The following is from Marcus Baynes-Rock's Among the Bone-Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar, pp. 27-29. The author describes how he observes (for the second time) a butcher feeding hyenas, and speaks to the man about this:
Waking up in the middle of the night, I left the hotel and went to the playing field where I'd seen the food being thrown to hyenas from the butcher shop. When I arrived, the butcher shop had not yet opened, but staring into the darkness I could discern the shapes of a couple of hyenas lying in the middle of the common. I sat on a stone slab and watched as dogs sniffed around looking for scraps. The dogs were taking care to not come too close to the hyenas. Not long after I arrived, I heard a chorus of barking behind me and turned to see some dogs running out of the way of a procession of six hyenas who had arrived via a side road. At the entrance ot the field the leading hyena stopped, turned to watch the other hyenas coming in, and then followed the last of the group, as if checking to see that everyone had followed. [...] At about 3:30 A.M., a truck arrived at the butcher shop and the door opened. The hyenas and dogs crowded around the shop while a butcher emerged from inside to take delivery of the beef, mutton and goat on the bone. After passing the goods to his apprentice inside, the butcher emerged with some fatty strips that he held out for the hyenas, who were waiting expectantly.
The butcher's name was Sisay Gadissa, an Oromo man originally from west of the Rift. He was tubby, with a broad, gleaming smile, and was remarkably jovial considering the hour. SIsay spoke enough English to be able to tell me about the hyenas, saying he'd been feeding them in front of his shop for four years. When I asked him why, he said, "I love animals. All animals." Still, he seemed to favor the hyenas over the dogs and cats. Or maybe it was simply that the dogs and cats didn't have the nerve to stand in front of the hyenas. I asked if Sisay had names for the hyenas. "Oh yes," he replied. "There's Bajaj and Gooncha. Bajaj has three legs." A broad smile briefly pushed aside his chubby cheeks. "He comes here, but today he's absent." As we talked, hyenas gathered around expectantly. Sisay went back inside and came out with a handful of scraps, which he let go of only as the hyenas took them.
This is a fascinating little story in a book that's (so far) full of fascinating stories, but what stood out to me was the part that followed, where the author asks the salient question: why?
Yes, a person can love animals, and yes, a person can want to feed them. But why not just leave a pile of food at the other side of the common for the hyenas to eat undisturbed? I didn't ask that question of Sisay, because the answer is at once too obvious and too elusive. It's not enough just knowing that they're out there. We want them to come to us and acknowledge our presence in the world as fellow creatures, but we don't know why. For some reason, we crave these creatures' validation and acceptance, grounded in their close presence. With regard to animals, the word love is often interchangable with the word need.
The ecologist and philosopher Paul Shepard grappled with this issue. He was interested in the importance of animals to normal human development and psychological health. According to Shepard, pets, domesticates, and zoo animals are psychological band-aids for urbanites who crave the mystical presence of wild Others in their brick and lawn landscapes. The principle of phylogenetic probity holds that the healthy development of an organ is best assured under the circumstances in which that organ evolved. Consequently, normal human development is retarded in urbanized humans who are far removed from the Paleolithic landscape that teemed with wild animal Others. According to Shepard, Homo industrialis is trapped in a perpetual adolescence, "subjected to the myths of the animal/machine, heroes of progress and domination and the dualisms of ideology." Hence we reach out to wild animals, wanting to draw them closer. We chase them about in boats, hike for hours in forested mountains, point cameras at them from tour vehicles for a price equal to the daily wages of an entire village, and hold out strips of food to draw them ever closer—to their peril. All in the name of filling an intangible psychological hole that emerges out of a lifeway that both facilitates and necessitates these kinds of practices. The playing field was a drab, dusty bowl amid tin and mud-brick suburbs, littered with the refuse of modernity and resounding with the chug of diesel engines. Is it any wonder that an eighty-kilogram predator amid all that should draw a man from his occupation?
I think both Baynes-Rock and Shepard have got an excellent point there: we, as modern humans, live in ways that are completely contrary to our nature, and in environments that are completely unnatural to us. This isn't necessarily as bad as it may sound, but consider that the human psyche has evolved to ensure survival in a rather different environment. And we are not only equipped to survive on the African savannah, we in fact need it, certain aspects of it anyway, to remain healthy. Throw us into unnatural situations, and we'll find ways to make them resemble what's more natural to us — more familiar.
I couldn't help but think of the furry fandom when I read this passage, either. Why animals, after all? Why not (say) robots? There's never (to my knowledge) been a real clunky fandom, and most people I know, even those who're fascinated by robots, don't seem to connect to them the way they do to animals. Animals simply touch us, by virtue of always having been an integral part (for better or worse) of human life and the environment we found ourselves in.
Furries sometimes like to point to things like the Egyptian pantheon, shamanism, fables etc. as proof that furries are older than late 20th century US-American comic book fandom. Others counter that none of those who came before would've considered themselves furries. I contend that both those viewpoints are both right and wrong: furry fandom, like that which came before, is simply another expression of the psychological need for the animal "other" that Shepard identifies. Ancient Egyptians, for all their lack of modern science and technology, did not live in accordance with their human nature anymore than we do. It's no surprise that they, too, felt the need to find again the animals that they had lost.