A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

What A Wonderful World

Max and Angie: a 40-year love affair

By Gay Bradshaw Ph.D, Ph.D

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying. . . I love you.

A few years ago, I met two wonderful people. Seeking a few minutes of solitude away from the deafening noise of good cheer at a dinner party, I waded through a sea of shoulders and precarious drinks poised in hands held high, to a quiet corner of the room. There, seated on a secluded sofa, were Max and Angie. We exchanged covert smiles of camaraderie and before long settled into a fascinating discussion. It began with them telling their story.

How Max met Angie

The two had met in college through Max’s roommate. After the roommate left for medical school, Max and Angie started spending more time together. Soon, they were an established item. That was over forty years ago. With Max now retired, they spend most of their time in the garden or just sitting on the porch, Angie’s head resting on Max’s shoulder. Both have aged, but when they look into each other’s eyes, it’s clear they haven’t changed inside. One soul, two hearts.

“They came from radically different backgrounds, but were spared the sorrow of star-crossed lovers.”

They looked perfect together. Seamless, whole, and beaming quiet contentment, Angie and Max have managed to weather the ups and downs meted out by life, share breakfasts and walks, and the coming and going of fragrant spring year after year. It might not have turned out so well. They came from radically different backgrounds. But, as fate will have it, the two were spared the sorrow of star-crossed friends and lovers. Max and Angie were able to avoid the angry lash of society who shows little patience when individuals ignore their heritage and violate political and racial lines.

Without Max’ protection, Angie’s life would have been very different. She was born on the “wrong side of the tracks”: while Max was born human, Angie was born a Moluccan Cockatoo. Captured from the treetops of Indonesia and shipped overseas for sale, she was stripped of everything that defines wild cockatoo life leaving only her tender mind to cope with the terrors of caged existence. Then, like the proverbial white knight, Max came to the rescue and Angie was able to re-create a new identity in the fulfillment of a loving human family.

Romeo and Juliet, interspecies style

Is comparing Max and Angie to Romeo and Juliet an improbable stretch? Not when measured by the feelings of man and parrot —they would go to the ends of the earth for each other. Ask Max’s wife, Marie: “What Angie and Max share goes beyond just liking each other. The love they feel is as profound as what we humans share together. We are a family.” And scientists will agree.

“The difference between dogs, rabbits, mice, macaques and humans lies largely in the suits we each wear.”

Decades upon decades of research show man and bird are matched in love and mind. Under Angie’s delicate rose plumage and Max’s tanned face, the cogs and wheels of thinking and feeling work pretty much the same way. While birds traveled a different evolutionary path than their mammalian counterparts, all vertebrate roads led to one convergent model of brain, mind, and behavior. Every backboned creature has the capacity to feel pain, love, anguish, grief, curiosity, sorrow, joy, and humor. We can’t even claim that language is uniquely human. Bonobos and parrots unquestionably demonstrate their ability to negotiate linguistic waters with amazing aptitude. Further, advocates of the spineless insist, invertebrates are not far behind. Octopi have feelings, too.

The big news: We are one

This is big news. BIG news. Suddenly, the gaping chasm between humans and other animals has snapped shut. Nonetheless, this winning story of human-animal unity has yet to make headlines. Even the scientific community, typically eager to shout its successes, is uncharacteristically silent. While much is made about individual discoveries — laughing mice, math proficient chimpanzees, and so forth — there is a Sherlock Holmes dog-in-the-night quiet when it comes to the startling conclusion of human-animal mental and emotional comparability. Why?

One simple reason. Animal consciousness has upset the entire apple Descartes, as in René Descartes, that less-than-fanciful 17th-Century French philosopher who started the trend of slicing and dicing up the world into a million reductionist pieces leaving humans on one side and everyone else in nature on the other. This perceptual foundation that gave shape and reason to how we think and what we do for centuries has just crumbled under our feet. The delighted “Ah Ha” of discovery has turned into an uncertain “Uh Oh”. Business is not usual.

“Max saw past Angie’s feathers to her heart and soul. Together they crafted a life together as partners.”

Take some of the basics of everyday modern life. If, for all intents and purposes, the cow and chicken next door are every bit as “human” as we are, then what and who are we to eat? We are even faced with an identity crisis: who “we” are and who “they” might be. For instance, beagles and bunnies have been assumed to be a “they” — lesser than us humans because they lacked brains and sensibilities that would otherwise prohibit their use as experimental objects much as we prohibit such practices on ourselves. Now the difference between dogs, rabbits, mice, macaques and humans reveals to lie largely in the suits we each wear. There but for the grace of Descartes, go I.

Casting off the old way

Subsequently, at the end of the day in the afterglow of science’s wondrous discoveries, all these revelations boil down to one simple question: How are we to live? True, pundits can keep on debating whether it takes the same number of humans as animals to fit on the head of a pin. But we probably agree that there are better, more urgent things to do with our time, like, for instance, figure out how to stop ourselves from doing the one thing that other animals don’t do: destroy the environment.

It’s no small feat to turn back the wheels of civilization and begin anew. That’s the problem with paradigm shifts. The transition is messy and the way forward uncertain. But in contrast to Galileo, we have a world full of people like Max, Angie, Marie and all the animals as guides.

Green philosopher-activist Joanna Macy calls it thinking like a mountain. Poultry scholar Karen Davis calls it thinking like a chicken. Others just call it love. In other words, it’s time to castoff the grey and lonely costume of Humanity Past and step into the brilliant trans-species world to live amongst and as our animal kin. That’s what Max did. He saw past Angie’s feathers to her heart and soul. Together they crafted a life together as partners—and oh what a wonderful world they made.

What a Wonderful World by Robert Thiele, sung by Louis Armstrong

Gay Bradshaw Ph.D., Ph.D. is Executive Director of The Kerulos Center. She is the author of  Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, an in-depth psychological portrait of elephants in captivity and in the wild. Her work focuses on human-animal relationships and trauma recovery of species that include elephants, grizzly bears, tortoises, chimpanzees, and parrots. She writes the Bear in Mind blog on Psychology Today.