An ant is a tiny thing, a mere speck crawling upon the ground. Most people might think there is little they could learn from such a seemingly insignificant creature. But in some ancient cultures, ants were venerated as productive and wise insects. Their teamwork and perseverance enabled the tiny animals to build grand cities, leading one medieval sage to advise his followers “to study and learn from the under-appreciated ant when planning any great endeavor.”
There is a lot that we can learn from the natural world.Researchers in Tanzania’s forests, for instance, are getting new leads on potentially useful medicinal plants by carefully watching what the native chimpanzees eat. These days, actual research work is being done in this direction not only philosophically but scientifically too! A kind of therapy takes place in the emerald waters off Florida, where children with severe brain disorders seem to find solace and companionship by swimming with captive dolphins.
Indeed, people have forever been fascinated by the wisdom they can gather by observing the animals around them. To pass along these lessons, nearly every culture has given animals a prominent place in its religion and folklore, from lord Ganesh, the wise elephant-headed god of India’s Hindus to the canny Brer Rabbit of American folk tales. Even our language is decorated with animal references, from “quiet as a mouse” and “crazy like a fox,” to “stubborn as a mule” and “eager beaver.”
In Native American lore, every animal has its own carefully considered personality and attributes. Southern tribes, for instance, considered alligators paragons of adaptability, able to survive on land or in water under the toughest conditions. Other tribes saw the butterfly as an important symbol of renewal, able to transform itself from caterpillar to flighted wonder seemingly overnight. The coyote is considered a prankster — a clever, pugnacious clown. But the wolf was a more serious animal, an example of loyalty and thoughtfulness.
Of course, not all cultures agree on the qualities that an animal is supposed to represent. While some cultures see rabbits as funny and clever, others consider them selfish and greedy. Similarly, while some northern peoples see the raven as a trickster and teacher, others attach darker meanings, seeing the raven as an omen of bad things to come. Even snakes, widely despised and feared as sneaky and unpredictable in many parts of the world, are honored elsewhere as stealthy and quick-witted. And cats and dogs — often considered poles apart in intelligence — are both seen as lazy and shiftless by some peoples.
The meanings people ascribe to animals says as much about the cultural values, attitudes, and environment of the people as the actual behavior of the animals. “An animal that may seem very wise to one person, may seem completely foolish to another. Sometimes, it’s just in the eye of the beholder.”