Our panther in Cat Canyon, near Sun Bear Forest, in the San Diego Zoo

"That pacing-thing just isn't good"

I started to mention Rilke's poem, but Noel gently cut me off. "That poem doesn't apply to Orson at all."
  • I started to mention Rilke's poem, but Noel gently cut me off. "That poem doesn't apply to Orson at all."
  • Image by Derek Plank

The Panther

  • His vision becomes the passing bars,
  • so shattered, it holds little else.
  • To him there are a thousand bars,
  • and beyond the bars, not a world.
  • He strides in narrow circles, tighter and tighter,
  • and the steadiness of his powerful soft pace
  • is like a dance of impatience around a center
  • in which a noble will stands immobilized.
  • Only at times, the heavy curtain of his pupils
  • rises quietly -. Then an image enters in,
  • rushes downward through the tense, resilient muscles,
  • plunges into his heart and is gone.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
  • (Translated from the German)

Orson wore a cat-groove back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, probably 50 or 60 times.

Orson wore a cat-groove back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, probably 50 or 60 times.

For centuries, human beings have speculated about the interior lives of animals, especially, for whatever reason, about the interior lives of cats — what goes on inside those clever hearts and furry heads? Perhaps we've favored cats because of their domestication and independence: like humans, felines seemingly possess well-developed senses of house-living and self-reliance.

Rilke's "The Panther" is an influential example of what the English poet John Keats called "negative capability." Loosely defined, negative capability suggests that a person, possessing the power to eliminate his or her own personality, can take on the qualities of something else and comprehend its unique individuality. The idea behind this is that Rilke momentarily ceases being Rilke and instead becomes the panther that he's writing about.

Part of what's so great about Rilke's poem is how he imagines the panther's comprehension, how we see the outside information assimilated into the captive animal's "noble will." It is a portrait of hopelessness, this poem, a depiction of the effects of absolute boredom, which plays against our knowledge that a panther is supposed to be a free-ranging wild animal. Perhaps "The Panther" has resonated with people for all these years (it was written almost exactly a century ago) because industrial-age humans can identify with the feeling of being separated from the power and energy of the natural world. We become imprisoned in our routines and responsibilities, until our dreams, plunging into our hearts, find no motivation to become real.

I wanted to tell you that there was a real live black panther living here in San Diego, but first I have to tell you that there is no such animal as a panther. "Panther" is just an old general term that comes from the Panthera animal grouping name. There are four big cats in the Panthera biological grouping: jaguars, lions, tigers, and leopards. (Incidentally, these are the only big cats that can roar.)

So the animal that most of us think of as a panther is actually a black jaguar. Most jaguars have tawny-colored fur with black rosettes, but some have black-on-black, or melanistic, coloration. Usually jaguars that are found in darker rain forest areas are black.

Jaguars are the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere, and the third largest overall. Only lions and tigers are bigger. Jaguars are completely at home in the water, and are seldom far from a river or lake. One of the more interesting factoids that I read about jaguars was how they may go fishing by waving their tails over the water to attract hungry fish.

Jaguars live throughout most of Mexico, Central and South America, while lone individuals are sometimes seen in the southwestern United States. They can run pretty quickly, but this is not an important skill for them. Instead, these big cats are nocturnal hunters, and do most of their stalking on the ground. They are also excellent climbers, leaping from a tree or a ledge to ambush prey. Their large jaw muscles allow jaguars to kill prey by piercing the skull with their sharp teeth. Jaguars can survive on anything from herd animals to insects.

Like other cats, jaguars have eyes that are adapted for night hunting. One key element is their eyeshine, caused by a mirrorlike structure inside the eye that nearly doubles a cat's ability to see at night.

The saddest fact that I read about wild jaguars was that they are endangered. Their only predator, man, has hunted them too well. Commercial fur hunting, especially in the 1960s, did away with over 18,000 jaguars every year. Other threats to jaguars involve deforestation due to logging, mining, and farming, which breaks up their habitat into fragments, leaving less food and fewer mates. With less and less wild prey available to them, jaguars started feeding on livestock. Ranchers often responded by trapping and poisoning them. It is estimated that there are now only around 15,000 jaguars left in the wild.

