Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Monster Smash

MnfsttnMnstrsIt’s the time of year when young men’s minds turn to monsters. Well, at least this middle-aged man’s does. Seeing a book by Karl P. N. Shuker entitled A Manifestation of Monsters, I was intrigued. I had some Amazon points burning a hole in my internet, so I took a chance on it. The fact is good books on monsters are hard to find and Shuker is listed as “Doctor” and that sometimes stands for something. Subtitled Examining the (Un)usual Suspects, the book is a curious Mischwesen of folklore, actual animals, and cryptozoology. The latter should be no surprise as Shuker is a noted cryptozoologist. Compiled from many of his previously published articles, the book contains some fascinating accounts of extinct creatures and some improbable accounts of modern monsters.

Since Banned Book Week is a time to explore challenged ideas, why not read about some cryptids? They are anti-establishment monsters. Banned creatures. As is usual with monsters, there’s little rhyme or reason to the arrangement. Unlike many in the field of cryptozoology, Shuker is skeptical of outlandish claims, and has actual training as a zoologist. What stood out to me as I read accounts of unusual creatures is that some people report seeing the oddest things, and that other people are driven to hoax all kinds of monsters. It is clear that the human mind is programmed to believe in the possibility of the improbable. Critical thinking, as anyone with advanced training knows, is hard work. Belief can be a far simpler matter. We crave a world with the exotic, and potentially dangerous. Shuker’s piece on the mythical chupacabra demonstrates that nicely.

While I’m pondering things that are banned, I consider how some who use critical faculties well like to disparage others. This, of course, is not in the best interest of science. We haven’t discovered everything yet. We think that because of the internet we’ve gone about as far as we can go in hive-mind mentality. Never mind that bees and ants beat us to it. People, many of them very intelligent, continue to see things they can’t explain. Others say that any living creature larger than a breadbox has already been discovered. I tend to think the world is a pretty big place and that people prefer to huddle together in cities for a reason. The mountain gorilla, for example, was discovered just in 1902. Now that the season for monsters is upon us, I like to imagine what else might be wandering around unseen by human eyes. And I hope banned ideas may continue to thrive in the forests of our minds.

Doubting Dawkins

A recent Guardian introspective on Richard Dawkins reminded me of the dangers of idolatry. Dawkins, an internationally known intellectual pugilist, the article by Carole Cadwalladr intimates, is as human as the next guy when you can catch him off the stage. Ironically, it is evolved primate behavior to adore the alpha male, but, at the same time, to prevent abuse of power and to get away with what you can behind said alpha male’s back. We are worshipping creatures, at least when it suits our best interests. Anyone who’s been intellectually slapped down (something yours truly has experienced multiple times) knows that it is an unpleasant experience that one doesn’t willfully seek out. We try to keep out of the way of those who assert themselves, preferring the safer route of just doing what we’re told and apologizing for something we know isn’t really our fault. It’s only human.


The media have provided us with ever more expansive ways to build our “experts” into gods. Dawkins, a biologist, has become one of the go-to experts on religion. The media don’t seem to realize that hundreds of us have the same level of qualifications as Dr. Dawkins, but in the subject of religion. Many of us are not biased. And yet, when a “rational” response to religion is required, a biologist is our man of the hour. Granted, few academics enter the field in search of fame. Most of us are simply curious and have the necessary patience and drive to conduct careful research to try to get to the bottom of things. We may not like what we discover along the way, but that is the price one pays for becoming an expert. Those who are lucky end up in teaching positions where they can bend the minds of future generations. Those who are outspoken get to become academic idols.

I have no animosity toward Richard Dawkins or his work. I’ve read a few of his books and I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Still, a trained academic should know better than to “follow the leader” all the time. (Some schools, note, are better at teaching independent thought than are others!) The academic life is one of doubt and constant testing. Once you’ve learned to think in this critical way, you can’t turn back the clock. One of the things that those of us who’ve studied religion know well is that all deities must be examined with suspicion. Especially those who are undoubtedly human and who only came to where they are by the accidents of evolution. I’m no biologist, but I inherently challenge any academic idol. I’m only human, after all.


College move-in weekend can be a stressful time. In our particular case it means crossing a couple of state lines and staying in a hotel. Well, I suppose we technically might manage to load, drive, unload, and drive in a day but that seems awfully abrupt. You need time to shop for those supplies that might have run out, wait for roommates to arrive, and spend the last quality time together before facing an empty nest for four months. So we find ourselves in a hotel. It’s the one closest to the university, but it is also the host to some kind of event that draws a lot of people but fails to make internet event calendars. We usually stay at this hotel, and they even emailed us at the start of summer to make reservations early. The clientele this weekend is a cross-section of town and gown. It’s a mixed group. In the hall I see other students about, but there are those here who’ve come for non-academic entertainment, whatever that might be.

