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The Power of Animals

Not more than 40 years ago, the city of Anaheim California was a sleepy agricultural community of 17,000 people. In the span of 25 or 30 years Anaheim merged into the megalopolis that is Los Angeles and now has a population of 350,000 people. The home of Disneyland, and miles of concrete freeways, high rises and unchecked urban sprawl, Anaheim, nevertheless, contains small surprises for the late-night observer.

Hardly a Peep

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­It’s 4:25 a.m. in Anaheim, and there, amongst the shuttered strip malls and closed gas stations, in the cold of the pre-dawn light, at the intersection of Paladin Ave. and Sunkist Street—a lone coyote crosses—against the signal. It is miles from the tumbling tumbleweeds of the San Bernardino flatlands and the Mojave Desert. Here, the tricky coyote more than survives; he flourishes in the concrete wastelands of urban inner-city life.

Two blocks down, on a quiet side street, lies a shallow pond in the back yard of a bungalow.   Some shapes emerge from the surrounding foliage that slowly and quietly resolve into the striped patterns of a raccoon family seeking a drink of water. More nocturnal creatures survive in the urban sprawl but keep a low profile. Owls, bats and possums also make the rounds scrounging for dog food, garbage, plant seeds, or preying on each other. Don’t forget the ubiquitous and much-reviled rat. Rats outnumber humans in many downtown urban cities—a testament to their adaptability, and procreative powers.

Other creatures such as deer, foxes, squirrels, and hawks, lead quiet daylight lives on the fringes of urban areas or near parks. A mating pair of Peregrine falcons, a species once thought almost extinct, became a sensation in New York city when they set up a nest and raised baby falcons on a ledge of the Washington Mutual Tower. Those Falcons dined on Rock Doves from Pioneer Square.

The Survivors

No matter how tame nature seems to have become, cracks appear in the façade of civilization through which these creatures slip, and which we thought were banished to the wilds. It is the force of nature which animals embody, a malleability and power to survive.

Because of these natural abilities, animals such as ravens, bears, wolves, coyotes, and smaller animals—squirrels, hummingbirds, and even insects constantly star in native stories about them. These animals exhibit heroic proportions among storytellers who recount how they became the allies of humans and helped us out of tough situations or introduced humans to fire, corn, or tobacco. Norse mythology tells how the god Odin used two ravens named Thought and Memory to fly the world each day in order to inform him of what was happening.

Fight or Flight

Size and strength sometimes have little to do with the importance placed upon these creatures. Some animals, such as the raven, became a cultures’ most powerful entity because of intelligence—not claws or big teeth. In the Pacific Northwest, Raven is repeatedly portrayed as intensely curious, meddling, sometimes quiet, sometimes raucous, but always displaying powerful fearlessness and trickery. The Northwest Indians tell many stories about Raven and the stories are, by tradition, owned by specific tribes. According to some, Raven created humans! That’s a strong position for a small creature to hold, and even eagles, grizzly bears and wolves hold lesser importance in the hierarchy of animal relations to humans.

Little Bird that Could

In Mesoamerican beliefs, hummingbirds with their brilliant plumage, and fast, erratic flight, became culturally prominent, despite their diminutive size. This tiny bird held a high rank in its association with blood and war. Because of its supposed sucking action while harvesting flower nectar, the Aztecs used hummingbirds symbolically during ritual sacrifices. They named it Huitzilopochtli, “left hummingbird” which they conceived as one of their most aggressive and ferocious entities—a testimony to the strength and tenacity displayed by this little bird.   Aztec warriors believed that after a brave death in combat hummingbirds became containers for the warrior’s souls.

The pre-European, Mexican story of Tezpi, a tale of a great flood, bearing eerie similarity to Noah and the Ark, tells how Tezpi built a large boat or raft and took with him a diversity of seeds and animals. After the waters subsided, Tezpi sent out a hummingbird which, after a long journey, returned with a green bough in its beak—proving that dry land might be found nearby. The Meso-Americans worshipped the hummingbird because its small size did not preclude it from the ability to traverse thousands of miles in yearly migrations, and for its fearless behavior.

The Grasshopper and the Ants

Besides religion, animals play a large part in the folklore and collective consciousness of humans. Coming of age fairytales, such as Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, or moral tales such as Three Little Pigs, or the Grasshopper and the Ants, demonstrate that humans have a long-standing respect for the power of intelligent animals. The wolf hunts in packs and is known for its cunning. Ants and bees show a collective intelligence that has helped them survive as species for millions of years.

Tooth and Claw

Early humans worshipped animals not only for intelligent behavior, but also for their innate strength and might even copy the behavior of animals to gain some of that power. Humans lived with animals, hunted them, or were hunted by them, for hundreds of thousands of years. People believed that one could embody an animal spirit—in the same way the Aztecs believed that a warrior’s spirit could merge with a hummingbird—others believed that a person could invite the powerful spirit of an animal such as a tiger or wolf into their consciousness.

A particularly strong friendship with a species might occur for shamans or warriors whose job it was to obsess about having an animal ally. These people lead dangerous lives and felt that they needed extra power gained by having a friend in the animal world to help overcome their enemies. For shamans, having a strong animal for an ally meant that they could face the unknown more easily because animals had closer understandings to nature and to the spirit world—animals could intercede with the gods on our behalf.

For warriors and martial artists, possessing an animal spirit such as monkey, eagle, tiger, crane, elephant, or snake helped them to overcome life and death struggles with bandits or other powerful enemies. A person might work for years, practicing to embody an animal’s behavior. They felt that having an ally of this sort imparted to them the animal’s strength—the eagle’s claws, the tiger’s fearlessness, the monkey’s agility, or the twining strength of a snake.

Today animals enter into our consciousness more through literature, gossip, news and popular culture. We speak of people as being lion hearted, or having eyes like a hawk. We speak of groups being industrious like ants, or a person being sly like a wolf. He’s a snake, or she’s a cougar, a fox. We might say he’s as timid as a rabbit, and withdraws like a turtle into his shell, or people fight like cats and dogs, and so on.

A Sad Song

In the stresses of modern life we forget the tenacity of our fellow creatures except for the times our home is invaded by spiders, rats, cockroaches, termites, or during an ant infestation. In sterilizing our lives from these vermin we also negate the positive associations that animals have for us.

Animals still influence us, but they remain in the background of our lives, as a reminder that we still are somehow related to them. Maybe we should thank animals, as our ancestors did, for the sustenance they supply us with, or for the parts they play in quietly enriching our lives in a multitude of ways.

Living in cities as most of us do, we may forget how much we miss the songs of birds, until we wake up sometimes, in the middle of the night—and there in the unusual silence we hear a nightingale, or we peer outside in the quiet hours before dawn and see, peering back, a masked raccoon family quietly passing through our yard.