So now I can tell you that our fair city does have one black jaguar resident, downtown, in Cat Canyon, near Sun Bear Forest, across from the Hunte Amphitheater, in the San Diego Zoo. He was born October 1992 at Wildlife World Zoo, in Litchfield, Arizona. He weighs as much as I do, about 165 pounds. His name is Orson.

When I visited Orson, the first thing I noted was his enclosure. A kind of chain-link box, roughly 50 feet by 50 feet, kept Orson safely away from me. There was a small pool in with him, and a trickling creek running down, and a covered rock cave for sleeping. Logs and good-sized trees and massive rocks bedecked his slanted space. Visually, it was very interesting, and it looked to me like it must be an interesting place to pace around in, as well.

And the first time I saw Orson, boy, did he pace. For ten straight minutes, he wore a cat-groove back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, probably 50 or 60 times. Every so often, for no apparent reason, he'd vary the pacing to include more of his pen. Once, he acknowledged something -- as a zoo vehicle rumbled past, he stopped and looked at it for a long moment. Then it was pacing and pacing and pacing again.

The people, perhaps 20 or so of them watching Orson with me, speculated, "That pacing-thing just isn't good." And, "He's thinking over his plan. He wants to get out of there." Or, "He seems so restless." Then, "He acts upset." And one comedic fellow imagined Orson's thoughts and said, "I'm getting out of here real soon. You can smile now if you want. You and you and you. But I remember all your faces."

For my part, I could think of two ways to interpret Orson's behavior. On the one hand, my impression of Orson was colored by the powerful imagery in Rilke's poem. Orson's behavior seemed consistent with Rilke's panther in many disturbing ways. On the other hand, it occurred to me how incredibly patient Orson seemed as he paced. He didn't appear agitated or rushed or neurotic. He looked like he just wanted to walk. A long way. Sometimes his path took him up over rough terrain, but, in general, he walked along on flat ground. And to walk a long way over relatively flat ground in a somewhat less than spacious space, Orson would have to walk and turn around, walk and turn around, walk and turn around. So be it.

The second time I saw Orson, he wasn't nearly as restless, although he was very much up and about. He yawned, loped a few slow loops around his enclosure, rubbed his face on a rock and then a log, and even lifted his tail a long moment to urinate. (This last reminded me of one time, long ago, when my aunt took me to a zoo. Back then, there was a particular lion, maybe 40 or 50 feet away from me, who peed a long arcing jet through the midday air right onto my coat. All over my coat. It was gross. I screamed and jumped away, too late. Just for the record, I'm mentioning this right here because you aren't likely to read it anywhere else. Big cats can really projectile pee. In other words, if the tail of a nearby tiger lifts up, and he's facing away from you, then you might better cut and run.)

So who'd seen Orson enough to really get to know him? Who could justify the ways of Orson to person?

Jo Ann Haddad is Orson's main keeper. A senior mammal keeper at the zoo, Haddad has worked with Orson off and on for the past four years. I reasoned that she had to have some insights on the big guy.

A mother of three (if you don't include her many animal children), Jo Ann Haddad speaks like a rapid-fire water pistol. Perhaps it's her way, in the face of curious zoo-goers and her own vocal youngsters, of getting a word in edgewise. For some reason, when I met Haddad I felt compelled to give her a big, warm hug, but not because she appeared as though she needed one; rather, she gave the impression that she could bestow good hugs. She looked to me like someone who cared.

"Orson's an awesome animal," Haddad told me. "He's very personable. Over the years, he's developed quite a following."

I inferred that because she was Orson's keeper, Haddad enjoyed perhaps the closest sustained contact with him, a closer relationship than Orson shared with any other human being. I wondered if she'd ever petted him. "The only time I've ever touched Orson was when he had to be anesthetized," she said. "I've worked with Orson off and on for four years. I've worked with him specifically for the past year, and in all that time, I've touched him once. And that was when he was immobilized."

Was this for Orson's own good? Haddad told me that it was, but mainly it was for her own good! "It works both ways, but it's more for us than it is for them. We want to keep our fingers. Yes, it's good for the animals to feel independent from us, not to be handled, but the thing to remember is that these are wild animals. If I got in with Orson, or with any of the large cats, even though he knows me, his instinct would probably take over. 'There's something in my enclosure, possibly a predator, and my instinct says to take it down.' I would at least get jumped on or knocked down, and if that didn't mortally wound me, I don't know that I could get out under my own power. I don't know that he would eat me; he would probably bite me and go, 'I don't eat this. This doesn't taste right.' And that would probably be the end of it. So we're very careful that something like that doesn't happen. Because you've only got one shot."

