The animal in our imagination

Essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming explores the role of animals in human emotion and spirituality in “Zoologies.”

by Robb Larson

For millions of years, humans have evolved alongside animals, hunting them, domesticating them and driving them to extinction. Their flesh has fed us, their presence has inspired us and their diversity has mystified us.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, a poet and essayist who teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona, makes a compelling case for the importance of animals in our spiritual and emotional lives in her book “Zoologies.”

“We are animals,” Deming said. “We’re very smart animals, but we’re so powerful and so successful in shaping our environment that we have been somewhat oblivious to the degree to which our shaping of the environment is harmful to other creatures.”

Deming’s feeling of connection to the animal world came about when she was a child, when she suffered a traumatic attack by a pack of dogs.

“My face was all ripped up, and I was taken to the hospital. Because of that experience, I felt that I was deeply part of the animal world,” Deming said. “I had an experience that other creatures have, of being attacked and ripped up. Since then, I’ve had a very deep identification with the animals — not of fear but that I’m of their world.”

To explore the role of animals in the human imagination, Deming began by consulting a variety of disciplines, including art history.

“There are various ways of knowing the animal world, including science, art and mythology. I started by looking at the very early art from 30,000 years ago. They’re all animal images,” Deming said. “I started looking at that and thinking about how art and the human interest in the animal have been tied together for a long time.”

Deming believes art can bring the conversation surrounding animals out of science and into the domain of emotion and spirituality.

“There are many wonderful books that give us the science and the natural history,” Deming said. “My book is an attempt to bring the feelings side into our consideration of our relationships with animals, and also how animals have had meaning in our spiritual traditions.”

Deming’s book uses studies of animal behavior to investigate the human condition. In one chapter, she draws parallels between predation behavior in hyenas and genocide in humans.

“Hyenas have been observed under extreme weather engaging in what’s called ‘surplus killing.’ They kill many more gazelles than they could possibly eat; it’s like a binge,” Deming said. “There’s a part of human beings that enjoys killing in certain circumstances, and we can go on these killing binges. It doesn’t mean we have to do that; it means we have to be aware that that is a human tendency.”

Deming hopes that by discussing the many connections between animals and humans, her book will promote positive discussion about the fate of animals.

“We’re now in a struggle between our technological brilliance as a species and our capacity to care and be community builders,” Hawthorne said. “Animals mean a lot to us once we think about it. We owe them our care and our intelligence.”


What: “Zoologies” book talk

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Minnesota State Zoo, 13000 Zoo Blvd., Apple Valley

Cost: Free with RSVP