Editorial illustration for The New York Times. Will our children's imagination be populated with extinct animals?
CHRISTMAS was when they sent in the reinforcements. By then the regular troops were weary, though still stalwart, still brave. Some had lost limbs, others an eyeball. The soles of one guy’s feet kept peeling off. He was my favorite: a hippo. My mother patched his pads many times.
Every year the green recruits arrived, protruding from stockings or sprawled beneath the tree. Not only stuffed animals, but plastic and wooden animal figurines; books about animals, from stories to alphabets to encyclopedias; games and movies with animal heroes; clothing covered with images of animals.
Sure, there were dogs, cats and bunnies in our youthful menagerie; there were the animals of the barnyard, chickens and horses and pigs. But the wild ones, the ones my siblings and I only ever saw in zoos or photographs or on the screen — these were the ones we loved best. How fierce, how strange! They had claws or shells or impossibly long necks; they had spotted fur, manes like halos. They had soft pouches to carry their babies in. Tigers, bears, lions, elephants, monkeys, turtles, dolphins, koalas, giraffes: in those days, everything was animals. They made up the fiery pantheon of our imagination; through animals we explored the world. They were our army of play.
Children depend mightily on animals for comfort, inspiration, imagination and art. And parents have long recognized this. We read our children stories starring elephants and monkeys and bears to teach them about nobility, curiosity and courage, to warn them against selfishness and stubbornness. Without even knowing why, we believe that to learn how to be human — which we have many years to do, for human beings have longer childhoods than any other species, a feature that to biologists and philosophers alike is one of our race’s distinguishing characteristics — children must be surrounded by animal imagery.
True: when those children grow up, they no longer speak so often of their love for animals. As adults we deny or compartmentalize that fondness; we’re taught to privilege the love of our own kind above all others, and most of us accept that teaching.
Yet we have not forgotten the friends of our youth. Just open a magazine, look at a list of sports teams, at logos and billboards, at paintings and literature: the iconography of animals is quietly dominant. They’re with us still, in our dreams, in our jokes, in our built landscapes, in the stories we tell to make meaning of our lives.
WHICH makes me wonder: What of the children of the future? When the polar bears and penguins are gone, the gorillas and elephants and coral-reef clown fish like Nemo — what diverse and lovable army will be their close companions?