It was easy for me to play up the paranoia in these statements; to scoff and point to Orson's cuddly appearance and so on. But then, it did occur to me that going into Orson's space would be like sweeping in an old war zone for live land mines. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you'd be fine, but that hundredth time... Just think of Roy Horn, from Siegfried and Roy. He'd worked with that tiger for months, and then all of a sudden, one night, it lunged and bit him in the neck. For no reason. Now Roy lives on a respirator. Just like that.

I asked Haddad what she thought about Orson's mentality. Did she ever wonder what was going on inside his head? "It's part of my job to look after Orson's well-being," she said. "I don't want him to be neurotic. I don't want him to be stressed. And I'm always looking for signs of that. If I see fur loss, or weight loss, or any clues that might lead me in that direction, then I need to address it. I think Orson's pretty happy. Like I said, he's very personable. He seems to enjoy interaction with us. He seems to like to watch what's going on. But I don't know what he's thinking any more than I know what my one-year-old is thinking. All I know is what I'm picking up from his behavior. And I see that Orson likes to sit on this certain rock, near the back of his enclosure, where he can see lots of things going on. He likes to have a good vantage where he can see what's going on around the periphery of his territory."

What about Orson's pacing? "Different animals pace for different reasons," she said. "Polar bears are known to be stereotypic pacers in captivity. And there are programs at the zoo that are designed to combat that. We have behavioral staff who are here to break the bad habits that certain animals might have developed, to give the animals more things to do, instead of pacing or being aggressive or whatever. I don't perceive Orson to be a stereotypic pacer. What he would be doing in the wild would be patrolling his area. I don't see what he does as a neurotic pace. That enclosure is his area. And because I know the natural history of the big cats, I see him as patrolling his range. Also, it can depend on the time of day. If I haven't fed them yet, a lot of the cats are down there looking out for where I am. So they might be pacing looking for food and looking for me."

What did Orson eat? "Orson's diet varies every day, although it's the same, week to week, in general," said Haddad. "Today, he had a knucklebone and meatballs. Tomorrow he will get a leg of lamb, which is also an enrichment opportunity for him." (I'll tell you more about Orson's eating in just a minute.) "Wednesday, he gets meatballs. Thursday, he'll get a femur bone. Our nutritionist has set it up so that the amount of food each animal gets in a week is basically what they would get, calorie-wise, in the wild. Obviously, it's not the same food, but calorie-wise it's the same."

A food department on the grounds of the zoo, which includes five chefs and a nutritionist, provides the food for the more than 4000 individual animals there. "Most of these animals wouldn't eat every day in the wild," Haddad said. "If a jaguar gets a good kill one day, then it may not hunt for the next couple of days. So Thursday for us is a fast day. We're not essentially feeding him food -- we don't give him hamburger or leg of lamb or anything like that -- but he's getting, as I said, the femur bone. It's still got a little meat outside it, like the knuckle did, and it's got the marrow on the inside, and it's great for his teeth. And it's something mentally for him to do. Yesterday, he had a bunny. But not a live one. It would be great if it were alive; it would be best if it were alive; unfortunately, the public doesn't want to see it alive."

Food is also a great way to introduce enrichment activities for the animals at the zoo. "There's a pulley hanging down in Orson's exhibit," Haddad told me. "Tuesdays, we lead Orson into the bedrooms, and then we lower the pulley, skewer a leg of lamb onto this chain, hook it to itself, then raise the pulley up a little higher in the air. And it's not this tug-of-war, really, but he now has to work a little bit more for his food. There've been times, at least twice, when I wasn't here, and the keeper who filled in for me didn't have time to hang up the leg of lamb. So they just gave it to him, and let him back out, and he was, like, 'What's this?' He looked at the food and looked at the keeper and looked at the food and then went and laid down in his cave. He's hungry; he wants to eat it; but it wasn't going to be any fun. So we know from that that he enjoys that interaction. He enjoys getting the carcass down."