The barking started about 6 p.m. I grew up with dogs and most members of my family still have dogs. In fact, evidence points to the dog—the wolf at the time—being the first of the domesticated animals. Before agriculturalists rounded up sheep and goats and cattle, the dog accompanied the hunter-gatherer and both engaged in a win-win scenario. The successful hunt of a large animal left food for both humans and their best friend. Ironically for dog-owning anti-evolutionists, dogs are among the most selectively bred of animals. Looking at a pug, or a maltingese, it’s difficult to conjure up images of the wolf pack. The dog next door, obviously lonely and abandoned, was the small, yippy sort with a high-pitched, insistent bark. It was clear there was more than one in there. And, of course, hotel doors are about the least soundproofed surfaces on the planet. It was like Fifi and company was in the room with us. When I turned in about 10, the barking was still going on, and the front desk said they were trying to locate the guests registered for that room.

What's that shining?

What’s that shining?

I grew up with dogs, and I understand the attachment. I do, however, sometimes wonder about the courtesy of others. Some actions impact other people in direct ways, and sometimes we just don’t think of the consequences. I don’t just mean dogs. Lying awake, listening to distraught pets, I thought of the point of higher education. It is an “industry” in which I have a strong investment. The point of it all is to make our life together on this planet better for everyone. There will always be those who can’t travel without their dogs. There will always be those who have to venture far from home to get the education they want. Can’t there be affordable hotels with doors to dampen the noise just a little bit? Or maybe some of us a just over-sensitive at times like this. Maybe it’s time for me to go back to school to try to figure it all out.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.


Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.

All’s Fair

The county fair is an institution that tastes like a real slice of Americana. My family’s been involved with our 4-H Fair for several years now. Long days sitting under tents in the August heat, showcasing to young people that a good time can be had without the usual kinds of diversions that lead to regrets and tattered dreams. For many kids the fair will be as close as they ever get to a cow, goat, or chicken. For the less rurally inclined, there are pets like cats, dogs, and small animals. For others there are model trains, rockets, and airplanes. Increasingly robots and more current forms of art such as steampunk and film-making are appearing. In short, there’s pretty much something for everybody there. I know that my entire family has benefited from the experience. I didn’t know about 4-H as a child, so this has been a pleasant awakening for me.

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As I wondered the fairgrounds, something that I suppose I’ve noticed before hit me with a new clarity. The Arts and Sciences tents are right next to one another, and these represent the classic forms of liberal arts education. Yes, the Gideons and Right-to-Lifers are here, but they’re over in the commercial tent. They’re selling something. Education—true education—is free. Those who grow up on farms can learn an awful lot about science by watching animals. The more formal schooling, however, asks for deeper engagement. Creative writing helps to explore ideas that simply don’t flow in conversation. Photography forces you to look at something from someone else’s point of view. Science teaches close observation and practical extrapolation. This is like a little university set up in a grassy field with a very affordable tuition.

The old hiker’s mantra goes “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” This year there was a real emphasis on footprints. The kinds of footprints that many clubs chose, however, were carbon. Many adults have grown up in a culture of consumption and disposal. Our young are now trying to demonstrate for us the errors of our ways. Sure, there are resources to last for centuries yet, but they will not last forever. Who are we to suppose it is our right to take what we please and leave the mess for our young to clean up? A day at the fair always renews my sense of hope. These are all volunteers here, giving up the latter part of their summer to try to make the world a better place. Perhaps the ethics should come up from the young, rather than descending from generations that have put their own wants ahead of those who might truly make a difference.

Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

Drumheller Drama

Those who’ve participated in the great drive out west—if you’ve done it you know what I mean—have passed through the range of dinosaurs. Actually, dinosaurs can be found here in the east; New Jersey once had a reputation of the home of the hadrosaurus, before an even larger beast took over the state. In my native Pennsylvania the occasional dinosaur footprint would be found. But to really see the dinosaurs, the west is best. In Makoshika State Park you can find triceratops skulls right out on the ground. You can find plenty of Christians as well. Ironically, we’ve advertised to the world that Christians and dinosaurs don’t mix, but, in fact, they can get along just fine. In a BBC story my wife sent me, one of Canada’s great western dinosaur reserves, Drumheller, Alberta, has a potential clash between sauropods and savior. Seen from one angle, at least. The story by Tom Holland points out conflicting wills for an entrepreneur who wants to build a dinosaur display and a long-established passion play that occupies the space he wants.


News doesn’t get read without some measure of drama, so Holland pits the dinosaurs against the Christians. What seems to me, however, as the real issue is entrepreneurial expansion versus what seems like an arcane melodrama, the reenactment of Jesus’ death. Ironically, the greater part of North America was colonized by Christians of various descriptions. Many of them established their culture in various ways across the landscape. As a culture, it wasn’t always belligerent, and sometimes even beneficial. Passion plays, once upon a time, were considered the mark of culture. Jesus, I’m sure, knew nothing of dinosaurs but would have had no problem with them, I contend, if he had.

The issue here is less about science versus religion as it is about cash versus culture. Even Ahab turned his face to the wall when he couldn’t have the land that he wanted. If someone else got there first and made a recurring shrine, does capitalism have the right to slough it out of the way? I love dinosaurs. I’ve driven many miles out the way to see dinosaur trackways far beyond the trodden path. These are but shadows of footprints cast millions of years ago. Both dinosaurs and Jesus have their place in our hallowed past. While pictures of Jesus riding dinosaurs may well be over the top, the message perhaps rings true: there’s no inherent conflict here. When someone wants to make quick cash, however, there will always be sacrificial victims involved.