Reflections from Darwin Day: Or, what can a caracal teach about hope?

Never, no never, did nature say one thing and wisdom say another.
—Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace

Naja Caracal enjoying her favorite bucket at Darwin Day 2015.

Naja Caracal enjoying her favorite bucket at Darwin Day 2015.
Photo courtesy of NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

This past Valentine’s Day, a group of staff and staff-level volunteers from the Conservators Center traveled with Naja Caracal to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for Darwin Day, an event to which we’ve been invited for the past several years. Darwin Day celebrates the life and work of Charles Darwin and is a time for the public to learn about the changes and adaptations that have occurred in species and their environments both throughout history and in today’s world. The Conservators Center has traditionally brought an ambassador animal to this event, and we thought Naja would well highlight the particular adaptations of caracals. She did not disappoint.

Participating in events like Darwin Day fulfills the Conservators Center’s mission of education by teaching the public about our animals. The animals at the Conservators Center serve as ambassadors for their species in the wild. If people don’t see and learn about these animals, loss of habitat and species extinction remains an abstraction, something occurring “away, somewhere else.” The hope is that by seeing these animals, people are encouraged to do what they can to help conserve them and the environments in which they’re found. Naja makes the need for action concrete.

As this was her first major outing to the public away from the Conservators Center, we made sure to give her time and space to warm up to the array of new sights and sounds around her. After exploring her new surroundings and recognizing the core group of staff with her, she realized she was safe and settled down nicely. Her handlers brought several of her favorite items along for familiarity, and she ended up spending much of her time lounging in her favorite blue bucket.

Volunteer Jeff Walden (left) observes while Education and Guest Relations Supervisor Megan McGrath (center) gives a talk about caracals to museum visitors.

Volunteer Jeff Walden (left) observes while Education and Guest Relations Supervisor Megan McGrath (center) gives a talk about caracals to museum visitors.

The gathering crowds found Naja’s nonchalant attitude particularly entertaining. She did become a bit unsure after meeting her first baby stroller. Wheeled objects are not allowed onsite at the Center, so the only wheels Naja has ever seen are the utility vehicles and golf carts that come to her bearing food and friends. After a few initial warning hisses however, by the end of the day she’d come to tolerate—if not quite enjoy—the presence of wheels in her life.

Naja’s quick acceptance of a new environment made her a perfect representative for how caracals have demonstrated a strong adaptability to change. Halfway through the afternoon, Megan McGrath, Education and Guest Relations Supervisor for the Center, gave a talk highlighting some of the specific adaptations of these cats. With widespread habitats stretching throughout most of Africa to the Middle East and central Asia, they share territory with several other species of medium-sized, ground dwelling cats, but caracals have specialized in ways that permit them to live in much different environments than their relatives. Whereas many cats their size prefer wet areas or reside in equatorial forests and jungles, caracals have adapted to drier climates. They can go several days without water by obtaining their fluid requirements through food. They also have an amazing leaping ability, able to jump eight to ten feet straight into the air to capture birds, a trait they share with their cousin the serval. As the largest medium-sized cat in Africa, caracals are also built for power and can take down larger prey like antelope and gazelle the size of goats. But perhaps their most distinctive feature is the large tassels adorning their black ears. Theories abound as to the purpose of these tassels—increasing their receptiveness to sound, helping them blend into tall grass, communication with other caracals—but whatever the reason, it is yet another example of an adaptation by the cat.

Baby Naja Caracal after a bottle feeding. Naja was hand-raised by our highly trained staff at the Center. Photo by Stephanie Butzer

Baby Naja Caracal after a bottle feeding. Naja was hand-raised by our highly trained staff at the Center.
Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

It is fitting that Darwin Day occurs at the Museum of Natural Sciences. A stroll through the museum reveals the wonders of nature throughout time. One can view ancient hominid fossils, marvel at dinosaur skeletons, and investigate how our understanding of subjects ranging from the building blocks of life to the workings of the cosmos has matured over time. An overarching theme one takes away from a visit to the museum is the inevitability of change, an appropriate theme for Darwin Day itself.