But Haddad also painted a picture of how enrichment can turn to cruelty. "We also have to be sensitive to when Orson's had enough," she said. "Because this usually goes on for 15, maybe 20 minutes, depending on how well the lamb is skewered. But if he gets tired of it before that, he'll just walk away. And we know, okay, Orson doesn't want to play today. We don't want to make it too hard for him, where he gets frustrated or anything. So we're really reading Orson, and if he wants to participate, then he'll continue. And if it's going on too long, and he loses interest, then he's really good about going into the beds in the back of his enclosure, and we can take it down off the pulley for him."

I asked Haddad if she thought Orson had formed some kind of relationship with her. Did Orson like her? "I do know that Orson does recognize me," Haddad said conclusively. "Because I've walked by at different times in the afternoon, in my regular clothes, without my work keys, without my squeaky shoes, and he'll be ignoring everybody there -- because he's always very popular -- but he'll be in the back, and he'll look up. He won't get up, and come down, but I know that he knows I'm there. So I know there's something, and I assume it's scent, that he can tell, and I know that he at least recognizes me."

So I'd learned a few things, and garnered some interesting scientific information, but I wasn't any closer to a true sense of who this black jaguar was, this captive, captivating panther. What was going on, if anything, inside Orson's cat mind?

Perhaps you've seen the television show Pet Psychic on Animal Planet. The main character, Sonya Fitzpatrick, is an animal communicator. The premise is that this woman can telepathically converse with nonhuman creatures, diagnosing their problems, discovering interesting things about them. Whether you believe this practice is viable or not, one of the true pioneers in the field of animal communication lives right here in San Diego.

Brigitte Noel is a petite, attractive woman, 52, red haired, with neat, almost invisible glasses over her big, round, innocent-seeming light-brown eyes. She's in terrific shape -- a result of her active, horse-riding lifestyle. She radiates intelligence, somehow, and a quality that I immediately recognized as inner strength. Her voice has a wonderfully genial tone, cheerful and singsongy.

We met at the zoo one fine morning, after a phone conversation and an e-mail or two, and introduced ourselves. I'd sent Rilke's poem to her the day before, and she'd responded that it would be "fascinating to learn how Orson feels about his life in a 21st-century zoo designed to be environmentally friendly to both animals and visitors." She was implying that the lot of Rilke's panther was in fact quite different from what a captive panther would encounter today.

And so, before I'd even met her, and even though I'd read Rilke's poem a hundred-odd times, Brigitte Noel had suddenly awakened me to an aspect of the poem that deserved some criticism. Although Rilke was writing universally about THE panther, it must be realized that he was observing a particular panther in a particular situation, at a particular time. I mention this, for one thing, because, in general, animals are not kept in cramped cages anymore. Animal rights activists and zoological societies have changed all that.

For thousands of years, zoos were designed to show off oddities. The original zoos even displayed people. There was no concern for natural habitats, or for the well-being of the creatures in captivity. Over time, as human knowledge and human resources have grown, and as the rights of animals have become more of a concern, our zoos have tried to embrace a more humane idea of animal internment.

Jo Ann Haddad had enlightened me on this point somewhat. She'd told me that, "In the zoo's charter, it states that the zoo's purpose is education and conservation. These particular animals, all the animals in captivity, are basically sacrificed for the greater good. We're trying to make it as good as possible for them, and simulate their natural environment as best we can, because that helps us educate the public, not only about this type of animal, but also about the environment where this animal comes from. It's easier to teach people about concepts like recycling, instead of showing them a billboard saying that it's better to recycle, instead we show them a cat, and we say, 'Now if you don't recycle, then this animal won't have anyplace to live. He will die.' And we can use that to bring the message to people more effectively."

By now I'd noticed that those barred boxes weren't called "cages" anymore; the proper term was now "enclosures." And refreshingly, this shift in nomenclature didn't seem like some predictable P.C. euphemism. Today's enclosures are larger than yesterday's cages, and their interiors are crammed with the accoutrements of natural habitats, such as Orson's trees, pools, rocks, and comfortable places to sleep.

