2016 - Issue Three

In Praise of Children’s Love of Animals

Paolo Prosperi FSCB Download Article

Then the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." (Gen 2:18-22, emphases are author's)

How can we explain children’s attraction to the animal kingdom? What is this irresistible appeal, this enchantment that almost every child feels before the world of animals?

To be sure, the young child is by far more irresistibly drawn to animals when in the presence of his parents, so much so that without it, the appealing charm of animals not only disappears, but is transformed into terror. Just as for Adam the intimate dialogue or familiarity with God is the condition and, so to speak, the “sphere” in the context of which the naming of the animals can take place (Adam is instructed by God to name the animals and the animals “are brought in front of him” by God), in the same way, the confident intimacy between the child and his parents and their reliable presence are for the child the necessary context of his curious opening to the “marvelous mystery” of the world of animals. The parents—and the mother in particular, as the one who represents God’s intimacy, God’s closeness and reliability—are the condition for the child’s opening to the animal kingdom. For, in a sense, the animal kingdom is able to represent or symbolize the other crucial side of the Divine Other: absolute Difference.

Human existence is firstly and above all the adventure of a progressive entering into friendship with God, and of an ever-growing deepening of this relationship; since it is truly an adventure, it is filled with wondrous discoveries, precisely because it is unraveled in time through the mediation of the world. The world of animals plays an irreplaceable, marvelous role in this story of getting to know God through the world. Animals played this role in the very beginning and continue to do so wherever an ounce of purity remains unspoiled in the human heart. It is preserved in the heart of children, who—after all—take the purest delight in animals.

The animal kingdom too—to be sure—has suffered the consequences of the fall. A sinister shadow dwells in the world of wild nature alongside its splendor—though not in the same degree and mode as happens in the human world. Light and shadow: for all of creation—not only the human—“waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rm 8:19). Nothing is anymore as it should and could have been. All creatures long for their liberation: the lion and the eagle no less than the human. They wait to be fully “freed” through the very liberation of the human, for whom they have been created.

But in the child, because of his innocence, something of the primordial encounter between Adam and the animals, something of that dawn-like wonder, is renewed and kept alive. What does the child see when his father brings him to the zoo for the first time and, looking at the elephant, the child points his little finger toward him and, filled with awe, he “says its name”? What is the child seeing? And what is that which irresistibly compels him to talk to the elephant, as if trying to establish a kind of friendship, a kind of communion?

This is the experience of a new way of encountering the similar—by this is meant one who is at the same time like me and different from me, close and distant, familiar and foreign. In this sense, to be sure (as Genesis 2 clearly suggests) there is a hidden, profound figural relationship between the attraction that the child feels toward a dolphin or a lion, and the attraction he will one day feel for the woman—if he is male—and vice versa—if she is female. The former is a prophecy of the latter, the figure, the typos. The attraction has the same structure: it is elicited by the experience of the likeness of the other—as a mysterious unity of identity and difference. The elephant has two eyes like me, a mouth like me, in a sense…he has a nose….but how different his nose is from mine! He has ears, but how huge they are! And how scary are those huge tusks…. but especially: how big he is! He is so big, so big! And I feel so small, so small before him as I never felt before…

Identity and difference, sameness and difference: this is the profound reason for that particular feeling we cannot describe, but we all remember, that unfathomable mélange of awe and attraction, of wonder and fear, we have felt in front of animals (it would be interesting here to explore how different species affect us). Of course, this mixed feeling of fear and attraction, of awe and love, is different from the one the same child will feel the day when he falls in love for the first time. The feelings in each case are qualitatively incomparable. They belong to a different order. The animal is not a person. Nonetheless, the child tries instinctively and immediately to establish something like a friendship, or at least a peaceable coexistence. And if it is true that an animal cannot be the kind of “helper” that the woman will be one day, it is also true that there is another irreplaceable quality in the living image of the animal—in all animals in some sense—–that is lacking in the woman, precisely because of her incomparably greater likeness to Adam: the woman—no matter how beautiful she is—cannot fly. The eagle can. And this is why it will become spontaneous for the “grown” child to see integrated in the woman—through poetic, metaphorical imagination—all the inexhaustible, inaccessible qualities proper to those animals that enchanted him in his childhood: the flight of the eagle, the gaze of the cat, the elegant dance of the ibex who jumps with amazing nimbleness from rock to rock, among the abysses, the rapid, noble running of the “mare of the Pharaoh’s chariots”[1]… Yes, it is true: as we already said, the woman for the man (and the man for the woman) is, more than anything else in the visible universe, that other, who can at the same time be impenetrably “other” and no less than intimately “close.” To explain further, the other person, as a spiritual mystery, can be more impenetrable than animals (i.e., only a person can have secrets!), but also—in the measure she loves you and opens up to you—she can welcome you into herself and share herself with you at a much deeper level. But the woman can’t (and will never be fully able to) be a substitute for the inexhaustibly rich world of qualities proper to the animal kingdom, qualities that in the very moment in which they make a certain animal more distant, at the same time open up the beholder to horizons of endless transcendence. To be “friend” of the eagle means for the child to be sure that “one day I will fly too, and I will fly through you and with you: you will lift me up to the sky.” Tomorrow the child will “refer” these words metaphorically/spiritually to his first girlfriend. But—perhaps—they won’t have the same “literal power,” the same “primordial” power that they had in his heart and imagination when he was still a little child.

