There was no doubt about it, this was a happy fish. You might not have really paid much attention without the contrast of the rest of them, but against their small darts and lazy swishes, this one stood out. It zoomed across the pond, a silvery streak of energy, stopping just short of the edge, changing direction, revelling in speed and jumping clear of the surface for no apparent reason except that it could. There was an impression of indisputable joy in every scale and movement. A zest for simply being alive on a day of spring sunshine.
I watched for a long time… there was something in the argent streak of light and speed that drew an answering smile and an echo of its own joy in me too. The world fell away and we were kindred spirits for a moment outside time; its pleasure infectious. The fish reminded me of Ani when she runs and plays in the sun streaked fields… because she can. Ani too charges, stops, jumps and grins… and unlike the fish, her face has the mobility to express joy in a familiar way.
In the bushes the small birds chased. Mating perhaps, but it seemed to have no rhyme or reason other than play. I thought back to a video I had seen a while ago, showing a wild deer happily playing in a muddy pool. That too may, of course, have some scientific explanation… which is to say that animal behaviourists have decided that is what they think the deer is doing. To me it had just looked like my children when they were small, splashing around in water and laughing. It was having fun.
And then there was the kite. I have watched the great birds for so long now that I recognise the mode of flight… the steady glide of the hunter seeking prey, the mating ‘dance’ of the paired birds… the vigilance of the guardian when you walk close to a nest site. This was none of those… it was just playing with the air currents in the warmth of the sun. The feathers ruffled as it dived and swooped. Once again, the overwhelming impression was simply joy.
Joy is not an emotion we associate with birds and fish. Their facial expressions are alien to our own… they do not grin or weep, we cannot read their eyes. Dogs, for example, smile and frown. We can read their sadness, guilt and fear in much the same way as we can recognise those emotions in another human being. We have even, because of our long association, become adept at reading their body language. But the face of a fish is immobile and expressionless, its joys invisible to us to the point where perhaps we have not considered the sharing of such emotions.
We tend to hold our own species as separate… better than… more advanced on every level, just because we can shape and manipulate our world on a grander scale, because we can communicate on a global level, perhaps, or because we have access to what we term the higher emotions. Yet termites build cities, bees construct huge geometric colonies… ants farm aphids and the trees in a forest communicate with each other. We have begun to recognise the complexities of language in other species… not always verbal… and the most cursory observation shows that animals too both love and grieve.
We have all heard the tales of the elephants who mourn the death of their kin. I will not forget the fox whose mate had just been hit by a car, desperately trying to get its dead friend to stand. There are tales of heroism and sacrifice by many animals… even though we tend to minimise those tales, thinking of them as natural instincts, unless they involve a relationship with a human being. Then we seem able to attribute them to love. Is that because we can recognise that emotion when it is part of our own journey or simply an arrogance that assumes we alone can love beyond self?
Some things we know. Other creatures feel fear and pain, respond with the maternal instinct to protect their young, create dazzling displays to attract a mate… these are all observable behaviour. They are not, say detractors, in any way indications of emotions in the way that we humans experience them. The wagging tail that welcomes… the emotions are not the same, they say. We are just anthropomorphising… attributing our own emotions to these creatures. We should not read human emotion into the reactions of animals.
But as I watched that fish, grinning at its evident enjoyment, I was conscious that the detractors have a completely skewed view of the world that misses out one simple fact. We too are animals. Is it not arrogance of the highest order to think we are so much different from other species? Cannot our own fear and pain remind us that we share a thread of life? Is the instinct of the mother to protect her children any different in humans? Do we not create, with clothes… hair, make-up and shiny cars…. the same display as our fellow creatures, making ourselves as attractive as possible to a prospective mate? Even the word ‘attractive’ reminds us of why we value beauty.
God forbid that we see ourselves as animals, though. We are the dominant species… Well, we are as a herd, perhaps, or armed with the tools we have created…but one on one with a hungry tiger, I doubt it somehow.
But even that view… that we are just another animal, holds the inherent implication that we are separate and ‘better than’; a kind of inverted snobbery that pays lip service to a recognition of our place within the natural order, as if by doing so our humility is in some way enough in itself to elevate us beyond being ‘just animals’.
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Ah, but we have a soul, say some. By what right do we decide whether or not another creature has a right to whatever heaven, survival or spiritual evolution we envisage?Try telling a dog lover their friend is soulless…
How about, just for a moment, we strip away the accumulated prejudice of centuries and the overlay of religious creeds that tells us that the beasts were made for our service… that we have dominion over the earth? It is, after all, a convenient creed for a collective conscience that still likes to eat steak. Yet did we need that justification? Does an owl agonise or feel remorse for eating a vole? But then, it eats it all… there is no waste… and it eats to live, not the other way round.
Could we not begin, perhaps, to see the awesome beauty of the intricate dance of nature not as something to be observed, explained or controlled, but as something of which we are an integral part? Instead of seeing the creatures with which we share our home planet as lowly and somehow less than ourselves, perhaps we could come to see that the shared thread of Life… that indefinable quality… is equally sacred and that the emotions we, as animals, can feel, might just be shared by other animals too.
Perhaps it is through a shared access to joy that we can see the inherent divinity of our world. Perhaps then it would be possible to recognise the joy of a fish for what it is.