“Love has no bounds” is an old cliché. Everyone loves “love”–from Valentine’s Day paraphernalia to sappy greeting cards. And environmentalists say they love nature, love the Earth, love a place or animal.
Obviously, nature is often “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson puts it.1 However, nature also has its soft-and-fuzzy side, which provides a wonderful lesson and model for how humans in general and environmentalists in particular can relate to nature. A particularly splendid example of this is animals “adopting” other animals.
I have been watching a pair of cardinals parenting a baby cowbird at my bird feeders recently. Cowbirds (like other birds, such as the cuckoo) will lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and let the foster parents do the dirty work–changing dirty diapers, wiping runny noses, feeding at all hours of the night and day. And so along with the little baby cardinals flapping flopping and squawking like mad, this little cowbird is right there with the rest getting dutifully fed by the cardinals. I am sure all pet owners can recount endless tales of cats adopting dogs, dogs adopting cats, and so on.
In a somewhat similar vein, the March-April 2008 issue of Audubon featured a fabulous picture of a baby macaque in China hugging a pigeon that had adopted it. Separated from its parents, the little tike was near death and could not be revived by human zoo workers. Only after buddying up to the pigeon did he perk up and find life again.
This inter-animal adoption, for lack of a better term, seems to call out to the human heart. Thus we have a wealth of legendary/fictional instances where animals actually adopt humans: Romulus and Remus (traditional founders of Rome suckled by a wolf), Mowgli in The Jungle Book (raised by wolves), Tarzan (raised by apes), George of the Jungle (raised by apes, spoofing Tarzan), etc. Although fictional, these stories reveal the truth that humans still feel their wildness and still feel connected to their animal brethren.
It might be easy for us to say in all these cases that they are just “stupid animals” and do not know any better. The witless critters are no more than instinct machines and so only know that it is time to feed the kids and that these funny-looking interlopers came out of their nests.
Perhaps. But perhaps these animals, “dumb” and “pea brained” as they may be, make up for their little brains and low IQs with hearts so big they would make a whale sink. Perhaps animals are able, even willing, to “adopt” animals of other species (even other orders and families!) because their love is truly boundless, truly natural. Perhaps they take upon themselves the burden of providing for animals not like them because they “know” that the greatest gift of love is life, that life is love, and so they do what they must to ensure the life and well-being of another animal. That is, they become truly natural parents.
Why does this matter for humans, and especially environmentalists? Because, according to many signs and forecasts and data, we are running out of time to save the life of planet Earth. Like overly needy children, we have sucked Mother Earth nearly dry. Whether we love nature or we love what we get from nature, we have lived mostly in dependence upon Earth’s resources for our entire history.
So when we say we love nature, we love the Earth, we certainly feel a life-giving motivation to save nature, to save the Earth. We want to save the lives of every living thing and the places we cherish.
But I think that inter-animal adoptions can provide a new sort of paradigm for human stewardship. Rather than seeing ourselves as children of Mother Earth, perhaps it is time for us to shift our perspective.
We might give new strength to the environmental movement if we took a new approach to the Earth and saw ourselves as parents tending for Baby Earth, not just as children of Mother Earth. This kind of “adoptive stewardship” might lead us, like Ma & Pa Cardinal with the little cowbird chick, to nurture and tend everything in nature as parents caring for children–no matter what the kiddies look like or where they come from.
As parents give love, they get love in return; as parents give life, they get life in return.
Maybe we can “adopt” the Earth and all of its little (and big!) life forms and become parental stewards who want our children to have the very best, to have all the things we have had and more, to have wonderful and glorious and love-filled lives even after we are gone.
Image credit: Romulus et Remus (1614) by Pieter Paul Rubens, via Wikimedia Commons.
1. Tennyson, Alfred. “In Memoriam.” Alfred Tennyson: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. Adam Roberts. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 236.
What inter-animal adoptions have you seen, be it in the wild or in your home with pets? How might this sort of parental, “adoptive stewardship” be applied by environmentalists? How might it be beneficial, and what potential drawbacks might it have?