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Antonio De Marco articles
A phone call had announced his imminent arrival. The announcement referred to a wolf trapped by a steel cable that had been meanly concealed in the grass along a narrow path, in a location where animals moved stealthily after nightfall. The animal arrived around midday, lying in the back of a small USL veterinary wagon, with a rope around his collar to protect the drivers from any unexpected movements.
The wolf being cared for at the Park had remained piteously trapped by a cable right outside the village and left there for some days. It appears that the inhabitants went to view him secretly until the mayor came to know of the strange procession of his fellow citizens and alerted agents of the State Forestry Agency which then, with the help of the veterinary service personnel of the USL, transported the wolf to the Park. A wolf lying on the ground, caught in a vice that deepens its grip on his flesh with his every attempt to free himself, represents no threat even for a particularly cowardly or fearful person. In going only to view him, perhaps there was a feeling of relief in having escaped a danger, in some viewers the ascertainment of an appropriate punishment for a potential assassin, in still others vindication against untamed nature that refuses to be domesticated. All these cases involve preconceptions that blind against the pity that the movements of a suffering being should arouse and which are well recognized in a wolf, as anyone who has tended to a dog and watched his emotions can well understand.
The immediacy of the image that draws forth particular emotions is framed in the web of our symbolic constructs. It can therefore happen that this particular wolf and his suffering becomes commingled in people’s minds with many other stories of wolves stored there, or, more specifically, mingled with the idea of the wolf that languages have constructed and transmitted. The wolf in the fable, that of Little Red Riding Hood capable of devouring her and her grandmother whole, who are only saved by the good hunter who shoots the wolf and tears apart his stomach and frees the two dismayed victims, is materialized.
Many animals have been laden with magical significance, totemic beings respected not for themselves but for their symbolic qualities. The serpent, generally feared for his mortal ambushes by poison injection or suffocation, in ancient Egypt was viewed as an emblem of immortality because the shedding of its skin was associated with a sort of rebirth to life in a new and brilliant guise. Perhaps it was this symbolism that determined, for the Egyptians, the rite of circumcision thought to confer upon the circumcised person the immortality of a reptile through the cutting of the foreskin of the snake-shaped phallus. The same custom was later taken up by Jews and Muslims. Needing to discredit all the forms of animal cults, the early Christians repudiated the serpent which became the tempter in the terrestrial paradise, condemned to be pitilessly crushed always and everywhere. Ignoring its real nature, the serpent was portrayed as having no feeling and was exposed to all the capriciousness of our fantasy.
Similar simplifications occur continuously, as happens when the need is felt to label as harmful or dangerous whole orders of animals, with norms and legal rulings that surround their use. Once again they are viewed as significant, abstract essences that do not take into account their individual variability, especially at the behavioral level.
This way of approaching an understanding of the other animals, and for that matter other environmental characteristics, upholds a dualistic conception that places as prior to experience not only individuals but also their mental images, as captured in languages. What is being conceptualized is a universe of signs and interpretive schemes, selected in an adapted way from natural processes, to mentally reassemble, as in a puzzle, the environmental landscape in which they are immersed, with their biotic and abiotic components. Every symbolic representation takes on objectivity, that is, it persists and becomes independent of the process that generated it. In this way, it can happen that finding oneself before the wolf piteously trapped by a cable, the specific event cannot be separated from its significand, the idea of the wolf already memorized. The mind brings to the fore each time its prepackaged objects, at best reshaping them on the basis of experiences. In this process, attention is therefore paid to an abstract entity, whether it is conceptually described as a morphological type or a zoological category, rather than on an individual, on the animal that must engage in a real battle for survival and reproduction.
This misleading scenario is proclaimed more frequently than one can imagine, and leads, in evil situations, to the assumption of attitudes which although not complicit are at least tolerant. When people observe the dangling corpses of young hanging victims at dawn on the outskirts of Teheran, or watch the stoning of supposedly ‘adulterous’ women, just as, some centuries ago, they watched the burning of ‘witches’ in the bonfires of the Holy Inquisition, or witness ‘scenic’ mass shootings with one shot to the neck by Chinese platoons, when the parents of the victims follow the agonies of the condemned by lethal injection in the technological American jails, the participants at such lugubrious spectacles, while being preselected to transmit a message of warning and terror, generally perceive in those crushed bodies not suffering individuals toward whom at least pity should be felt but figures of imagination such as the witch, the monster, the terrorist, with undefined shapes not depicted in their becoming but as symbolic beings to eliminate like any harmful object. The human being possessing a ‘rational’ dimension which is intermingled and interwoven with an instinctive one is therefore at the mercy of a world of significands, that is, of cloaks constructed through languages that often he does not know how to control. While a predator like the wolf, in hunting its prey, perceives it only as a meal, man expands his action disproportionately through his symbolic narration, and this stretching of the time permits the carrying out of the ethical and moral languages which have been affirmed in the course of evolution as adaptations probably governed by sexual selection. Cruelty and savagery, sometimes openly referred to as ‘bestiality’, are, then, terms that are best adapted to some human behaviors since in their realization they are weighed down by languages. Therefore the expression that attributes to many nefarious acts an animal matrix is completely off base when they are in fact indicating some specifically human activities! The wolf in the fable that before devouring the lamb, higher up, accuses it of contaminating the water in the stream mirrors the typically human need, very hypocritical, to accompany cruel actions with a justificatory picture even if it is shamelessly laughable.
But coming back to the real wolf, the one cared for at the Park of the Abatino, we said that after four days of his rescue he began to show signs of improvement. One of the particular features that a wild animal in convalescence presents is the indecipherable passage from a state of real apathy to a simulation of his real physical condition. A hare, dragged by its neck as a desirable meal to be consumed out of sight of covetous eyes, maintains his last possibility of salvation in pretending to be dead; any distraction of the predator can occasion a lightning flight toward salvation! Natural selection has favored the affirmation of such pretend behaviors.
These considerations suggested our staying alert to those tenuous signals of the physical recuperation of the wolf which, at the very least, would have advised greater caution in giving him medication. He began to change position in the cage but never in our presence; in fact, in the evening we left him lying in one position and the following morning found him lying in the opposite direction. He continued to refuse the food, meat-based, that was offered to him. Then, on the sixth day, he began to devour it in one-kilo pieces, but never in our presence; he continued to pretend apathy and listlessness but in the morning there was never any trace of the meat left in the cage in the evening! He continued in this way for another three days, while putting up less and less with the medications. Then one evening he growled when his wound was dressed and we understood that it was no longer safe to put hands near his jaws. The last night he stayed with us we heard him howling repeatedly in the middle of the night. However much one can be used to certain sounds, that call has something magical about it; unlike the bark of a dog, it penetrates your body and fascinates and scares you. You can tell that it is an ancestral language belonging to another symbolic world, not meant for us but for other minds! For us it was only the indication that the wolf, notwithstanding his pretending to be weak and sick, was clearly recovering. The confirmation occurred the following morning. The cage was empty, the doors had not given way but the bars themselves, meant to restrain convalescing dogs but not a wolf that had regained all his vigor. The door of the infirmary had been ably opened by the handle. The net of the aviary that covered the recovery rooms had a slight crack and it was through this small opening that the wolf had slipped. Some tracks a short distance ahead, and then nothing. The wolf had returned to his world, or at least to what little remains of it!
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