On Feasting, Fasting, and Food

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Several years ago, in my haste to reincarnate my deceased Molly Brown, I put in a request to the Jack Russell rescue site: I wanted a female puppy. Ha-ha, they replied, highly unlikely, but we will keep your request on file. A week later, a message arrived that a female JRT puppy was available if I could drive 500 miles and pass the adoption fitness course. I could and I did, and I drove home with Bronwyn, a really messed up little dog. She did not want to cuddle, and, as I soon learned, was more likely to bite if reached for—I recalled that part of the adoption test was to see if I could pick up the puppy, a request that seemed a bit odd at the time.

The only thing interesting to Bronwyn was food. But feeding time reminded me seriously of the opening scenes of The Miracle Worker, in which Patty Duke plays Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft plays Annie Sullivan, come to teach the blind, deaf, and mute wild child. In the opening scene, the wild child tears around a formal dining table, stuffing food into her mouth and uttering grunts on the fly. . . .

The memory of this scene gave me an idea. For two days, the only way my angry little puppy could get food was by taking bread from my mouth. I’d get down on all fours, crouched low—after all she was only 14 weeks old!—and hold a piece of bread in my teeth. The bread got her attention, but my face was her problem to solve. After some consideration, not too much, she would come to take the bread out of my mouth, coming forward and backing away with one lip curled in threat and the other smiling in victory. In this way, my face was closely associated with food. I didn’t reach for her, but she had to come to me. After a few trials, I began to point to my eyes, making eye contact the prerequisite to food. It worked, and Bronwyn became a relational animal.

In this season of feasting, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day in the US, the time between harvest and deep winter in most of the northern hemisphere, we feast. We get together and we eat. We gain weight, an average of seven pounds if memory serves. And then we go on diets. Bears do it, too, according to their local seasonal patterns, typically earlier than ours. And they do it to greater extremes: in hyperphagia (the technical term for that gluttonous state) black bears eat up to 20,000 calories a day, fattening for the long slow fast of hibernation, and they also drink several gallons of water a day to process the extra waste demands made by such voluminous consumption of food!

When we do our seasonal feasting, we are doing what animals generally do. We feast and fatten while the food is there to be got, and then we hope to survive the time of hunger, waiting for spring to arrive with her first shoots and eggs to feed us again. For us the famine tends to come in the shape of self-imposed dieting, though for many humans it still comes as threat of famine. Obviously, the availability of food for those on the top of the social ladder mitigates their experience of famine. This is true of wealthy humans compared to other animals, and also true of animals at the top of the social ladder within their own groups. With plenty of plenty and no famine, those at the top fall off, having dug their own graves with their teeth. But, however any animal dies, all animals know that life depends on food, and all animals love food.

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Returning now to my perennial question—can we really understand one another across species boundaries?—I also return to my perennial answer: of course we can! When we feast and fatten during times of plenty, then do without food, we are participating in the rhythm of life that most animals share, even though many of us have never experienced famine or threat of famine. So eat up, and, when it's time to diet, diet till it hurts, and so you might grow your capacity for interspecies empathy.