Learning about life from animals

Published 8:00 am Friday, May 5, 2023

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We can learn so many important life lessons, especially about ourselves, from animals.

Horses can teach us, if we’re willing to learn, that trust is a two-way street. As a horse develops trust in us, we develop trust in him. It’s the old Chinese yin and yang principle–two opposite characteristics can actually exist in harmony and complement each other. The rider wants to go from point A to point B, or to jump over a creek or maybe herd some cows. The horse wants to please the rider, who will offer him treats, a good meal and safety.

Dogs often have a strong drive to satisfy the owner, perhaps for a reward and a warm bed, but more often than not for love. We know dogs have the capacity to love, even though they can’t actually analyze that.

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Consider the recent case of Murphy. We can learn a valuable human life lesson or two from him.

Murphy is a 31-year-old bald eagle living at the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis County, Missouri. He lives at the sanctuary because he cannot fly, but he is otherwise a fine specimen of America’s greatest symbol. All of Murphy’s behavior seemed quite normal to sanctuary workers and visitors until one day Murphy did something most peculiar.

Oddly, he–a male without a mate–began sitting on a rock in his aviary. Sitting as a female bird sets an egg to hatch. He built a nest around his “egg” and when his keepers or other eagles approached, he chased them away, charging and squawking. Finally, they decided that separating him from his “egg” would break his heart, so they let him do what he felt was natural, what felt right for him.

Soon visitors became concerned that Murphy wasn’t moving, other than perhaps to cast a wary eye. The keepers had to post a sign telling visitors he wasn’t sick or lonely because there were other eagles there. He was just responding to his hormones.

Eagles are very familial. The male and female, who are mates for life, share homemaking duties. He will bring her sticks for making the nest. Avid eagle-cam watchers tell stories of the male rearranging a few of the sticks in the nest only to have the female put them back where she had originally placed them. (Sound familiar?)

Fortuitously, word reached the sanctuary that a nearby eagle nest had been sent crashing to the ground during a storm, taking its two 14-day-old chicks to the ground. One was killed. One survived and was brought to the sanctuary to be placed with Murphy.

After a slow and careful introduction, Murphy stepped up to the plate as a surrogate father and assumed his parental responsibilities.

When keepers dropped a whole fish in the aviary, Murphy ripped off tiny morsels and fed them to his new charge.

So what can we learn from this story? There are many valuable lessons that peck away at our stereotypes about the role of males in our society, about surrogate fathers, about putting the care of youngsters ahead of our tick-tight image of how there must always be a nuclear family.

We need more people thinking like Murphy.

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com