While driving recently I was listening to one of those call-in shows on the radio, and was glad to hear a question that had nothing to do with politics or abortion or the drug problem. A lady wanted to know whether mongrels were ever trained to be seeing-eye dogs. She felt sorry for all those mongrels she saw on the streets, and she thought it would be so nice if they could be trained to help blind people because (and here the host had to ask her to repeat what she had said to make sure he had heard it right) it would give them something to look forward to.
Just exactly what view did the lady take of the minds of dogs? Did they suffer identity crises? Where they bored with life on the streets, finding that there wasn’t much future in it?
Then I heard a recording of the songs of whales. I wouldn’t have believed it if I had not just read the fascinating article in the New Yorker by Faith McNulty, “Lord of the Fish,” in which she ways that whales do indeed “sing.” A man named Frank Watlington, an engineer with the Columbia University Geophysical Field Station at Bermuda, recorded the songs with a hydrophone. In contrast to birdsongs, which are light and quick, the song of the whale is heavy and slow, a sort of muted trumpeting interspersed with ratcheting and at times with a surprisingly high, thin whining. It is jubilant and boisterous, eerie and sorrowful, often reminding one of an echo. I had the feeling the whale sometimes experimented with different kinds of sound and when pleased with one drew it out, then abruptly reverted to the ones he’d practiced before, even including a loud, rude Bronx cheer.
The question naturally arises as to why whales make these noises. “It must be the mating call,” is the first suggestion most people come up with. But that theory doesn’t stand up to scientific investigation. The truth is that nobody has figured out why whales make the noises they make. But then, as my husband pointed out, nobody has figured out why human beings make the noises they make either. Miss McNulty believes whales sing so they won’t be alone.
I know a Vermont policeman who was on duty as a game warden one day during hunting season. He sat quietly in the woods and heard a stirring in the leaves over a little rise and soon a young bear appeared about 30 yards away. The bear lay down on his side and squirmed around in a circle in the dead leaves, pushing them into a pile in the center of the circle. Then he climbed a tree and jumped into the pile. He did this not once but again and again. Obviously he was having fun.
I have always found animals irresistible. The whole idea of a kingdom of beings utterly separate and distinct from ourselves who nevertheless gaze upon us and think thoughts about us ravishes me. What do they mean? Why are they there? What did God mean by making them? When He made man, He made him in His own image. When He made animals, His imagination ranged wide and free. But we confront them, we breathe the same air and walk the same earth and live and move and have our being in the same Creator. So we seek to understand them, and quite naturally we ascribe to them our own passions and needs—the ambition of the forsaken mongrel who roams the streets, hoping for some useful niche in the scheme of things; the loneliness of the tremendous beast that moves through dark oceans, singing his wistful song on the off chance that there will be ears to hear; the gaiety of the little yearling bear who, all alone, makes his arrangement for joy and then joyfully climbs, plunges, plays and climbs again.
These creatures are, I suppose, unaware (but perhaps I am wrong—perhaps they are profoundly aware) that a human heart goes out, a human ear is tuned, a human eye watches. And perhaps animals are aware of the divine heart and ear and eye. Perhaps they are not so oblivious as we. Even young lions, according to the Psalmist, “seek their food from God” (104:21, NIV). Look at the face of a good dog. There is simplicity and gentleness and reverence in those liquid eyes. Does he or she behold the face of the Father? It is easy for me to believe that he or she does.
God meant the animals to instruct us. I am sure that is one of the things He meant. When He had listened to all the arguments and complaints of His servant Job, and all the bombast of his friends, God answered by the revelation of Himself. And this revelation, beginning with the dimensions of the universe, the mighty harmony of the morning stars and the phenomena of sea, clouds, snow, hail, rain, dew, hoarfrost, ice and the constellations, wound up with animals.
What Job didn’t know then was that God had already identified Himself with one of His own creatures, the gentlest, most harmless little animal of all. He was a Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world.
I have often thought that that terrible ash heap on which poor Job scratched and shrieked would have been made so much more endurable if he had had the least inkling of that. He was overpowered, but had he any idea at all of how he was loved? I have been comforted, in the midst of what seemed to me like ashes, by the thought of the Lamb, and even (does it seem absurd?) by the unflagging attention and affection of a little black dog. For I remember that when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness He had two comforters—angels and animals. The record says he was “with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13), which I once took to mean He was endangered by them as well as tempted by Satan. I now think otherwise. The animals were surely no threat to Him. They kept Him company in His sore struggle.
When the impact of life seems about to break us, we can put our minds for a few minutes on fellow creatures—the whale, the bear or things that “take life blithely, like birds and babies,” as Martin Luther said—and remember that there is a sacrifice at the heart of it all. The Lamb became the Shepherd, bearing and caring for the sheep, laying down his life for them both as Shepherd and as Lamb, and, in the end, the Book of the Revelation promises, “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17, RSV).