Years ago, I used to like to wander in a back part of the National Zoo that was just labeled “hoofed stock.” There obscure deer and antelope grazed on enclosures with grassy slopes. Somewhere beyond the muntjacs and the bongos, you would find Pere David’s deer.
I think there was a sign reporting that Pere David’s deer was a rare and highly endangered species. This seemed appropriate, in a way, for an animal named after one individual. Inevitably, you had to wonder, “Who was Pere David?” “Why is this his deer?” But the enigmatic animal behind the fences gave no answer.
Pere David’s deer has stayed in the back of my mind all these years as something odd and mysterious. The other day I came across an article about the deer on the Nature Conservancy’s blog. When I read “Saved by Chance: The Incredibly Strange Story of the Pere David’s Deer” by Matt Miller I finally learned its story after all these years.
It turns out that Pere David was the European who first learned of this species. The deer was already reduced to a remnant population in the mid-19th Century in China. The few left lived in the Emperor’s Hunting Park. Pere David, in China as a missionary, learned of the animal and visited the Park. He communicated to Europeans about the species. It was arranged for some of the deer to be sent to game preserves and zoos in Europe. Thus Pere David’s deer, while dying out in its native China, has lived on in a captive state in Europe and the United States.
Reading this story made me wonder: what is it like to be the last of a species, all that is left of a once flourishing life form? Silly thoughts, of course. The deer simply live, however differently from their ancestors in the wild. Their days are filled with the usual details of living—eating, sleeping, sensing the world around. It makes no difference to these animals that they are members of a rare species that has survived only in zoos and parks.
But it matters to humans. It matters to us that Pere David’s deer continues to live. And it also matters to us that the deer no longer lives its natural life in the wild. Miller writes in the article, “You might say that today’s Pere David’s deer has become something less than a Pere David’s deer. How did these deer shape the land and how did the land shape the deer? That we no longer know. The deer’s complex interplay with native plants, marshes, with predators—these are lost to time.”
Is Pere David’s deer of less value because of this? Why do humans keep it—and other species nearly at the point of extinction—going? What is it about a species that makes us not want to lose it? Pere David’s deer has long since ceased to be a part of a natural ecosystem where it might have a role. Yet humans continue to perpetuate its existence in artificial circumstances.
The deer, though, are not artificial. They are as real as white-tails in your garden. But they don’t determine their own fate; we do. And this deer with the unusual antlers is something we do not want to lose.
In another recent article on the Nature Conservancy blog, conservation scientist Jensen Montambault wrote, “So much of conservation feels like gardening. If a cavity nesting bird requires predator excluders on every successful nest site, is it wild? Will we have to light and tend prescribed fires in perpetuity?”
Montambault was writing about the Whooping Crane whose continued existence has depended on very close management by humans. A recent study has shown that Whooping Cranes over time are becoming independent of human intervention once again, giving hope to the project of re-establishing captive species in the wild. Such efforts are also underway now with the Arabian Oryx and Przewalski’s horse, both considered extinct in the wild until reintroduced recently.
There seems no such hope for Pere David’s deer. Humanity does not even know how these deer lived in the wild. The possibility of re-establishing them as they once lived is likely gone forever.
Yet Pere David’s deer lives on. Maybe we feel there is something to be learned from it. Maybe science can study its living genome and find useful information. Or maybe we just appreciate it as its own special thing, a living thing like no other that has lived before or ever will again. I do not really know. Still, I am glad Pere David’s deer still shares the earth with us.
Photo Credit: Matt Miller/TNC
Science seeks to objectively report on life and other natural phenomena. As I wrote in a previous post (Savoring What We Cannot Know), the subjective experiences of other living beings are left a mystery to us. Is there any way we can peek inside this unknown world?
One person who tried to do this was Rachel Carson. Carson was a scientist who did research in marine biology. Before her involvement in science she was a writer. Eventually she combined her two occupations in works devoted to communicating the wonder of the natural world.