In short, the animals aren't just "on display" anymore; they're set up to live well, to be comfortable (though enriched and gently challenged) representatives of their races, and then, auxiliary to that, people might saunter along to see them. In an old zoo, keepers fed the animals and hosed out their cages. In the new zoo, as Haddad mentioned, animals are given enrichment opportunities. The San Diego Zoo even has a wing of the staff whose job is to observe the mental well-being of the animals and make sure they're feeling well.

As we walked downhill across the zoo grounds, toward the cat string, as they call it, Brigitte Noel was instructing me, "Sometimes having all your needs taken care of can be a boring affair. Animals aren't supposed to be fat and lazy. The struggle to feed and procreate can be fulfilling and exciting. But wild animals in captivity have it easy, perhaps too easy."

Every time we'd pass an exhibit, on our way to Orson, Noel would take a moment to view and acknowledge the various animals, "Oh, look at you! Aren't you beautiful?" And so on. It was like walking down the street with someone who's extraordinarily friendly, even to strangers: you start to realize that it's good to lavish others with your attention, because it makes them feel good. Noel was spreading her feel-good energy to every furry, feathered, scaled, and tailed critter we passed. Curiously, I don't remember her saying hello to any of the people who walked by us.

"The San Diego Zoo makes an incredible effort to stage the most compatible environments possible," Noel told me as we approached Orson. "Zoos used to be more about the people; you know, 'come see the animals and be safe doing it.' But now they really take the animals' well-being into account. Almost every creature we've seen so far seems to be doing really, really well here."

How could she tell? "Animals can project out, to a certain degree," Noel told me, "but really they exist in the moment. Their frame of reference is the present moment, and that's it. I have people who find out that I can communicate with animals, and they'll tell me to ask things like, 'Who'll win the Chargers game next Sunday?' Ridiculous questions like that. But an animal doesn't know that; animals know very little beyond the here and now. But that's what they can teach us. And opening ourselves up to receive that information isn't all that difficult. They're still on the earth plane with us; they come straight from the heart; they're still mammals like us; and there are ways for us to connect. The whole point is to find this commonality, to find these points of unity, and then we can connect with these animals."

Then Noel seemed to scold mere humans. "If we go into our intellects too much," she said, "and we want things for the future, and we remember things from the past, and we live separate from what's going on in our hearts right now, then of course we won't understand the animals, because animals are all about their hearts and the present moment."

As we arrived at Orson's enclosure, he was gnawing Monday's meal: a cow knuckle. Noel told me that she needed a few minutes, and she sat down at the base of a railing and began to take notes on a yellow pad. Orson hardly looked up from his fun. Gnawing, licking, chewing, pawing, crunching: he was loving that knucklebone, let me tell you. And it was at that moment that it occurred to me just how large and powerful Orson was. The sound of his teeth working over that bone, the length of the claws that held it in place, the sinewy shoulders, the sheer size of him: I remembered Roy...

While I pictured being torn in half and flopped around like a beef part, Noel stood up and announced that she'd finished her interview. I was startled. For the past four or five minutes, I'd thought she was brainstorming what questions to ask Orson, but now she was telling me that the two of them had been communicating all along.

To show me the transcript of their conversation, Noel needed a flat surface. So she walked over, grabbed a covered garbage can that was almost as tall as she was, and she dragged it downhill a few feet. I saw this as an emblematic image, not just of Noel's physical strength, but of her resourcefulness and ability to use the tools provided her, even if they aren't the perfect tools. She was a woman who could take matters into her own hands.

She placed her notepad on top of the garbage pail, and before she began to read, she told me, "Orson's cage is like a jewel box, and he's the black diamond inside. He's in total control; he's patient. Look at him. He's so cool, yet so dramatic. He's such a happy cat. He knows everyone is going to ooh and ahh, so he's working his audience every day. He's not bored at all. He's having the time of his life in there."

Noel went on, "You mentioned Orson's pacing the last time you saw him. But his pacing is really just a solution to a problem. He needs exercise, and he wants to be on display, so he paces in front of everyone. He's not neurotic at all."

Then Noel looked at me and smiled, "So you want to know what Orson told me?" And I smiled over my skepticism and nodded.

BN: Hello, Orson, would you like to share with me today?

