Animals do not name themselves. The lion illegally hunted down in Zimbabwe last year did not know he was “Cecil.” The western lowland gorilla shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 3-year-old fell into his enclosure did not answer to the name “Harambe.”
We can understand why zoos, nature preserves and animal rescue groups give their headliner animals a name. It helps humans imagine a bond with the creatures, leading to donations, visits and other support for their institutions.
But naming wild animals is not all good. “It trivializes wildlife and makes it less wild,” complains Don Thomas, a well-known hunting writer and environmentalist based in Montana.
Thomas told me that while writing an article about the zoo controversy, he had used “Harambe” as the original title but then caught himself. There’s a long tradition of hunters giving names to “special” game animals, he added. That, too, should be discouraged.
Naming wild animals makes them seem human and also less dangerous. That can work to the detriment of both the animals and humans. The “beloved Cecil” had become a virtual pet in a game reserve and thus may have lost a natural wariness toward humans.
The outcry over the killing of “Harambe” included a good deal of fantasy about the gorilla’s relationship with the toddler. Many insisted that “Harambe” was actually protecting the boy.
Protective? Aggressive? No one could possibly know, Thomas insists. “The video clearly does show a powerful, agitated animal dragging a small child rapidly through water deep enough to drown the kid and roughly enough to kill it in an instant, intentionally or not.”
Expecting wild animals to act with human benevolence is especially risky in the case of primates closest to us on the evolutionary charts. Recall the terrible story of “Travis,” the chimpanzee that virtually tore off a Connecticut woman’s face and hands.
If any animal deserved the title of honorary human, it was “Travis.” He appeared in a Coca-Cola commercial and on TV shows. “Travis” wore a baseball shirt and could operate a TV remote control. But in 2009, he suddenly tore at one of his owner’s friends. Police shot him dead.
Facebook is heavy with videos that seem to unite natural enemies, feeding the human dream that all creatures can get along. A cat plays with a parakeet. A chicken cares for a kitten.
A problematic example that has gone viral shows a 1,500-pound Kodiak bear cuddling with its keeper. The bear has a name, of course — “Jimbo.”
The video promotes a wildlife rehabilitation center in upstate New York. The center may do good work nursing injured animals, but is it doing the public a service in portraying bears as potential playmates?
The gruesome demise of Timothy Treadwell should have put an end to the idea of bears as trusted companions. Heavily into self-promotion, Treadwell claimed to have forged loving relationships with grizzly bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. He recorded himself living among these fearsome mammals — and playing roughhouse with them.
In a documentary about him, “Grizzly Man,” Treadwell is seen talking baby talk with a giant bear he named “Mr. Chocolate.”
National Park Service rangers accused him of harassing wildlife.
On Oct. 6, 2003, the rangers found the chewed-up remains of Treadwell and his girlfriend. They killed a large male grizzly near their campsite and found human body parts in his stomach.
Could he have been “Mr. Chocolate”?
We grow up with teddy bears and stuffed lion toys. Ideally, children — and adults — will learn to distinguish between make-believe and biology. Holding back on giving wild animals names might be a good start.