This story is about endangered animals. It involves three hand-picked characters—a snow leopard, a colony of bees, and a turtle—whose heroic qualities will inspire humans to join a global maintenance project these animals are leading for the benefit of our planet Earth and all its inhabitants.
Now, the stories.
The Snow Leopard
Our family doesn’t have a pet. We’ve been having cravings for a little dog for a while but we had to painfully decline our daughter’s requests (too much maintenance!) for any kind of pet many times (what! not even a duck?).
Yet many times she got pretty close to breaking the resistance wall.
I remember it was the first month after moving to London when having a pet could have made a difference. One difference could have been that I would now write about our dog and not about white snow leopards, turtles or bees.
Although switching from domestic pets to the wild animal kingdom may feel like pet obsession in disguise, something else was unfolding.
Five years ago, we were walking in the charming streets of our newly adopted Fulham reality, dancing around the pet topic with carefully selected adult excuses, heavy with rationalisation. But Fulham is nothing like the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we moved from. Fulham is a neighbourhood in London that seems to have been specially created to welcome families with pets, with its houses with outdoor spaces, parks with dog toilets, and streets patrolled by what feels like armies of eager-to-please Golden Retrievers, affectionate Pomeranians, the noblest of Spaniels, not to mention the popularity ladder climbers, the Pugs. This did not escape the longing eye of our very perceptive child.
So our excuses were out of context, unconvincing and empty.
And then a miracle happened. Right there across from our neighbourhood restaurant (pets welcome on the terrace!) were people selling snow leopards. Now, forget about a dog, who doesn’t like snow leopards!? Who wouldn’t want to grab one in their arms and cuddle and run away with it?
Despite some reservations regarding a few minor maintenance details for such an affair, there we were, aspiring snow leopard owners, impatiently queuing for a new adventure, my mind on a slippery slope, rushing to make the guest room as welcoming as possible, starting to google basic snow leopard necessities and care…when all of a sudden we were next.
The welcoming smile from the seller was just the confirmation we needed that we were doing the right thing.
He kindly started to run through a series of prepared lines which seemed to assess our adequacy as future snow leopard owners. Do we have a bank account, would we be willing to provide a direct deposit for the monthly payments, are we in our sane and responsible minds? We are.
While my mind was ordering pet food, my husband and my daughter sealed the deal. They proudly held in their hands a full adoption package of what proved to be a year of long-distance relationship with a snow leopard. Regularly, my daughter would receive letters about the well-being of her snow leopard from the wild, living a happy and protected life, carrying his soft, spotty, furry silhouette with elegance and dignity, somewhere in the Himalayas or the Siberian mountains and not here in the heart of Fulham and the comfort of my guest room.
Why did I feel a tingle of disappointment running through my spine all of a sudden? Did I envision a fairy tale adventure in which the next-door neighbour was none other than Princess Jasmine and her Rajah tiger, with whom I was starting to plan pet dates already?
Right. None of this saga proved to be part of the adoption papers. What I discovered, instead, were some chilling facts about these animals.
They come with a warning. R rated for violence and destruction.
It starts with wild Argali sheep, born in the food chain to feed the snow leopards. They thrive on being food for the higher-ups. No complaints. Gentlemen’s agreement. Both parties have a mutual understanding of their role.
Then humans come in with no part in the treaty and no understanding and kill the sheep.
But humans have livestock. Why would we need the wild sheep, anyway?
The snow leopard is really hungry and angry, and the livestock looks almost like the Argali.
He has no choice.
Humans have a choice. But we kill the snow leopard. Retaliatory, point blank.
And then there is our soft killing. The one that melts the snow and kills from the bottom up. They call it climate change. I call it the silent weapon of mass destruction.
Let the peaks of the Himalayas be the judge.
Bees and I have something in common: We love lavender.
I discovered how much I loved lavender backwards. I was once recommended essential lavender oil for good sleep. Then for a runny nose, back pain, mosquito bites, stress, to put in apricot and lavender cake, as a linen and vacuum cleaner freshener, as moth repellent, mood enhancement, to sooth kitchen burns and a few other things I’m sure I’ll remember later.
This miracle oil certainly deserves its own story, but let’s say for now that I did what anybody else would do. I wanted to learn more about it, so I planted a bush of lavender in my garden. I was right to do so.
It became my symbol of abundance, simplicity and serenity. Most importantly, it became the literal home to a colony of bees. It felt similar to looking for a pet dog and instead bringing home a snow leopard. Only this time, the bees were not in a land far, far away, but in my garden. We greet each other daily. They shared with me a few stinging facts, and I will share my fears.
A few stinging facts:
- 30 to 40 percent of our food is available because of pollination by honeybees.
- One hive produces 50 to 100 pounds of honey in a year, depending on the health of the hive.
- Bumblebees vibrate at the musical note of C, the perfect frequency to open the tomato flower for pollination.
