November 2007

Barbara J. King


Timothy, the Animal Anthropologist

Dedicated to Washoe, the chimpanzee who communicated with American Sign Language and taught us all so much

Probability explains nothing. In Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, Timothy says this twice, and everything he lives in a long life embodies it, over and over again.

Timothy came to awareness in the tang of Turkish salt air: “I was intrepid at birth. Hatched in the Cilician brush. Above the warm salt sea. Possessed of the memories I know to be ancient instinct. Broken shells and a common nest the only sign of kin. Mother a scent in the gravel. Father a scent on mother.”

While he was sunning himself one day in the “human year 1740,” Timothy’s life took an improbable turn. “Stolen from the ruins I was basking on. Jut of wall that had stood forever in sight of the Mediterranean Sea. In earshot of its mild tides. Thrust into a heavy bag sight unseen.”

After a journey across unseen waters, Timothy arrives in England: “To what purpose I still cannot guess. Iota in some larger commerce.” He is placed in the courtyard of a vicar living in Ringmer. There, years go by. Forty years. One winter, settled into annual hibernation, Timothy is snatched up again in human hands and sent on another journey: “Mr. Gilbert White, nearly sixty years old, pries me out of my winter’s depression… Parson’s black coat and mud-stained shoes. Probing in a shallow graveyard for a soul to raise. I hiss at him for his disrespect, his unseasonableness.”  

Gilbert White carries Timothy 80 miles to his home in Selborne, to a garden blooming into spring. A naturalist at heart and pastor by vocation, White observes Timothy carefully and comes to understand the tortoise’s patterns and motivations -- or thinks he does. What Verlyn Klinkenborg reveals, through Timothy, is that we humans don’t understand other animals nearly as well as we like to think. At the same time we are all too certain that our powers of reasoning are unique upon this Earth, when in fact, we are surrounded by other sentient beings, other awarenesses flying above us or brachiating past us in the tree canopy or reptiling along at a slow pace at our feet.

Timothy gives voice to an anthropology of Homo sapiens, at least of the variety who choose to weather the 18th century English winter in peculiar ways: “Humans of Selborne wake all winter. Above ground, eating and eating, breathing and shitting, talking and talking. Huddled close to their fires. Fanning the ashes. Guarding the spark. Never a lasting silence for them. Never more than a one-night rest.”

Timothy further reflects on the human condition and finds little to envy: “Barely able to witness what is not human. Always conjuring with the separateness of their species. Separate creation. Special dominion. Embarrassed by signs of their animal nature. Veritable teats. Undeniable pizzle. Thank GOD for reason.”

What mystifies Timothy the most is humans’ drive to categorize, measure, describe, interpret, and intone, coupled with their insistence that they understand the natural world. In fact, they understand little of what they see: “Mr. Gilbert White ponders my carapace. Supposes that my shell imprisons me. Does the skull imprison the brain?” Humans content themselves with probabilities. But probabilities mean nothing. All through his notes and descriptions, Gilbert White refers to Timothy as “he” and thus gets wrong a basic fact. “No eggs buried under the monk’s rhubarb,” Timothy reflects, “or hidden at the foot of the muscadine vine. None laid on the grass-plot. No preening, no dalliance… And so Mr. White has always supposed that I am male.” She is not.

Worse yet, humans’ beliefs are narrow and ungenerous: “Humans believe that the parish of Earth exists solely for their use,” a view that sets off a flight of questions in Timothy: “Are there to be no swifts in the skies of Mr. Gilbert White’s heaven? No house-martins building under the thatched eaves of that celestial city? No tortoises in the gardens there? And what if instinct- so little known to humans, but a pure flame in swifts- is a surer guide than reason to his god?”  

Timothy is abject, says the book title; the book itself is charming, says the cover blurb. I accept neither adjective. Timothy is alone, yes, torn from the coastal warmth that was and always will be her right home. Her spirit is weighted with loss (“this is merely the facsimile of a life,” she says). But she knows the source of her loss, and that knowledge offers power against the depth of misery (and against the cuteness of charming): its source is us, we humans who pillage and pluck from the animal world for our own needs and with smug assurance that when we bind animals to us, we better their lives.

Or do I just have to tell myself that knowledge counteracts misery for Timothy, so that I do not weep too long for her?

Let us apply ourselves to the kinds of hard questions that Timothy means us to ask, fast-forwarded a few centuries:

Bison and elk roam Yellowstone National Park in herded majesty. People observe in wonder, either snapping a quick digital photo or stopping to truly look. Next they stroll indoors for lunch, where they select from the menu bison sausages, with elk jerky as a chaser. Would the bison and elk appreciate the irony?

Rabbits across our land spend days in elementary school cages, peered at, stroked, and loved by small students during daylight hours and the learning season (otherwise, they endure alone, and wait). Thus we teach children about responsibility, some teachers say. Might the rabbits not say something different?

Apes populate our zoos and research centers. What do our closest living relatives think of their closest living relatives? J.M. Coetzee offers an answer in Elizabeth Costello when he imagines vividly and painfully the thoughts of the captive chimpanzee Sultan. Sultan was a subject of the famous Kohler experiments -- not invasive biomedical experiments, but research on ape cognition -- carried out in 1917 on the island of Tenerife. Kohler would, for instance, suspend or otherwise place bananas out of reach to discover if Sultan could problem-solve with tools in order to get at them. “In his deepest being Sultan is not interested in the banana problem. Only the experimenter’s single-minded regimentation forces him to concentrate on it. The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo is: Where is home and how do I get there?”

My heart freezes at that question. But I don’t believe that every zoo is a hell for animals, and I want, like Timothy wants in winter, to dig a little deeper. What would freedom be for a classroom rabbit, a zoo-dwelling ape? Suburban U.S. yards and African forests are far from idylls of animal liberty (for different reasons, to be sure: what bunny-chasing dogs wreak is not what bushmeat-greedy hunters wreak, but dead is dead to the rabbit or gorilla). And where’s the safe zone for American bison, when all they have to do to buy harassment and slaughter is to cross unknowingly from Wyoming into Montana and walk headlong into mismanaged fears of bison-to-cattle disease transmission? (see

To seek answers to questions like these, we must first see (really see) what Timothy saw: all the world, from skies to seas, from continent to continent, terribly transformed by humans.     
But Timothy was neither ethicist nor conservationist. She was a tortoise, one who lived in our real world, whose shell is preserved in London’s Natural History Museum just as Gilbert White’s writings are preserved in our libraries. Klinkenborg has brought Timothy to life again in ways so haunting and so improbably beautiful that I wish I could thank him for the gift. As small repayment, let me allow his Timothy the last word: “The truth of my time among humans. As subject to their neglect, their forgetfulness, their most trivial intentions, as I am to their malice. As vulnerable to their wonder as their loathing.”

Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg
ISBN: 0679407286
192 pages

-- Barbara J. King wrote this essay with the companionship of Oreo, a small rabbit and the successor in her house to a rescued classroom bunny named Caramel. She hopes, very much, that all the animals in her life feel the force of human love as well as wonder.