies, just like other living things. I can understand the way death is woven inextricably into the fabric of life, and try to accept that fact. But because we are conscious beings who are aware of each other as individuals, we can’t just fold our hands philosophically and talk about the web of life or survival of the fittest when someone close to us dies. What I didn’t realize is that all this doesn’t apply only to people. You can have that same complicated set of feelings, recognizing the necessity of death but protesting each individual loss, for other living creatures, like these birds.

The bears

I worried about anthropomorphism when I was writing about the penguins, and Mark Bittner begins the chapter “Consciousness Explained” with his concerns about anthropomorphizing the birds. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s aptly titled Grizzly Man, identified so strongly with grizzly bears that I don’t know if the question of whether he was anthropomorphizing them ever occurred to him. Treadwell spent 13 summers living with and filming the grizzly bears of the Alaskan peninsula until he and a companion were eaten by a grizzly bear in fall 2003. In Grizzly Man, Herzog talks to people who knew Treadwell and also includes plenty of Treadwell’s own video footage of himself and the bears. The result is a disturbing, haunting film that raises questions well beyond that of our relationship to other animals.

Treadwell loved the bears. He repeated this fact over and over, to the camera and to the bears themselves. He also loved the foxes he met in Alaska. He gave the bears names: Mr. Chocolate, Sgt. Brown, Aunt Melissa, Mickey, Saturn, Grinch, Demon, Hatchet. He thought that he had a mission to protect the bears, although it was not obvious to me how he was protecting them, or from what. Most of the land Treadwell covered was federal land where the bears were already protected; it’s not clear how much poaching was going on or how Treadwell thought he would fight it, or even whether his presence truly did the bears any good.

Herzog interviewed a native Alaskan, who said that the natives understood that the bears were different from people. Humans and bears each have a place in nature, and humans respect the bears by not crossing over into their turf. Treadwell, he said, breached a boundary that the natives had lived with for 7,000 years. Habituating bears to humans is generally not doing them a favor; it’s better for bears to learn to avoid humans. (The bear that ate Treadwell and his companion was shot by park rangers.)

But Treadwell was plainly deeply dedicated to the task of understanding the bears and teaching the rest of the world about them. He survived for much longer among them than most other people could have. (When he died, he was in Alaska later in the year than he normally was, and he was attacked by a bear he did not know well, an older male who apparently was desperate to find food before it was time to hibernate.) When you listen to Treadwell talk about being a kind warrior and being stronger than the bear, or rhapsodizing over fresh bear droppings, it’s easy to think that he was just plain crazy (and in fact I agree with a friend’s opinion that the movie traces his descent into madness). But he did understand a great deal about the bears, and he managed to survive some very close encounters. It was amazing to see the bears coming up very close to the camera and hear Treadwell telling them to go away, and to see that they did indeed go away.

Treadwell spoke of the bears and the foxes as a parent might speak to or about a child. When a hunting party throws rocks at one of the bears, Treadwell, skulking in the brush, says indignantly but sotto voce to the camera that the man is throwing rocks at “my Quincy”. When a fox starts playing with his hat, he sounds like a parent with a toddler: “What are you doing to that hat? Where’s that hat going?” But when the fox runs off with the hat, Treadwell loses his temper and gives chase, swearing and berating the fox.

I don’t know how he expected the fox to know how he wanted him to behave. For someone so in love with nature, he seemed remarkably resistant to some of nature’s most basic facts. He wanted to see harmony and love, and he wanted the creatures he loved to be immune from the sometimes cruel workings of nature. When a fox died or a baby cub was killed by an adult male (which bears do sometimes; it makes the mother stop lactating and go into estrus again, so that the male can impregnate her), Treadwell alternately mourned and cursed. During a drought when the bears were hungry, he stormed heaven with outraged entreaties for rain for his animals. Herzog saw nature as chaos and murder; Treadwell seemed to expect the freedom and joy of the wilderness to be the whole story, and to be almost taken by surprise by the inevitable harshness and unpredictability of nature.

Herzog also said that while he saw no kinship in the faces of any of the bears that Treadwell filmed, Treadwell himself thought of them as friends. He had been an alcoholic before retreating from the human world into the world of the bears, and he thanked the bears for giving him a life. He said he had an agreement with them: he’d protect them, and they’d help him be a better person, which is really strange when you stop to think about it, because being with the bears seemed to make him almost not want to be a person at all. When Bittner said that he and the parrots all shared a part of a larger consciousness, he was still aware that they were not the same as humans and he was respectful of the differences. I think if humans and bears share any consciousness, it’s at a much more elemental level than anything that humans share with birds. The bears seemed to understand, eventually, when Treadwell would tell them to go away, but they seemed totally indifferent to his declarations of love and loyalty (although the foxes would sometimes sit quietly and let him pet them). After he watched two males in a horrifying fight over a female, he talked to the winner, sounding almost like a reporter with a microphone talking to a victorious athlete. The bear seemed to be asleep, not even turning his head.