In the 1930s, Carson set out to write her first book, which was eventually titled Under the Sea-Wind. She had studied the ocean and its life and received her Master’s in Zoology from Johns Hopkins University. She was armed with a multitude of data gleaned during her employment as an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she did not want to write simply of the scientific facts. She wanted to convey what it was like to be an animal whose life was lived in the ocean.
“To sense this world of waters,” Carson wrote, “known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.”
What is needed to do this is something that so far as we know is uniquely human–imagination. Can imagination—a space inside the minds of humans—show us what Carson sought, “a true picture of the sea?”
The truth found in scientific explorations and the world imagined in the human mind—aren’t these two vastly different things? How can a writer bring to life a vision in which, as Carson put it, “my readers…feel that they [are], for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures,” unless she relies deeply on imagination? But doesn’t such imagining lead one away from the real world to one that is solely a human creation?
Carson spoke of her own experiences of beginning to understand the life in the sea in explaining how she wrote Under the Sea-Wind. She recalled her first trip as a scientist to the Woods Hole research station. “Probably,” Carson wrote, “that was when I first began to let my imagination go down through the waters and piece together bits of scientific fact until I could see the whole of life of those creatures as they lived them in that strange world.”
Much can be gained by compiling scientific facts into an objective picture of sea life. But how much can we really understand about the sea or other facets of non-human nature without engaging our imaginations?
It is something of a paradox but Rachel Carson made a convincing effort to use both science and imagination in Under the Sea-Wind. She wrote of fish and the environment they inhabited:
“The ebbing tide carried the mullet through the deeper green glooms and over the white sandy bottom of the channel, scoured clean of living things by the strong currents that raced through it twice each day. Above them, as they moved, the surface of the water was broken into a thousand glittering facets that shone with the sun’s gold. One after another the mullet rose to the shimmering ceiling of the sound. One after another they flexed their bodies in a quickening rhythm, gathering their strength and leaping into the air.”
She described the experience of comb jellies:
“At the first ruffling of the surface calm the comb jellies began to sink into deep water. Even in these simple creatures, which consist of little more than two layers of cells, one inside the other, there exists the counterpart of an instinct of self-preservation, causing them in some way to sense the threat of destruction which rough water holds for so fragile a body.”
She seemed to go inside the mind of a bird:
“As the two sanderlings probed the wet sand for small, thin-shelled crustaceans, they forgot the long flight of the night before in the excitement of the hunt. For the moment, they forgot, too, that faraway place which they must reach before many days had passed—a place of vast tundras, of snow-fed lakes, and midnight sun.”
She imagined “seeing” with a fish’s senses. She spoke of emotions such as fear and excitement when describing birds and crab. She wrote of the memories of migrating creatures. Had she stepped beyond science or had she made science more penetrable?
Of this she wrote: “I have spoken of a fish ‘fearing’ his enemies…not because I suppose a fish experiences fear in the same way that we do, but because I think he behaves as though he were frightened. With the fish, the response is primarily physical; with us, primarily psychological. Yet if the behavior of the fish is to be understandable to us, we must describe it in the words that most properly belong to human psychological states.”
A scientist may study how a sea animal’s blood flows and under what circumstances it quickens, but without imagination what can these objective studies really convey to us about life in the sea? Nerve endings may be found to quiver but if we do not imagine excitement or fear, what really do we understand?
“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are nearly as eternal as any earthly life can be.”
Still Carson uses the word “strange” repeatedly to describe the undersea world. It seems most apt, yet with this word she reveals that, after all, she is seeing from a human perspective. That sea world is not strange to its own creatures. It is strange to us, the human creatures of the land. Our research and our imaginations can only take us so far.
Painting: “Seascape at Dusk” by William Trost Richards
Rachel Carson quotations are from the following:
Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson
Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson Edited by Linda Lear
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear