Wherever his ancestors came from, I imagine Homo sapiens in East Africa would have been part of an ecosystem as the one of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti. ‘Serengeti’ evokes the migration of over a million wildebeests following the rain and resulting green pastures on their annual round trip through the northern plains of Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The wildebeests do not migrate alone, they come in the company of some hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras and thousands of eland antelopes. All together they are an annual feast for the predators of the region, the lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and of course, the crocodiles. When you have seen a herd of wildebeests hesitate before they cross the Mara River and when they finally jump in, a crocodile lunge out of the water, grab one of them, roll over and pull it under water or together with others, simply tear it apart, you have seen a super predator at work. And when you have seen how parallel to this drama, life goes on, the other animals cross, regroup and continue grazing on the other side, you will understand why the Serengeti appears on any and all of the lists of Wonders of the World.

Olduvai as a possible Cradle of Mankind is just a few kilometers away from one of the gates to the Serengeti and the Hadza hunter-gatherers live just south of it. And much like the Hadza of today, Homo sapiens was a hunter-gatherer. Following the food, roaming around and migrating in small groups. And very much like the life of all the other animals, human life in the Stone Age was about surviving in the animal world: Eat, drink and sleep. In danger, fight or flee. And don’t forget to mate for procreation.

Over the long years of our evolution, our upright gait had made us the ‘walking animal’, the only bipedal primate. With speech supplementing our communication, we became the only ‘talking animal’. And with our brain power, we became the ‘why-animal’. Why are bananas bent? Our ape relatives just eat them. And just to mention, humans are the only animal that masters fire. We had also become the champions of survival and procreation, and the super predator among the animals, at the top of the food chain. Animals may not be moral beings and moral is perceived as a civilizing and cultural human feature. Yet, some animals also display signs of empathy, reciprocity, and fairness. Is moral a human outgrowth of such social animal instincts? Had humans become the ‘moral animal’, already before civilization? All this put some distance between us and the other animals and helped us dominate them. Yet in essence, we always remained animal. Or to the least, we always lived as part of the animal world and our human lives remain intertwined in many ways with the animals that surround us.

The Kenyan newspapers are full of animal stories: Emotionally and genetically, we remain particularly close to our animal ancestors of the monkeys. We still monkey around and engage in monkey business. That’s why after elections, Kenyans revert to saying, ‘same forest, different monkeys’. Most anywhere, politicians are referred to as ‘political animals.’ In Kenya with its diverse wildlife, this becomes very graphic and in the cartoons, politicians become vultures, pigs, and hyenas. Or snakes and crocodiles. And everyone knows what a cold-blooded, brutal, and merciless predator the crocodile is.

With the water of the Great Rift Valley lakes flooding their shores, killings by crocodiles are back in the news. In May 2021 in Kisumu on Lake Victoria, a father was in the hospital visiting his fisherman son who had been attacked by a crocodile and suffered leg injuries. At the hospital bed, the news reached him that the other son and brother of the unfortunate patient, had just been seized by a crocodile and killed. He had been laying his fishing nets at the same place in the lake where his brother was attacked.

A more phantastic story is told by a man who was rushed to hospital with a snake bite. Leaving the hospital attended, he recounted his calamity: He was driving to town from his rural home when overhead, a snake extricated itself from the claws of an eagle and landed on the roof of his car. Through the open window, it slithered into the car and bit him in the hand. “I then stopped the car and people came to help me kill the snake. But before we could decide what to do with it, the angry eagle came again, grabbed the snake, and flew away.”

In another village, a renowned snake handler who ran a snake park, died. He was buried near his house and the following night, a humongous python emerged from the thicket, passed through the gravesite, and slid into the snake handler’s mud-walled house. There, it climbed straight into the deceased man’s bed, coiled, and slept quietly. “To us, this is a blessing”, his widow said, “Maybe my late husband manifested himself to us through the snake, which he used to take good care of.” To villagers who came and witnessed the ‘miracle’, she insisted, “This is not witchcraft at all, because as a family, snakes have been our main source of livelihood.”

Humans never really found out what to make of the limbless slithering snake. In some of their creation myths, it holds the Earth together in its coil. It has been used for worship and rituals and shedding its skin once in a while, it stands for creative life force and fertility, rebirth, transformation and immortality. But it is also venom and death. In Christian paradise the serpent could talk and stood for the devil. In the animal world of Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’, it had an alluring voice and hypnotic eyes. In a dream it stands for sex or a false person and in a pharmacy for medicine, health, and healing.

