Nunani: Duck pancake (Part two)



One could easily argue that keeping wild pets is a tradition among Inuit. A few years back, when I acquired several photographs of my grandparents, I noted an odd photo in the collection.

My grandparents were both concentrating on something in a bucket lashed to a qamutik. I examined it more closely, and realized that they were feeding a seal pup they were carrying with them.

This, I concluded, was probably the pet seal my father had been known to keep. It would come when he called it. He raised it to adulthood, but was later pressured into killing it so that a photographer could get a shot of “traditional” Inuit hunting.

Regrettably, this seems to be the all-too-common fate of wild pets. Those taken in — like my sister’s squashed duck — never seem to last long. At best, they are raised until the age of release, but are later handicapped in the wild. They have no survival skills and no natural fear of humans, so they are easily bagged by a hunter — as was the fate of my owl. Inuit seem to have always recognized this problem, since folklore abounds with cautionary tales of pets that get out of control or leave forever after being taken for granted.

In Inuktitut, the word for pet is “tiguaq” — the taken one. The word is similar in flavour to “adopted.” Not all animals make good pets, of course, but Inuit have never failed to experiment, raising anything they find. Wolves and foxes are known as the worst pet material, since they consistently resist domestication.

Loons, and some species of tern, are just too fragile to survive among humans, generally requiring some specialized diet. On the other hand, seagulls, jaegers, ravens, seals and polar bears by all accounts make excellent, highly intelligent pets. I’ve often heard stories of camps that raised polar bear cubs to adulthood — sort of “communal” pets. And I have several black-and-whites of people with their pet bear cub running around on a long tether.

It is hard to know what kind of balance to strike when wanting pets. We have a responsibility to other species to see that we don’t screw them up by taking them out of their natural environment. But then again, we are part of their natural environment. And we have a responsibility to ourselves — as a human animal in the keeping of our own psyche — to maintain our psychological health through contact with the other creatures we evolved alongside of.

Felines used to commonly be accused of cruelty, of toying with their prey, but now we know that this is how they learn to hunt. Killer whales have been observed playing with live seals, tossing them back and forth for a while before eating them. A predator must understand its prey before it can catch it, and interaction with a prey animal in a “safe” environment is vital to such understanding.

We, too, are predators, but we have developed the ability to channel our tendencies into alternate behaviours. To some degree, our own interest in animals derives from this predatorial heritage. We use pets to practice our socialization instead of our killing. We learn to empathize with them, and therefore each other.

Yet as the potential destroyers of our environment, we have now become the stewards of it, bringing into question whether or not it is a good idea to keep wild pets anymore. Ironically, we can ill-afford our old learning tools.

Some overpopulated cultures have legislated against having pets at all. But it seems to me that the lack of them somehow makes humans more icy, stiff and neurotic. I don’t want to see this happen to Inuit. Similarly, I don’t want traditional skills to suffer for lack of interaction with the land and its inhabitants.

It is a dilemma, and one that I am not wise enough to solve at the moment. How do we nourish our love of animals without harming them? Too far to one side, and we end up lonely and neurotic. Too far to the other, and we end up with a duck pancake.

Although I often lie awake at night, thinking about the time my father offered to get me a gyrfalcon. It would have been beautiful, and I would have fed it lemmings, and taught it to hunt, and…


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