In this way, there is a sense in which even the grown man still needs the eagle and the mare. He still needs to pass through the eagle in order to fully understand the woman, no less than he needs the woman in order to spiritually and symbolically integrate in his actual experience—that is, as opposed to just in his imagination or dreams—the promise enfolded in his encounter with the eagle: the promise to fly with the eagle once he will have tamed her; the promise to run with the mare once he will have tamed her. On the one hand, the flight of the young man who falls in love is less real because it is metaphorical, but, on the other hand, it is more real because the promise is no longer just in potency, but is, in a way, actualized. It is not accidental or without importance that the lovers in the Song of Songs cannot reciprocally sing of their beloved but through a metaphorical recapitulation of the qualities proper to animals and plants in the only one beloved.[2] Indeed, it is in the human beloved that all the images receive their full disclosure. But it is also true that without the experience of the world, which gives the lover/poet the creative capacity of seeing in the Beloved what is visibly not there (i.e., the woman does not fly!), the lover who beholds would actually be unable to see all that he sees in his beloved. To call to mind Dostoyevsky, when Grushenka calls Mitya “my hawk,” she does this because of qualities of his character and behavior that could be perfectly and analytically described using conceptual language. That is, there is something common between the hawk and Mitya Karamazov, and these similar features could be even better described through a plain, non-metaphorical description of him. But what the metaphor does is something more: it does not refer simply to what he already possesses, but—in addition to that—it refers to that which belongs to the animal and which is not properly Mitya’s. No matter how much Mitya’s way of moving is similar to the “swooping-down-on-its-prey” of the hawk, Mitya is not (and will never be), properly speaking, a hawk. He will never “suddenly land” like a hawk does.

All of this shows well the irrepressible nostalgia and almost need to integrate animals into the realm of interpersonal communion, a nostalgia that doesn’t die with the end of childhood.

The central point is this: The similarity between man and woman is greater than between man and animal. Yet this is precisely the reason why the animal can be all the more precious: its greater—even disturbing, sometimes—dissimilarity, better points to the mystery of God’s irreducible Difference. The monster of the sea, for example, opens to the sublime, to the mystery of the utterly indomitable incomparably better than any human other. Here, the scales lean more radically than anywhere else in favor of difference, dis-proportion; here, kinship is felt as almost absent. But this is exactly what makes irreplaceable the encounter with this particular animal, and—similarly—with the whole of the animal kingdom, which is as such closer to man than the lower spheres (e.g., plants, rocks, etc.), but further from man than the woman. It is here where the secret of the utterly special, all-precious attraction of the child to animals must be found. The mystery of the other, qua same and different, is here infinitely inferior in what concerns the likeness, but in a certain respect superior as to the difference—even when considering the bodily aspect alone.

We therefore must dare say: the child “is initiated”—in a sort of pre-conscious manner—to religious wonder more profoundly by far through the encounter with wild animals than through the encounter with his school playmates. The image of the Mystery qua Mystery is incomparably deeper here precisely because the difference between the child and the animal is incomparably greater. To explain further, since every creature is an image of God, the more a creature is perceived as foreign, wild, untamable and mysterious, the better it makes visible the ungraspable and untamable mysteriousness of God. Of course, without the premise of the primordial relationship with mother and father, this wonder would be turned into distress and horror. However, there seems to be a moment, a kairos in the development of human consciousness, in which animals receive a kind of superior enchanting power. And rightly so: because in the animal is visibly represented the utter Difference of the Great Other better than in any “helper like him.” Both person and animal make God present and visible. And the “personal other”—to be sure—represents him with an incomparably greater similitude, since God is a Person (or, more precisely, a communion of Persons). However, the “dissimilar symbol,” the animal, thanks to and not in spite of its dissimilarity, better opens up to another fundamental dimension of the relationship with God: awe in front of His utter Difference. The feeling of the divine distance is, in fact, not less important than that of His closeness in the development of the religious sense. God is the intimior intimo meo. But, even more than that, He is the three times Holy, the One in front of whose face even the Angels cover their eyes with their wings…. The sacred authors who gave us the Holy Scriptures knew this very well. And this is why no people shows in the same way as Israel did—simultaneously the deepest sense of God’s utter Transcendence and an incredibly rich repertoire of zoomorphic metaphors to represent Him in His relating to His created partner, as Israel did.

To conclude: If we reflect on the order of creation, we see that for Adam the animal makes God visible iconically in a way that is different from the woman: the animal makes God more visible precisely through those qualities of his that distinguish him from both man and woman. This primordial fact is somehow ever grasped by the child. The eagle flies, the child will never fly.  The worm creeps, enters the earth, the child doesn’t. The ibex jumps in such a way that the child will never be able to; but the child—unlike the adult—doesn’t take for granted the renunciation of all these wonderful, different ways of “living in the world” that the animal world reveals. He doesn’t forsake the wonder that these creatures elicit. He doesn’t experience this as simply foreign, having nothing to do with him because he is human. The process of differentiation is in the child not “only” immature; but also—precisely thanks to this immaturity—more open and yearning for communication and integration. The eagle exists. What a marvel! The Eagle exists and I want her to be MINE, I want to be ONE with HER, I want to be LIKE her, even though I understand I am just a child… and I will never be an eagle…but behold: if I talk to her, if we become friends, if I tame “her,” maybe one day I will fly on her back; I will fly one day with you. You, one day, will take me to Heaven with you… (cf. Deuteronomy 32:11)!

Rev. Paolo Prosperi FSCB is an Assistant Professor of Patrology and Systematic Theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC.



[1] Song 1:9: “To a mare of the Pharaoh’s chariotry, / I compare you, my love…”

[2] Cf. Song 1:9.15; 2:8-9; 2:14.17b; 4:1.1b.2.5.8b; 5:2;5:11; 5:12;6:5-6;7:4; 8:14