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Encounters with lions, mountain goats, grizzly bears, dolphins, and whales are not least among the exotic experiences offered by the tourism industry. The attractions are obvious: a chance to be outdoors in stunning scenery, to see creatures you may have known only as two-dimensional images, and to feel ecologically high-minded in the process.

But current marketing for the wildlife encounter industry offers something grander, something that people have more commonly sought through meditation, fasting, or prayer. Surf the numerous websites for the booming worldwide whale-watching business, for example, and you will find companies from Baja to Sydney to Reykjavik promising whale-mediated “spiritual experiences.”

Satisfied customers report having undergone life-altering changes, or at least fighting back tears: the vacation as vision quest. Or, within Britain, you can experience the “spiritual event” of a Big Cat Encounter—with the big cats conveniently caged. After treating wild animals as nuisances or meat for many centuries, humans are elevating them to the status of the numinous.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to spend a lot of money or endure seasickness to have a spiritual encounter with an animal. In a pinch, pets will do, and the Internet offers a rich literature on the uplifting effects of ordinary dogs and cats. In her 2002 book Mystical Dogs: Animals as Guides to Our Inner Life, New Age writer Jean Houston promoted dogs not only for their ability to engender serenity in stressed humans, but to lead us to the experience of cosmic unity. As she instructs:

proceed with your dog guide down and down until you reach the deepest level of all, the spiritual realm. . . . Often at this level one feels oneself in the presence of God or, if you prefer, the Mind of the Universe. In this realm, images, thoughts, body sensations, and emotions are fused in what is felt as a meaningful process culminating in a sense of self-understanding, self-transformation, spiritual enlightenment and possibly mystical union. Again, record your unique experience.

Cats, she said in an interview with Beliefnet, are “equally evocative of our spiritual depths,” pointing out that the Dalai Lama’s house is fairly crawling with them. For the spiritually attuned, almost any animal—insect, bird, butterfly—can serve as a doorman to the realm of enlightenment.

Dogs have been particularly nimble at seizing the new opportunities for animals as spirit guides, shamans, and healers. Long confined to blue-collar work as draft animals or security guards, they can now supplement their domestic roles with professional careers—for example, as “therapy dogs.” One of the new canine professionals, Bella the Boxer, has written a business advice book titled Secrets of a Working Dog: Unleash Your Potential and Create Success, which recommends the power of “pawsitive” thinking. Her credentials? After bemoaning the limited opportunities formerly available to dogs, she urges the reader to shake off his stereotypes and wake up to the existence of a “new breed of working dog that relies on business savvy and brains. Rather than herd sheep, we’re joining the human white-collar workforce.”

One out of five corporations, Bella reports, now allows dogs at work, where they are tasked with raising human morale, increasing creativity, and reducing stress. Her own ambition is to become one of America’s tens of thousands of registered therapy dogs and minister to patients in hospices and nursing homes.

Premonotheistic societies would have found nothing odd about animal healers or animal-induced epiphanies. They worshipped animals, animal-human hybrids (such as Sekhmet, the lion-bodied goddess of predynastic Egypt), and human-shaped deities with animal familiars (such as the Hindu goddess Durga, who rides a tiger.) Even the anthropomorphized Greek deities could take animal form, as when Zeus became a swan to rape Leda, and seem to have originated as animal gods. Almost every large and potent animal species—bears, bulls, lions, sharks, snakes—have been an object of human cultic veneration. Before the Christian missionaries arrived, my Celtic ancestors worshipped the goddess Epona, who took the form of a horse. The Makah people of Alaska worship “Whale,” who provides them with both physical and spiritual sustenance.

In fact, the connection between animals and religiosity may predate fully evolved Homo sapiens. Why do humans tend to imagine that there are gods at all? Because, according to the latest from the field of cognitive science, there was a survival advantage in imagining that every stirring in the tall grass meant that a leopard—or some such potentially hazardous life form—might be closing in for an attack. Our brains are what the cognitive scientists call “hyperactive agency detection devices”: we see faces in clouds, hear denunciations in thunder, and sense transcendent beings all around us because we evolved on a planet densely occupied by other “agents”—animals that could destroy us with the slash of a claw or the splash of a fin, arbitrarily and in seconds.

The rise of the monotheistic religions, featuring either anthropomorphic gods like the Christian “father” or deities so abstract that they are impervious to representation, drove the animals, so to speak, from the temple of the human imagination. This change, occurring between roughly 2000 BCE and 700 CE, has long been celebrated as a huge step forward for humankind—the “axial transformation”—propelling us from the unseemly worship of savage beasts to the refined and dignified adoration of a god who is both perfect and perfectly good.