Technically, what am I?

My brother once told me a story about a bird called Koko that he looked after one weekend for a friend of his. Koko was talking about my brother like he was one of the birds, and Vinny had to explain that technically, he wasn’t really a bird. Koko evidently liked the sound of that, because when she went home at the end of the weekend she startled Vinny’s friend by announcing, “Technically, I am not a bird.”

Technically, I am not a bear, but I tend to talk about myself and those closest to me as bears. Bears are in some sense my totem animal. Bears are often playful, smart, and curious, and I admire those qualities. I’m surrounded by various representations of bears: many photos, a couple of bear pendants that I wear sometimes, a small figure of a bear with a fish in his mouth, even a twonie, the Canadian two-dollar coin, which has polar bear on one side of it. But I know I’m really not a bear. I don’t fish in a stream with my paws for salmon and eat it raw. I don’t even fish with a line and eat it cooked. I haven’t been very close to many real live bears. Any kinship I feel with them is based on a much more distant and abstract understanding of them than Treadwell had from living intimately among them as he did for so long.

So my understanding of bears is heavily filtered through my humanity, and not true to any direct experience of the animals themselves. I feel almost sheepish about it, after seeing someone who really truly did identify with bears in a way I never could. But for all his direct experience of the bears, Treadwell’s concept of the ursine was filtered through his humanity too.

I think Herzog hit the nail on the head when he said that Treadwell’s film of the bears was perhaps not so much a look into wild nature as a look into ourselves. Several of the people interviewed in the movie said that Treadwell wanted to be a bear, to become so connected that he merged with them. Herzog described him as wanting to leave the confines of his humanity. Treadwell did not like or enjoy or thrive in the world of people and of civilization. Judging from what I saw of him in his own videos, he was emotionally very volatile (he quit taking antidepressants because he felt the middle way was not for him; he needed the highs and lows) and he sought out danger and risk. He seemed to harbor a very Romantic notion of nature and of wild animals, going beyond even Rousseau, who at least thought that humans in their natural state were full of grace (the noble savage). It looked to me like Treadwell by and large had to seek outside the human race entirely to find a group of beings with whom he felt much affinity.

Treadwell’s tragedy seems to be that he couldn’t find a way to fit into the human world, and the world that he tried to enter instead wound up killing him. Before he left for his last summer with the bears, he told a friend that if he didn’t come back, it was the way he wanted to go. Although I don’t deny his right to choose how to live his life, it’s hard for me to say how much that really mitigates the tragedy for the people he left behind. Certainly I value the human world far too much to ever turn my back on it the way he did. And while for most of us it’s evidently not as hard as it was for him, we all do have to fit ourselves somehow into a world of flawed human beings. One of the most rewarding things about being here is the effort to continue to grow, to learn how to overcome your weaknesses and stretch yourself to incorporate some uncomfortable but necessary behaviors into who we are. But you can only stretch so far before you start to feel like you are betraying your true self, and for Treadwell that limit was much closer than it was for most of us.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, he was passionately true to himself, and I have to respect that genuineness and the courage it took him to follow his love for the bears wherever it led. On the other hand, not everything about ourselves is good. The process of deciding what to embrace about your own physical or emotional nature, and what to acknowledge but try to curb, is a difficult one. Negotiating a realistic balance between the demands of the outer world and the needs of your true self requires a firm grasp on reality, and an acceptance of the truths of nature and human nature as they are, not as you would like them to be.

When I was talking about the movie with a friend, he said that Treadwell obviously felt a deep love for the bears, no matter what kind of illusions he was harboring. But I wonder, how truly can you love nature or any part of it if you don’t understand and respect the reality of what you love?


All three movies offered some visual treats, and all were worth seeing. Parrots was far and away my favorite, because it resonated most strongly with my own beliefs. Penguins and Parrots both are much gentler films than Grizzly Man, which is darker overall and contains much starker contrasts (between Herzog’s and Treadwell’s views). I think Parrots provides the most balanced view of our relationship to other animals, seeing both the similarities and the differences without getting too carried away in either direction. If you’re going to see Grizzly Man, you might want to bring along a friend or two. The movie is sure to spark some vigrous discussion about questions of nature, wilderness, sanity, and identity.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *