Parables of animal behavior
In 1936 Ernest Hemingway published a story in Esquire called “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The story was well-received at the time, and it’s often considered one of his best short pieces. I’ve read it, and I’ve seen the film adaptation, but I can’t recall anything about either. All I remember is the part about the leopard.
The leopard appears briefly at the top of the story, in a sort of preface:
“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai "Ngaje Ngai," the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
We never see the big cat again, and while the story that follows is fiction there’s good evidence to suggest that the leopard is, or was, real. For anyone who’s spent time wondering about what animals think, it was an unforgettable image. Hemingway understood its power when he framed the leopard’s motivation as a mystery.
This mystery returned to mind last week when I encountered a pair of similar stories about wildly different creatures. The first was in a scientific paper about an Arctic hare; the second was an anecdote told by a scientist about a walrus. Both are delightful, tragic, epic. Joined with the leopard’s tale they hint at many things about sentience and individuality. The stories also seem to point to a rule, perhaps even a law, that still lies beyond us.
A hare named BBYY
During early February many news stories appeared about a paper published in the journal Ecology that told of the brief, wonderful life of an Arctic hare named BBYY. In 2018 she had been captured (and named) by scientists working out of Alert, a Canadian military and weather station that sits on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island about 500 miles from the North Pole. BBYY and 24 other hares were fitted with tracking collars, then released.
No one had ever before tracked Arctic hares in this way. Scientists wanted to better understand their movements because these large creatures—larger sometimes than house cats—play an important local role: they’re food for foxes, wolves, and birds of prey (and, during earlier eras, Inuit hunters and white explorers).
At the same time, nobody expects much from hares. Aren’t they just rabbits?1 They graze, hop, nap in the sun. These particular hares are different in small and fascinating ways—I’ve seen them gather in groups, herds, of more that 50, and they flee from danger upright, running on their hind legs. But in terms of a life arc, hares aren’t heroes. They’ve never been thought of as much more than prey.
Still, BBYY had plans. She wanted to go somewhere. Tracking data showed that not long after she was collared, she and most of the other hares began roaming south. Over the next month-and-a-half they covered incredible distances, and BBYY went farthest of all, traveling nearly 250 miles before she died, on December 1, 2019, from “unknown causes.”
In the scale of many human lives 250 miles isn’t far, about the distance between New York City and Washington, D.C. But in hares’ terms it was a migratory saga—an epic journey across a bleak and treacherous landscape.
Or, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Arctic hares migrate all the time and we simply haven’t noticed. What scientists did not say—could not say—was what BBYY was searching for.
Who is the Walrus
The second story was told to me last week by the biologist Mitch Campbell, who works and lives in Nunavut, the same indigenous-governed Canadian province that contains Ellesmere Island. Campbell studies caribou, but in Arctic ecology one species usually leads to another, and soon we found ourselves talking about walrus.
Campbell told me the story of a scientist named William Pruitt who many years ago was flying over the tundra near Pelly Bay. Scanning the barren ground, Pruitt and his companions noticed a large and unusual skeleton. They landed, walked over to investigate, and found the desiccated carcass of a walrus.
The giant marine mammals are common in many parts of the Arctic, where they normally gather in family groups, and sometimes enormous herds, at “haul outs”—shelves of floating ice or sandy beaches from which they can easily slide their great bulk back into the sea.
But Pruitt’s walrus was on a height of land, nowhere near water. The closest bay was a dozen or more miles behind the skeleton. Looking ahead, the next bay was even farther away. He soon found the animal’s skull and noted that its tusks had been worn to polished nubs. Pruitt concluded that the animal had been crawling overland, possibly pulling itself along with its teeth.
This scene is difficult to imagine. If you’ve seen a walrus haul itself out at, say, an aquarium, their limitations are obvious: they are designed for the buoyant freedom of salt water. Now consider one traversing the tundra. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds of blubber shuddering over the rocks, tusks rasping, flippers flailing. An animal out of its element, working—suffering—to get somewhere. Again there is the utter mystery of this choice.
Like BBYY, the walrus’ cause of death was unknown. Pruitt guessed that its crossing eventually attracted the attention of a bear, or wolves, predators that would have, under almost any other circumstance, left the walrus alone.
The Coastline Paradox & Animal Behavior
Each of these creatures undertook a profound journey. Their stories remind us that animals live most of their lives beyond our view. The depth of their interior lives remains all but unplumbed. Even if we think we know something about a type, our images break easily as the surface of a pond. There is hope that researchers may eventually get a sense of what drove BBYY (they’ll first guess “food”), but for Hemingway’s leopard and Pruitt’s walrus, I think we can never know. They moved against type, far beyond niche. Way past what we consider is normal.
And yet it’s not enough to call them crazy, or dismiss their agency. I can think of a dozen more stories like these, and probably you can, too. For a long time writers and scientists have considered such material to be “anecdotes,” and of limited value. But maybe they’re actually the beginnings of a kind of anthropology of animals—a steady set of expansive observations that augment empirical, reductive research. It’s time we started thinking of this more seriously.
A friend of mine once compared the attempt to understand animals to the coastline paradox: the more you try to measure a specific coastline, the more you actually find to measure. Finer and finer attempts to pare down the scale—to focus and atomize, to pinch, poke, squeeze—only yield more and more surface area. Ultimately the coast is revealed to be an infinite collection of tiny irregularities. It will never neatly resolve.
“When you talk about “animals,” you really have to talk about individuals,” my friend said. “They’re so variable. Like people.”
Here is the beginning of a rule. And perhaps also some laws having to do with rights, justice, respect. Once you become aware of this—even dimly, even if the how and why of it aren’t clear—you can’t stop sensing its weight. Once you know of the leopard, you can’t stop wondering what it sought.