But it was a tragic demotion for animals. The axial religions determined that some of them were ritually “unclean” and reclassified all of them as the inferiors of humans. In The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, Paul Shepard traced the “humanization” of the so-called world religions—the expunging of animal imagery from religious sites and the association, especially within Christianity, of animals with demons. There were exceptions like St. Francis of Assisi, but Shepard cites a thirteenth-century priest who defeathered a living sparrow in front of his congregation in order to punish the poor bird for being a bird, with all the innate wretchedness and iniquity that such status entails.

Are animals, at least those not designated as meat, finally making a comeback? We may not worship golden calves or offer human sacrifices to jaguar gods, but Americans spend approximately $50 billion a year on our pets. We have an animal rights movement dedicated loosely to the proposition that “animals are people too” and a burgeoning academic field of Animal Studies, which prepares students for careers in veterinary science or, less auspiciously, for fields like “swine management.” There is serious talk of “rewilding” large sections of North American real estate by restoring the original Pleistocene flora and fauna—mastodons, or something resembling them, included.

Implicit in much of the new attention to animals is the commendably liberal idea that they are not—intellectually, emotionally, or morally—all that different from humans. Hollywood animal heroes like Remy the rat chef, Rango the cowboy chameleon, and the Kung Fu Panda aspire, scheme, set long-term goals, and, of course, communicate in the voices of human movie stars. In real life as observed by scientists, animals have been found to be trespassing egregiously on capabilities once thought to be uniquely human: they can use simple tools; they can be altruistic; they can create what they seem to regard as works of art; they can reason and remember; they can fall into what looks like depression. Language is widespread in the nonhuman world, and not only among birds, dolphins, and whales. Very recent research reveals that American prairie dogs, who are closely related to squirrels, can issue calls informing each other about what kind of human, or other creature, might be approaching. “Here comes the tall human in the blue [shirt],” they can say, or “here comes the short human in the yellow [shirt].” The human-animal distinction disappears almost completely within the new field of Critical Animal Studies, which seeks to advance “a holistic understanding of the commonality of oppressions, such that speciesism, sexism, racism, ableism, statism, classism, militarism, and other hierarchical ideologies and institutions are viewed as parts of a larger, interlocking, global system of domination.” Animals are not only like humans, but they are also specifically like oppressed and marginalized categories of humans. One of the founders of Critical Animal Studies expects that, “within a decade [of 2009],” his field will take its “rightful place alongside women’s studies, African-American studies, Chicano/a studies, disability studies, and queer studies.”

But the current emphasis on animal-human similarities does not necessarily signal the approach of a new Eden, in which vegetarian lions will lie down with lambs. There is an unseemly coziness to much of this enlightened discourse, an assumption that animals are not only like humans, but that they like us, or at least bear no active grudges. Everyone has heard, as the Arlington (VA) Animal Welfare League puts it, that “there’s no need to fear wildlife. If you don’t bother them, they generally won’t bother you.” Hikers in the national parks are reassured that bears are unlikely to attack unless they are startled or have reason to fear a threat to their young. Even whales, who have suffered mightily at human hands, can be anthropomorphized and, at least in imagination, rendered completely tame. As the website for a Baja whale-watching service opines:

Whales are amazing creatures. Not only are they among the largest creatures on Earth (Blue whales ARE the largest living creatures on the planet!) but they are also among the most gentle and friendly, and very family oriented. Whales were given a bad rap by whale hunters (who called them “devilfish”) starting in the 1600s, because some mother whales were violent in the water when protecting their young from harpoons, but what good mother WOULDN’T do anything to protect her baby?

Fortunately, “the whales have been very forgiving of their earlier slaughter by humans.”

But when humans rest too much on the goodwill of animals, or simply let down their guard, things can go very wrong. The poster child for presumptuousness would have to be Timothy Treadwell, who was immortalized by Werner Herzog in the documentary Grizzly Man. Having spent thirteen summers living among grizzly bears in the Alaska wilderness—talking to them, reading to them, and occasionally petting them—he came to believe he was “a fully accepted wild animal—brother to these bears.” A few weeks after arriving at that triumphant conclusion, he and his girlfriend were killed and partially eaten by one of his ursine siblings. Or we might cite the numerous humans in the life of chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky who taught him to sign more than 100 words, while at the same time encouraging him to enjoy alcohol, marijuana, and light cross-species sexual intimacies. Perhaps frustrated by his inconsistent and ever-changing human companions, Nim attacked one and bit off nearly half her face.

Another well-documented case of human-animal intimacy gone wrong involves the novelist and short story writer Joy Williams and her German shepherd Hawk, whom she described in an essay as “my sweetie pie, my honey, my handsome boy, my love.” As she was leading Hawk into a kennel for one of her rare trips without him, he suddenly leaped on her, biting her breast and hands until “there was blood everywhere.” Hawk was subsequently “put down,” but Joy survived to become a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate.