O: I am Orson the Great. I am the Great One here. My roar is the loudest, and my presence is felt everywhere. I am a very powerful presence in the Zoo. I am my keeper's treasure and I adore Joann. I would not let any harm come to her. She can trust me. I know she often wonders about this, but her scent is very distinctive. I would not mistake her for another.

BN: How do you like it here at the Zoo?

O: I am important. And that is enough. I have come to be important. I like to be admired, and I make myself dramatic. I like to be admired, and at night I would like light to shine on me. People are always asking: Where is he? Where is he? Where is he? And that is very frustrating for me.

BN: Geoff standing here has come to write about you in a newspaper that people read and get information. What would you like to share with Geoff?

O: Please let Geoff know I am very happy. Very content. He is worried about me but there is no reason. I am very proud, very proud -- my pride and my dignity are unaffected here. I am of great, great value to the Zoo. Of great value. I am so valuable, so. I am like the Jewel in the Crown of the Zoo.

BN: Geoff was concerned when he saw you pace the other day.

O: I get my exercise that way. I am very happy, happy, happy. I am fine. I am so proud, so strong, so awesome.

"So you see, Orson's like a dignitary," Noel explained. "He's onstage. Orson is being exceptionally dramatic for us."

We looked through the generous mesh of his enclosure. "I mean, look at him," she said. "He's enjoying his breakfast, but he's also very into what we're doing. He's looked at us several times, and he's very calm and dignified. He wouldn't show too much enthusiasm, because he has to show his level of leadership and dominance."

I started to mention Rilke's poem, but Noel gently cut me off. "That poem doesn't apply to Orson at all," she said. "That's a sad poem. That's a poem about a panther in a tiny cage with bars who was kept in a very old-fashioned way of keeping animals. Plus, it was probably a wild panther who wasn't meant for captivity. Although Rilke's panther might have been a little happier in this environment right here. But really, it doesn't even relate, because Orson is more domesticated. He's the treasure of the zoo. He has a purpose here, and he really has a sense of that purpose. He's there, on exhibit, showing us all his glory, and he's perfectly suited for the job he's being asked to do. Perfectly suited. He's totally cooperating with the work that he's doing. And it is work. So he's not even bored. Because he's working the crowd, and he's showing off a magnificent animal, and raising the sensitivity of people."

By now, Noel was positively gushing, "I mean, I've never been able to get this close to such an animal, and, to me, this is just a treat. The zoo has been very sensitive to what type of animal Orson is, and his personality. Because maybe another panther would be a lot shyer, and need more screening. But Orson really enjoys being down here in front of everyone. This is more of a stage than an enclosure. The fabulous zoo decorators have come in and made his habitat. And he's quite calm and very content. I don't know that Orson could fend for himself in the wild. It seems at this point in time like he's very accustomed to having staff, like he's very used to being catered to. I don't think he'd like the jungle at all, where he'd be less important. Then he might have rivals."

So Noel had drawn an entirely different picture of Orson the Black Panther than I'd expected. But how had she done it? There was no doubt in her voice, no sense that she was being fanciful or that someone else might have a less flattering interpretation of Orson's demeanor.

"It's called telepathy," Noel explained. "I get on a frequency that's his frequency. It's very much like having an FM receiver or a cell phone. I get on his frequency, and he gets on mine, and I can do it effortlessly now, because I've done it so much. And then, I communicate with him in real time. It's a bit like a CB radio. I'll say, 'Okay, Orson. How are you?' And then I get very receptive, and I don't think of anything else. I don't let any other thoughts crowd my mind. I stay on what I call the spiritual phone line, not the regular phone line. Because there's only one line, but if I start thinking about my laundry list, or the bus that went by, then I'll toggle right off into the regular thinking part of my brain, and I'd go offline with Orson. So I try to stay online, and then we go back and forth. And it's a very polite form of conversation, because I'm totally open, and I wait for his information, and I'm not thinking about my question as he's communicating with me, because that would be going offline. So, it's simple to do, but it takes a lot of practice, because we're so conditioned to have such a busy brain all the time."

I wondered if Noel could communicate like this with people, or rather, I asked Noel directly if she could communicate with people in this way. What I really wondered was whether she was communicating in this way with me, right then. Could she read into my personal thoughts? Was I exposed to her in some involuntary way? Could she tell that my opinions about her were shifting from condescending amusement to I'll-be-damned respect?