Science teaches this is true on an everyday level as well. Not only do humans change over time (how many of us have the same outlook on life as we did five, ten, fifteen years ago?) but our very bodies lack a coherent stability from moment to moment: the components of our blood change based on how long ago we ate, our current oxygen requirements, and the production and passage of waste products. A miniature electrical storm fires constantly throughout our nervous system, producing protean thoughts and sensations. Even our foundations shift as our bones and muscles are constantly being broken down and reassembled.

Similar changes occur throughout the world, although often below the level of everyday perception: the shifting of sea levels, the movement of continents, the creation and dissolution of mountains. From quantum physics—where subatomic particles are said to exist only by probability—to the relationship between matter and energy and the theories of relativity, science has upended the perceived stability of our everyday world. Such challenges have occurred over the centuries, from Copernicus’s assertion that earth was not the center of the universe to Darwin’s theories of natural selection to Freud’s pronouncements that subconscious drives, rather than conscious decisions, dictate our behavior. Einstein even upended the law of gravity, claiming it to be product of space-time rather than simply based on an object’s mass.

Princess Naja claims this pumpkin for her kingdom! Photo by Anderson.

Princess Naja claims this pumpkin for her kingdom!
Photo by Jesse Anderson.

It should be no surprise that, with these challenges to everyday perception, people often have difficulty reconciling their worldviews with that of science. But on deeper analysis such perceived discrepancies fall away, and we find that science actually aligns with the deeper truths taught by our ancient and collective wisdom traditions. For example, the Buddha taught three marks of all existence: annica, dukkha, and anatta. Fittingly, the first of these, annica, is best translated as impermanence. Dukkha, suffering or discontentment, comes from one’s continued attempts to identify with and cling to transient forms, while anatta represents the absence of a permanent, fixed identity.

Other traditions teach similarly. In Hinduism, the fragmented and multiplicitous world we perceive is maya, an illusion obscuring the truth of reality’s underlying unity. In Taoism, peace of mind comes with acceptance of the unifying harmony of life created by the flow of change. The entire history of Judaism has been one of response to constant challenges. Jesus upended the stagnated and stifling holiness code of his time while also teaching dying to one’s perceived individual self to gain true life. Islam’s main assertion that there is no god but God reminds us that the usual measures of achievement towards which we strive—money, prestige, power—are but false and fleeting idols.

All the traditions teach the fallacy of seeing only the visible as real, a point emphasized by science. Such teachings emphasize the inherent beauty of life around us. One can only sit in awe, and indeed reverence, when confronted by the magnitude of power in the universe. Looking upwards to the night sky, the immensity of space reminds us that those tiny pinpoints of light represent giant burning balls of gas hundreds of trillions of miles from us and from each other, a distance so inconceivably vast that the light we see originated from a time before our species yet existed. The same space and scale is reflected on the subatomic level. Here on earth, we experience the violence of a volcanic eruption, the force unleashed with the fusion and splitting of atoms, the pregnant stillness just before dawn, the power of a pride of roaring lions.

Naja Caracal surveying her environment at the Conservators Center. Photo by Stephanie Butzer

Naja Caracal surveying her environment at the Conservators Center.
Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Which brings us back to Naja, and to change. Our world morphs around us as we speak, and the Museum of Natural Sciences offers numerous examples of extinct species which did not respond to change. We live in a time where our individual and collective actions have begun to challenge our very existence, whether polluting our lands and oceans, depriving future generations of technological benefits through our addiction to fossil fuels, or denuding our forests and stripping wildlife of its habitat.

Naja represents another way. It is one of openness, a willingness to align with the path encouraged by nature. Caracals occupy an ecological space in which few other cats live, and yet caracals thrive simply by being. How much greater impact may we have as the first species with the ability to make the conscious decision to embrace rather than resist change. This is the essence of what Naja, and all of the animals of the Conservators Center, teach.

By Jeff Walden, MD
Tour Guide and Volunteer at the Conservators Center

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