The problem is not that animals are different from humans in some generalizable way—less gracious, perhaps, or more impulsive and unpredictable—but that it makes very little sense to say what animals are like or not like. There are so many species of animals that any analysis based on the human-animal division is as eccentric, in its own way, as a hypothetical biology based on the jellyfish-nonjellyfish distinction would be. Within species, too, animals differ as individuals, just as humans differ—hence the difficulty in prescribing the best way to avoid a bear attack. Hikers are advised to deflect charging grizzlies by lying down and playing dead, but, sadly, some grizzlies are encouraged by this behavior. Nor can all cases of animal hostility be attributed to human error. Treadwell and Williams may have crossed a line into undue intimacy, but there is no such explanation for the fatal goring of a hiker by a mountain goat in 2011. The man was an experienced hiker, and the goat—who, it has been suggested, may have been harassed by a park ranger in the past—had no apparent proximate casus belli. And what are we to make of the occasional whale who attacks a boat—in some cases, even a whale-watching boat, brimming with interspecies goodwill?

So, before engaging a therapy dog, maybe especially a Jungian one, you might want to consider that, in addition to much friendly cooperation, there are serious issues between our species. Humans abuse dogs in many gratuitous ways and, despite much well-intentioned propaganda to the contrary, wolves—who are the ancestors of all dogs, including the “toy” ones—have long been a deadly threat to humans. From Russia to Italy, thousands of people—often children—were lost to wolves between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In late eighteenth-century France, the frequency of wolf attacks on humans necessitated state-sponsored wolf hunts, and when these were suspended during the Revolution, the attacks resumed in full force.

More recently, in 1996, there was a rash of fatal wolf attacks on villagers in Uttar Pradesh. In early 2011 an unprecedented 400-strong wolf pack—or, perhaps we should say army, since the horde represented an alliance of many packs—laid siege to a village in Siberia, although they restricted themselves to eating livestock. One wolf expert speculated that they were not wolves at all, but “a cross between domestic dogs and the wild animal.” If so, he wrote, we are faced with “the nightmare possibility that an entirely new creature has been created which, while less wary of humans, also possesses the natural vulpine instinct for hunting and eating as a pack.” And plenty of pet dogs other than Hawk have launched individual attacks on their apparently indulgent owners. To cite a couple of random examples, in the last five years a British woman lost her nose to her greyhound while she slept, and a Manhattan woman’s scalp was torn open when she bent to give her Rottweiler a good-morning pat.

None of which is to say that animals may not make fine “spirit guides” or, to the extent that we need them, even deities. I once found myself well away from land and escorted by a couple of dolphins, each of them about the size of my kayak. They appeared to be playing with me, diving under the kayak and popping up on the other side, grinning their fixed, unreadable grins. It would have been easy enough for them to flip the kayak over and, if they were so minded, to push me under water until I drowned, but that was not the game they were playing that day. On another occasion, I had a chance to see a tiger, illuminated only by flashlight, at a distance of about three feet. Despite the sturdy fence between us, I found myself experiencing what zoologist Konrad Lorenz called the heiliger Schauer, or “holy shiver” of awe that predators inspire in their prey. There is something deeply uncanny about looking into the eyes of a powerful, intelligent alien being. Maybe you could even call it spiritual.

Besides, it’s long past time to admit that the “all good” and “all perfect” deities of monotheism have not worked out very well, discredited as they are by earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and epidemics, not to mention all the murders committed in their names. And what about the built-in biological evil of predation, which has been a driving force of evolution at least since the Cambrian era, about 500 million years ago? If nature is “red in tooth and claw,” it must be because the supreme deity, should there be one, prefers this color scheme.

You don’t have to be an atheist to see that theodicy, or the effort to excuse God for evil, is a species of idiocy. There is no way to be both all good and all powerful, not in this region of the multiverse anyway. If there is a God or gods—a possibility I am not ruling out—clearly he, she, or they are not, in any human way, “good.” At least with animals or zoomorphic deities we know where we are—which is with creatures in whom, as Michael Pollan puts it, we can glimpse “something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien.”

But these glimpses are rare. As the entrepreneurs of wildlife tourism understand, most of us are unlikely to encounter a free, self-determining animal larger than a raccoon unless we are willing to pay for the experience. The massive extinctions of megafauna—both killing for food and killing for sport—that began 12,000 years ago as humans spread out over the Earth have accelerated drastically in the past century or two, leaving us a very lonely species. We try to compensate by seeking out the rare wild animals who have survived our depredations, or by imagining an invisible super being or God who will befriend and comfort us. Or we scan the galaxy for habitable planets, searching for the kind of company—quirky, diverse, and sometimes awe-inspiring—that we once found thick upon this earth.