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Love in Infant Monkeys, Lydia Millet

Soft Skull Press, September 22, 2009

Splash!—the image hits like a jolt of cold water to the face. I am drifting to sleep or maybe waking when it washes over me. I can see it vividly: a gangly giraffe finds itself in the path of a hungry lion. If it were a wildlife show on Animal Planet, this would be the exact moment I reach for the remote. But it is a short story and so I read on. I’m glad. Even in the dark moment of moments—when the teeth of the lion ultimately puncture the willing neckline of the strangely submissive giraffe—it doesn’t shock me as it usually would. This time I am struck with something entirely different: an expanse of grace. The expected gore of the moment is replaced instead with a receptiveness that moves me and sticks with me for days.

I google Thomas Edison Topsy and within moments click a YouTube video of the inventor’s 1903 film, Electrocuting an Elephant. I do not see any beauty or grace at all this time. I see flames and smoke rising up around the feet of a great animal just before she tips over and slams to the ground in a whopping and overwhelming finality.

A few days later, a friend sends a link in an email. It is another video about an elephant although not filmed by Thomas Edison but rather by some tourist. This video shows a baby elephant trying desperately to get out of a muddy swamp. The scene is heart-wrenching but thankfully I stick with it long enough to witness a rescue performed by the frantic herd elders. They first try unsuccessfully to push the calf up the muddy slope before coming to the conclusion that an alternative plan is needed (and quick). They push the calf to a shallow end where it is finally able to free itself from the swamp, exhausted but alive. You can almost feel the relief of all of the elephants. It matches your own.

Not lost in the emotion of either video—the recorded electrocution of Topsy or the inspiring rescue of a baby elephant, or even the short stories about the animals and the famous people that move you in unexpectedly profound ways—is awe at the YouTube and digital library availability of it all, offering more than easy access to an incredible array of life and death scenes. There is another level of wonder at play when, by whatever means—technology, art, day-to-day life passing—you are afforded the chance to see your world in a different way than you have ever seen it before. In this case, I always knew that I felt a strong bond with animals since before I could even remember, but the connection was something I had not considered in quite this way before. The universality of life and death leaves me reconsidering my place as a mammal in the oft-gory-but-forever-majestic and beautiful animal kingdom.

And with that, I am off to meet a friend at Woodfield for some last minute holiday shopping. I have put it off way too long this year, which means I now have to waste an entire Saturday with like-minded procrastinators. It promises to be a real zoo.