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Are You an Animal Lover?

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This morning I was awakened from a sound sleep by a rhythmic sound that might have been a neighbor sawing wood or someone trying desperately to start a car with an empty gas tank off in the distance. I followed the sound to the rear of the house and opened the window of my second-floor master bathroom. Looking down on one of the pens in my South Florida backyard I caught sight of a male Burmese Black Mountain tortoise having his way with a female. He gripped the sides of her shell with his foreclaws and gaped with effort, showing the bright pink of his mouth and throat as he grunted loudly.

The voice of the turtle was indeed heard in our land, at least in my neighborhood. Interestingly, last week this same female laid 38 eggs and they are quietly incubating nearby, spurred along in their development perhaps by the sound of their father's passion. He certainly hasn't wasted any time getting back to business. This particular species reaches 100lbs, making it the second largest mainland tortoise species in the world after the African Spur-Thigh. Only the island giants of the Galapagos and the Seychelles Archipelago are larger. Populations of this highland species are so mortally endangered that some sources consider them functionally extinct. Blame hardwood logging and the resulting deforestation, and of course the hunger of the indigenous people of Burma and parts of Thailand who take them for food. There's another, smaller, more common lowland variety, the so-called Burmese Brown tortoise, which has been plentiful until recently, but the future of these Asian giants is also bleak.

Few people, including the world's zoos, have figured out how to breed this rare species, and I confess it took me ten years of trial and error to figure out their temperature and humidity requirements and to understand their particular environmental preferences. This is a very primitive species of tortoise, not in the sense of being simple but in the sense of having been around, exactly in their present form, for tens of millions of years. Their elaborate courtship involves a circling, head bobbing dance, and if asked I'd have to say they know and care for each other. I separated them when egg laying began so as to make sure the eggs were not trampled upon. Apart, they grew fussy in their eating and moody too. The male at his rounds this morning had to scale a fence to get to reach his beloved. A climbing turtle? Some can and some do.

Burmese tortoises are not the only creatures heralding spring around here. This morning while getting my son ready for day camp I heard another rhythmic noise, this time inside the house. I followed the sounds to his bedroom, where I keep a couple of pairs of Australian woma pythons. Non-venomous, active, powerful constrictors, these snakes are spread across the dry continent down under, mostly confined to desert areas. I've been keeping snakes for nearly 45 years and have worked in some of the world's great zoos, but this species is my all time favorite.

A five-foot male I've had for some years was making the noise by pushing his nose up against the top of his aquarium home, lifting the screen half an inch against its security clamps and then letting it bang down again. I offered him food yesterday and he declined it, so I wondered what could have him so agitated. He is a particularly gentle, even-tempered snake that has never shown an inclination to bite, so I took him out, draped him around my neck, and went back to work at the computer for a little bit. Usually a change of scene settles these creatures down -- they have more intelligence and curiosity than folks who fear them or don't know them could possibly imagine -- but this time his mini vacation wasn't enough. He remained agitated, going for the desk, the floor, the back of my chair, until I finally realized what was going on.

I mix and match my two pairs of snakes, you see, in hopes of encouraging breeding. A few weeks ago I had taken him from the company of his long-term mate and put him in another tank with a younger female. Apparently he missed his girlfriend, for when I switched the males and he took one look at the beautiful blonde he'd been missing (yes, she really does have a pale yellow head) he immediately settled in for a round of serpentine lovemaking.

People don't always agree what the word love means, and even if they do, there are many categories of that most powerful of all feelings, from romantic love to altruistic love to Platonic love and so on. Can snakes and turtles feel love? I suppose I'd have to be a snake or a turtle to be sure, and therein, of course, lies the rub. It's traditional to regard snake love as nonsense. There are, after all, no double-blind, placebo-controlled medical studies on the effects, or lack thereof, of snake love. Nor have there been, to the best of my knowledge, any zoological inquiries into the presence or absence of a "love gene" in turtles.

Yet we are in a tumultuous time in the evolution of consciousness. The religion of science is giving way to something else as the new physics helps us understand such concepts as the holographic universe and string theory, while at the same time lending intellectual credence to a complete reappraisal of what we think we know about life, the universe, and everything. Part of this process is grasping the difficult idea that we will never understand everything by using intellect alone.

Swept up by the dust devils of the gathering storm are the perceived differences between human beings and other animals. Karma is in there, the notion of the soul is in there, and so are the judgments and prejudices that we regularly wreak on Nature. The creatures sharing the planet with us certainly deserve more respect and consideration than they get from our speed-and-greed culture. It's easy to justify slaughtering cows when you don't have to see the machines that do it or smell the carcasses. It's easy to rape the oceans when you live far from the beach and very much enjoy a nice piece of halibut or tuna. Morally, out of sight means out of mind.

As you consider the question of what animals really know, feel and understand, please remember that it isn't only dogs and cats that deserve our compassion and respect. Reptiles, so often trodden underfoot, burned out of their burrows or beheaded by the garden shovel, have their own form of consciousness, and their own feelings. Just ask the male woma python that prefers blondes.

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