- Every worker bee goes through the same progression of jobs—housekeepers, undertakers, nurses of the young worker bees, attendants to the queen bee and, lastly, those who collect the nectar for the hive.
- Honey is the oldest medicine; it will never go bad if kept in a sealed container.
- Bees have a highly developed intestinal flora, like humans.
But they don’t drink alcohol, take antibiotics or eat animal fats. They exercise all day. Their flora is thriving.
A few of my fears:
- Bees are threatened by climate change and human activities.
- Bees may become extinct and thus so will humans.
- Or, humans may invent artificial pollinators that have no eyes, no wings, no intestinal flora, no magnificence, no buzz.
- My lavender will die of loneliness.
- I will suffer insomnia.
- Or I will have nightmares where there is one jar of honey left in the world and it gets spoiled.
- Or I will go to Mars—unwillingly.
I fear predictable ends.
There is a genesis to every story and this one starts with the Tortoise that figures in the La Fontaine fable—The Hare and the Tortoise.
My family keeps a collection of fables handy for inspiration. There is nothing like animal wisdom, and what I like the most in these fables is that it is often the smallest, the weakest, the slowest or the most unexpected animals that impersonate the sages and share life lessons in the most nonchalant and penetrating way.
Naturally, we became very attached to the Tortoise. She fits the profile of someone I would love to hang out with. She is slow but smart, witty, tenacious, courageous, bold. Bold is what I like the most. There is a form of acceptance and freedom in boldness. The Tortoise tried neither to grow longer legs, nor to get rid of her house to outrun the hare. She managed things in her way. Diplomatically, transparently and yes, perhaps a bit mischievously.
I want to be like her and challenge the world to a race against the development of silent weapons of mass destruction.
My friend Jane Bristowe (see more about Jane and her work here) found a beautiful way to acknowledge these creatures of the land and the sea. Her linocut art captures their boldness with such mastery and perception that I dived right into the turtles’ world, deep down into the sea. Their reality is chilling. As chilling as that of the snow leopards.
Human activities such as poaching and over-exploitation, accidental entanglement in fishing gear, habitat destruction that has been going on for the past 200 years, together with climate change, have all led to dramatic reductions in their population. Nearly all species of sea turtles are now classified as endangered, with three of the seven existing species being critically endangered.
But ending the Turtle story on this note doesn’t feel right.
I didn’t have to leave it to chance this time, to coincidentally run into a sea turtle adoption crew in Fulham.
I looked for the crew myself, and I can’t wait to see my child’s eyes brighten when the adoption package arrives!
It is that light in her eyes every time we talk about animals that makes symbolic adoptions feel real.
Spotlight on the maintenance crew
There is nothing random about my choice of animals for this article. Although they are just three of the many species that are endangered to the point of almost no return, these creatures are among those animals in our planet’s maintenance crew, whose work extends from the mountain tops to the meadows to the deep-sea waters.
The snow leopard, as a top predator in its habitat, plays an important ecological role in controlling prey populations and weeding out the sick, weak and injured. Predation keeps prey populations from destroying the vegetation.
They may not be the ideal in-home family pets (they are rather solitary and elusive cats), but they are guardians of their territory, with a sensible eye for checks and balances.
I imagine them climbing the highest peaks to get the pulse of their habitat, patrolling many miles of snowy terrain daily, inspecting, cleaning up, directing the sheep herds to maintain the pastures, and still being able to fit in some time for contemplation. The view from up there must be something…. Now, I would feel good about a day like this. Tired but good.
Bees also help to maintain life on Earth in a big way. There are billions of us benefiting one way or another from their hard work. They don’t turn water into wine, but they do support healthy vineyards with diverse ecosystems, and they do turn flowers into food. And they are food themselves for skunks, hive beetles and others in the gentlemen’s agreement.
Turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems. These seagrass grazers, sponge eaters, jellyfish controllers help maintain the health of seagrass beds and coral reefs.
But their maintenance work doesn’t stop at the bottom of the water; they also provide for some inhabitants of the land. Wildlife on the beaches—from small mammals to birds, to coastal vegetation—benefit by eating their eggs and hatchlings.
Plus, they are cute in an ancient kind of way. They go back 100 million years.
How many other species on Earth can claim this milestone?
And here come humans. They have consciousness, empathy, genius, they speak, they laugh, they read, they write, they see and taste beauty—wouldn’t it be a shame if all these achievements were wasted by pushing the wrong limits, those of destruction?
Why not use our infinite capacities to create abundance and beauty and become part of the maintenance crew ourselves?
Indeed, conservation efforts have already started through organisations such as worldwildlife.org, bumblebeeconservation.org and many other local, national and international platforms, each with realistic goals and motivated humans. But there is still so much more to be done while keeping up with the ongoing maintenance!
I am trustful that our growing level of awareness will define the stewardship we will play in addressing current ecological issues with the required urgency.