There was a video shown on television the other day of a family in a boat who were cutting the net in which a very large whale was entangled. It drifted out of their reach again and again and, each time, they eased their boat skillfully up to it and went carefully to work with their cutters on the tough plastic tangle. When it was finally free, it swam about a quarter of a mile off, and then threw itself into a tremendous display of breeching, tail flipping, rolling, and monumental merriment.
That last bit is what we call anthropomorphism, which is when we attribute human characteristics to beings that are not human. Of course, the whale could have been trying to communicate gratitude, but all that we really know is that it was expressing some kind of emotion, its cavorting most likely a self-referential exuberance at being free at last.
There is one emotion, however, that we do share with animals – curiosity. In his Just So Stories, written for children curious about “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” and other animal mysteries, Rudyard Kipling chose “the Elephant’s Child” as an exemplar of “insatiable curiosity.” In “How the Elephant Got His Trunk” a young elephant, spanked all the time by his relatives for asking too many questions, is determined to travel down to the “great, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all hung about with fever trees” because he just has to know what the crocodile eats for dinner.
I should point out that, at this point in elephant evolution (according to Kipling) elephants have only short stubs for noses, which is what the crocodile grabs after answering the little elephant’s question with “Today, I think I will begin with Elephant’s Child.”
That roil in the foreground is the bicoloured python rock snake, which comes to the Elephant's Child's aid by grabbing his tail and pulling. As a child filled to the tips of my ears with insatiable curiosity (and perpetually in trouble for it) I adored it when the Elephant’s Child went home and used his new trunk to punish his all his scornful relatives.
Animals, especially brainy mammals like whales and elephants (not to mention dogs and cats) are exquisitely curious; which is how, as Kipling seems to be suggesting, they evolved so highly in the first place.
Late one August when I was ten years old I was sitting on a beach in Maine wrapped in a towel to warm up from my swim in the icy Atlantic Ocean, when I noticed a whiskery old codger bobbing around in the surf right next to my brother.
“Who was that?” I asked, when he came ashore.
“I don’t know—a little old man with a beard? He kept looking at me!”
Then my father came down with my brother’s towel, and remarked:
“Did you see that seal? It’s an old one—it’s almost September. At this time of year, they swim onto the beach to die.”
Even with his last gasp upon him, the elderly seal was indulging his curiosity.
Sixty years later, I had an experience on Cape Cod that confirmed for me, once and for all, how curious animals are:
We went out to watch the seals
outboard motor roaring, bow up,
waves cleft by our wash, then down,
as we slowed abreast of the pod.
Black heads shaped like hammers
swiveled to watch us, nostrils flared
as a constant snaffle gasping
filled the air. There were grey ones
with oval heads: females
and young. There were couples
and half grown friends, and a gang
of bachelors rolling their necks
The next day, I walked by the ocean,
Two boys were leaping about.
each trying to jump higher than the other in the air
while two young seals swam along
beside them. Sleek heads
raised above the waves at every shout,
eyes gleamed to follow the play,
The Dalai Lama says we should regard
all sentient beings as equals.
We go out seal watching,
Seals swim as close as they dare
bestowing curious stares—
It seems to go both ways.