"You can talk like that with another person," she answered, "but it has to be from the heart. You have to be completely trusting with that person, and it has to be completely from the heart and the third eye. But with people, most of the time, it ends up being completely mental. I can pick up things psychically from a person. But you have to have a certain politeness. I'm not going to be constantly policing for people's inner thoughts. I don't go prying. I just stay very private. For instance, if I'm walking around here, I'm not going to pick every brain that I see. You know, I ask first. And that keeps me from becoming completely overwhelmed."

So I was safe, or at least I thought I was safe. But instead of being careful around Noel, and throwing interference her way, I found myself mischievously trying to "tell" her silent things for the rest of the day.

We stood there in front of Orson's enclosure, and Noel reflected. "This has been an incredibly privileged one-on-one communication. And I took it down to the best of my ability, and as clearly as I could. On a personal level, and in my work, I try to be perfectly clear, to get all my human stuff out of the way, to honor my spirit and the animal's spirit, so that when we do communicate, it comes through very clearly. There's no human prejudice; there's no personal ideas about anything, because I'm always surprised. Sometimes I might see an animal who has the appearances of being one way, but then I work with him and find out there is a problem, but it's not the problem you might think it is."

As Noel talked, I looked at Orson (who by now had moved on from his knucklebone and was rubbing his cheek on a log), and I imagined him saying all these wonderful things. And it wasn't difficult. He really did look self-important, dramatic, proud, comfortable, and in control. My inherent skepticism made me think that I was perhaps just a victim of suggestion, but I had to admit: it was a powerful suggestion. This new impression of Orson was even coloring how I'd looked at his pacing a few days before.

So what did Noel hear when she tuned Orson in? Was it human words? Cat sounds? How did she make sense of it?

"I get all the information from the animal," she said, "but not the words. It all just comes to me intuitively -- it comes whole -- and I have to put it into words. I have to translate it. It happens nonverbally and instantaneously. It's all about spontaneity and clarity. If I don't get a strong signal, then it's because I'm not in tune. But if I open up and receive, and clear information comes through, then I have no doubt how to make verbal sense of what the animal is communicating."

It occurred to me that what Noel was describing also applied to the way that I look at artwork, and listen to music, and read poetry, more or less. All these signals and cues come to me underneath the surface of the art, and after years of experience, I can pretty much recognize things about a particular work that might make some people say, "Huh? What are you talking about? What makes you think the artist was trying to do that?" And I can explain it, a little, but in the end it's just clear, spontaneous, intuitive information that transmits from the work of art to my brain.

Noel is an artist of the spirit, but she's also too scientific to let it go at that. She meticulously checks her work. After all, most of the animal communicating that she does is designed to serve a practical purpose. She tries to help animals and their people get along. And, according to her clients, she's good, very good in fact, at what she does.

"I always like to make sure that I'm not just working in the ethers," Noel said. "I always want to see a practical result from the work that I do. So when I do my work for my business, I always call back and get proof and confirmation that what I'm doing is helping people and their pets."

Noel's business -- All-Ears Animal Communication -- has been doing well for over 10 years. She runs a workshop where she teaches the fine points of her craft. She's written a book on the subject (entitled LoveLink).

And after a couple of hours with Noel, I was beginning to give over my doubt. She was too smart and too pragmatic to be some new-age hippie. She's not even a vegetarian. ("That's not part of the natural cycle," she said. "I'm too spiritual to get caught up in that. And plus, I like eating meat too much.") In the end, I had to conclude that this lady might really be communicating with animals.

So now it was time to rewrite Rilke's beloved poem, to update it, and to re-particularize the imagery, based on my research and my time with animal experts of various stripes.

Orson, The Black Jaguar
Often Inaccurately Identified as a Panther

  • His vision, through the generous mesh of his enclosure,
  • has grown so energized that it can hold anything.
  • It seems to him there is one great theatrical stage;
  • and upon that stage, it is his world.
  • As he paces in patient circles, wherever he may,
  • the movement of his powerful soft strides
  • is like a ritual dance around a center
  • in which a noble will dwells fully thrilled.
  • When the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly,
  • an image enters in,
  • rushes down through the supple, liberated muscles,
  • plunges into his heart and is reborn.

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