Between 1992 and 2010, the Canton of Zurich in Switzerland had an official attorney for animal rights. Over the years of his office, he complained about the human bias in favor of cats, dogs, and horses. He had gone to court to defend the interests of guinea pigs, the mascot of a political party, a goat, and a boa constrictor. Once he took a fisherman to court who had boasted in the local newspaper with his catch of a spike over one meter long. The article was short and with a photo. The proud fisherman said that he had to fight with the fish for over ten minutes before he could pull it on land. The attorney for animal rights pleaded for human empathy for the fish as a cat, a dog or a horse would get it, and argued that this was cruelty and animal torture. But he underestimated the residual effect of our human past as hunters. Fishing is a form of hunting, it’s ‘taking animals from the wild’, regardless of whether the animal lives in the water or on the land. Traditionally this happens for food but today, it may also just happen for fun. Then, you call it sport fishing, you have to follow different rules and you get a different license. It is not reported which license the accused fisherman had but it seems to have been in order because the court acquitted him.

To the very old tradition of hunting wild animals for food humans have added a more recent practice of domesticating animals and feeding them for food. And today, most animals that humans keep are farm animals. We feed the cow for the milk and later, the steak. We feed the pig for the bacon and ribs. The bacon we eat with eggs for which we feed the chicken. And later we eat the chicken’s wings. The way modern humans treat their fellow animals has become very biased and largely unfair. Cats always end up on the lap of someone and fish in the frying pan. And then we feed the cat with cat food which is also made of fish. Nowadays, humans very rarely eat cats. Or dogs.

The first wild animal humans domesticated was the wolf. This was something like 30’000 years ago and not for food. The leftovers from the hunt of the human predator may have encouraged the predator and scavenger wolf to stay close to him. Anyway, over the years in appreciation of the amenity of being fed, the wolf paid the humans back and, as a simple dog, became man’s best friend. Later when men wore boots for the hunt, the dogs would lick the blood of the prey off their boots and then, the expression of ‘bootlicker’ jumped from the dogs to us humans. Also under the dog’s influence, some humans became ankle biters and others took to barking up the wrong tree. But overall, humans learned many useful things from their newfound friend. For instance, that they should let sleeping dogs lie and that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Homo homini lupus.

In 2017, then President Zuma of South Africa declared that having pet dogs was part of white – not African – culture and that South Africans had to ‘decolonize their African minds’. In the same speech he also took a swipe at African women who straighten their hair and lighten their skin. Zuma loved controversy but regarding the dogs, he was wrong. In African mythology – which is a little bit older than colonization – the dog plays at least three roles: The dog brought fire to the humans; it was the messenger of the gods to inform humans that death had come to Earth; and joining the humans and helping them hunt other animals, the dog became the traitor of the animal world. Also, already in ancient Egypt dogs were held as pets and bred to the human liking of the Pharaohs. The elegant Saluki is the oldest recorded dog breed, a hunting dog that will run down a gazelle. Concurrently, the dog’s wild ancestors, the wolf and his smaller cousin, the jackal, had divine powers. They were deities of war.

Now, if I am an expert on dogs, it is because whenever possible in my life, I have had one. Even in New York, and at times, even two together. So, I know that they are highly social and generously contribute to human communities. Our current dog is ‘Blacky’ and as all my dogs have been, she is a mongrel. Blacky and I are not impressed by the pedigree of the Saluki. As the name suggests, she is black, and I gave a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label to a doctor in Addis Ababa for her. His dark brown mongrel had had eight black puppies. When I asked him whether he knew the father, he said no, and we agreed that it must have been a black dog. Blacky is not really trained, but well behaved. She can sit on command and hold her spot, we can send her to her basket and, although she never learned to bark on command, we can stop her from barking when she has her own reason to do so. And by chasing the birds from the lawn and hunting down the chameleons in the garden, Blacky proves to me daily, that dogs are still very much part of that original animal world. This, of course, is also true for us self-domesticated human animals. Tarzan, back home as Lord Greystoke, admitted that the wild part in him – that’s the animal – was half.

Today, Blacky’s ancestor, the wolf, is extinct in Africa. With exception of the Ethiopian Highlands. In Europe and Asia, the wolf is still around, but just hanging on. Deliberately and mistakenly, we have doomed that grand piece of wild raw nature because we perceive it to be the embodiment of a savage ruthless killer. – Nothing but a reflected image of ourselves.

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  • Thank you, Dominik, for this very entertaining and informative essay, which I very much enjoyed reading. With best wishes from springlike Erlenbach im Simmental

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