Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eye to Eye with Nature

I’m not sure what this post is about, but my experiences of being eye to eye with nonhuman creatures have been accumulating. Here are some of them.

From Alexas-Fotos, Pixabay
During my first visit to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala in South India, I took a walk through the city-owned zoo. I was alone, with Indian families walking in front and behind me. When I came to the gorilla enclosure, which was no more than a concrete cage with bars on three sides, the animal rested in a small niche in the center of the back wall. All of a sudden, the animal rushed to the bars and stared at me. I wasn’t alarmed because there were those bars between us. As I walked on the animal followed me, moving from bar to bar until I disappeared around the corner. His face was barely three feet from mine, and he watched me every step of the way. Perhaps I smelled different or looked different. His curiosity was palpable, and I kept wondering what he was thinking.

From Stux, Pixabay
I often encountered goats during my visits in India and at farms here in New England. Their eyes, close up, are creepy. That’s the only word for it, from a human perspective, but the design has a purpose. The black slit in a yellow iris gives prey, like goats, a wider swath in which to spot predators but for the human the eye of a goat looks strange and weird. It’s hard to know what a goat is thinking when you’re eye to eye with it.

The eyes of parakeets don’t seem especially unusual, but I found myself eye to eye with an immature grackle when the bird managed to get inside the house through a tear in a screen window. It then somehow got between the upper sash and the half-opened lower one. And it couldn’t get out. As I tried to lower the sash to let it fly free, the bird struggled and made things worse, leaving me staring in the young bird’s black eye. Did it know I was trying to help? Somehow the bird managed to get out and found itself sitting on the windowsill before a now open window. It ruffled its feathers, and flew off into the back yard, its moment of terror forgotten.

One of the most moving encounters occurred in 2014, on my last visit to South India. On the way to a concert I stopped with friends to offer the temple elephant, Dakshini, some treats, carrots and apples. I'd done this a few times with these friends. The mahout allowed us into the enclosure, and the elephant, a female entering her senior years, is tolerant after serving in hundreds of temple festivals and rituals. I found myself next to her feeding her carrots and looking into her eye, as large as the palm of my hand. I felt both compassion for her living a life with a chain around her ankle and wondering if I should fear her. After all, I might have edibles but why would she trust me? I don’t know what she was thinking, but she watched me without blinking or lifting a foot or leg. Perhaps she sensed what I was thinking. She took the gifts from my hand with her trunk and also let me put them to her mouth.

Mahabalipuram, Tamilnad, India
I think of Dakshini often, wondering how she is and if someone else is giving her treats. I’m not one to anthropomorphize animals, but I do believe they have their own world with feelings and worries and attitudes. I won’t speculate on what she was thinking, but I will remember looking her in the eye and feeling the stillness in her as I stood only inches away, one hand on her neck and the other holding fruit. 

Throughout the centuries artists in India have depicted the elephant as a light and graceful animal. When I stood close to Dakshini, I could understand the feelings behind the art.


  1. Hi Susan,

    You've certainly encountered some fascinating animals in your exotic travels. When our sons were young, we joined Great Adventure and took their safari tour which was quite interesting. Now I'm eye to eye with blue jays and cardinals which visit our terrace.

  2. A safari tour sounds like quite an adventure--perhaps I'll manage it someday. These days I'm also seeing mostly cardinals as well as wrens, robins and a few of the other regular birds. Thanks for sharing, Jacquie.

  3. Loved this, Susan! I'll bet that great ape doesn't generally see people who look like you. And, as an elephant-lover, your encounter with the temple elephant nearly made me cry. Sniffle. What great encounters!

    1. Thanks, Alice. Meeting the temple elephant was truly one of the best experiences of my life--so close to this great creature. I hope I get to see her again. Thanks for commenting.

  4. What an amazing experience this must have been!
    Great post - thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God's blessings

    1. It was a great experience, Pam. Thanks for stopping by.