Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A slight detour

The Parrot Who Owns Me – Joanna Burger
The Philosopher and the Wolf – Mark Rowlands

I got slightly off track with these too, but I could hardly help myself. When “The Parrot Who Owns Me” arrived I just had to start immediately, and then it seemed natural to read “The Philosopher and the Wolf” right after.

Actually, the two books have a lot more in common than I could have guessed: both tell of strong relationships with wild animals kept as pets; both writers are academicians (Burger an ornithologist, Rowlands a philosopher) and both found their theoretical work very much influenced and changed through the vicissitudes of sharing their days with a parrot and a wolf.

Large parrots and wolves (the latter much more so, of course) are unusual pets and with good reason. Most people are simply not able to accommodate the needs of such animals, nor are they willing to. The result where vanity and stubbornness persist, are bald parrots who pick their own feathers out frustration and boredom, and big, aggressive dogs tied away in backyards.

Rather, as both authors soon discover it is you who must provide the company for your wild pet, sacrificing many things as you go along. Rowlands turns himself into a marathoner in order to keep Brenin, the wolf, satisfied in terms of exercise and stimulation, while Burger has to warn hapless dinner guests not to open the fridge if they want to avoid the attack of Tiko, the parrot. (Only she was allowed to open the fridge).

In fact, the bite of Tiko the amazon parrot, though infrequent is painful and scarring. Everything must be negotiated, and the amazon can never be pushed, only persuaded. And yet what clearly shines through Joanna Burger’s book is the absolute joy, the privilege of being trusted, respected and loved by such a magnificent wild animal.

For the privilege of Tiko’s affection the scientist must cut frequent research trips to a minimum absence of three weeks (the amazon will get aggressive with the sitter after that time), forfeit any other animals in the house (as Hester the chicken found out, Tiko will not stand any rivals around), and curb any demonstrations of affection from her husband (they send Tiko into a jealous rage). On the other hand observing his behavior sends Burger’s research into new and exciting paths, into vigilance, mating rituals and habitat conservation.

The saddest thing about large parrots, to my mind, is how they generally outlive their owners (they can live into their seventies). As the book closes, Tiko is approaching fifty and still fit as a fiddle (Tiko had been previously owned by two elderly sisters). Can parrots understand death?

And can we? That is more the type of question Mark Rowlands poses himself in “The Philosopher and the Wolf”. Professional deformation, and all that, but it’s understandable since after all, it was Brenin who turned Rowlands into a published author. Sort of.

I loved Brenin’s story as will anyone with a love of animals, Rowlands tone however, is another story. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when by page 85, he states “If people don’t think of me as arrogant – perhaps they do – that’s only because I’m good at hiding it.” Weeelll, have I got news for you…!

Brenin was a big teddy bear who quickly grew into a big, nice wolf. However, since he could not be left alone for more than a minute (his powers of house wrecking were truly prodigious), Rowlands soon begun to take him everywhere with him, including university lecture halls and rugby matches. Slowly it was Brenin’s company (although I would argue it was also the author’s move from rowdy, happy-go-lucky Alabama to sullen Ireland, plus the six months mandatory quarantine for Brenin) turned him into something of a misanthrope, ergo, a prolific philosophy writer.

I disagreed with a lot in this book, but hey, philosophy as far as I can understand it (not much taking from my grades in high-school) is nothing but a matter of opinion and of how elegantly or forcefully you can state your theory. There is no scientific method to it, at least not when you’re talking life, love and death. Rowlands has this whole theory about how apes are deceitful, ungraceful and simply mean creatures and that we as their descendants are just about the same, no matter how much we try to hide it. Wolves on the other hand are loyal, graceful and know no fear – they are pure.

Yes, I can just about hear Konrad Lorenz’s applause coming from the hell to which are consigned scientists who jumped on the nazi bandwagon. He too preferred dogs with wolf blood because they were braver (you meant more Aryan didn’t you, you old coot?) while the dogs descending from coyotes were submissive, even false.

As shamanic and spiritual as it is to equate certain qualities or defects with certain animals I don’t think it stands any real chance as serious theory, philosophical or otherwise (A great book on the subject is Boria Sax’s “Animals in the Third Reich”). Anyone who lives closely with animals knows that personality is an important factor.

If animals are not just archetypes who can only live fulfilling lives by living exactly as they have always done; if, on the contrary they can adapt and enjoy new experiences, including sharing their lives with respectful humans, as Rowlands states, and I agree, then it hardly seems possible to ascribe to them an immutable nature or temperament.

I did enjoy his discussion on evil, which ran closely with my own opinions, but I really wish he didn’t take so much pleasure in frightening dog owners with Brenin off leash all the time.

Both are great books on animals. I preferred Burger’s because right now birds and parrots are more fascinating to me than wolves, but also because the steady drip of hemingway-like machismo (now there’s a guy that should have owned a wolf…) was a bit tiresome in Rowland’s (though I did feel like crying in the end which means…that I’m a submissive, morally bankrupt ape, I guess).

If I wanted to get all philosophical I’d say this: while Rowlands takes pride in the way he successfully trained Brenin to walk in our world, Burger takes pride in the way Tiko allowed her to enter his world. And that, friends, to quote one of our great simian poets, made all the difference.

Joanna Burger & Tiko

Mark Rowlands & Brenin


jenclair said...

Both of these sound good!

You might enjoy The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

bookworm (inês) said...

It's definitely on my wish list, but I keep hesitating on whether to get the book or the DVD first...decisions, decisions...