It would seem that all animal species have deep totemic significance not only in indigenous cultures but in Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Eastern, and Western traditions as well. And many original stories and beliefs about animals turn out to make ecological sense. In his nifty book Vulture, anthropologist Thom van Dooren surveys this most fearsome bird’s place in both historic belief and in the ecosystem.
Naturally, since they feed on carrion, vultures are associated with death. But much vulture lore puts them in the role of life-shaper as well as destroyer. A Cherokee creation story tells how the animals, impatient to take up residence on a landscape just emerged from the seas and still drying, send a buzzard down to pave the way for them. After flying all over the Earth, the buzzard gets tired, and his wings start to flap and strike the ground, making valleys and mountains. The Egyptian hieroglyph for vulture came also to be used for ‘mother,’ invoking the association between birth and death. This Egyptian hieroglyph has further associations with the Hebrew linguistic root R-H-M, linking it to ideas like ‘compassion’ and ‘womb/matrix.’
Life and death go together, after all, but finding some predictive control over the latter has bothered and preoccupied humans from time immemorial. Vultures have been credited with this elusive ability to know the future; probably because of their uncanny ability to know where dead bodies are going to show up. Milton, in Paradise Lost, has vultures arrive ahead of an eventual scene of battle: “lur’d/with scent of living Carcasses design’d/For death, the following day….” The vulture’s ability to prognosticate is not always associated with death; Romulus and Remus chose the site for Rome based on the bird’s prompting.
Birds in general are credited with perceptions beyond human ken and often play the role of harbinger; the vulture gets star billing in this drama of elucidation. Vultures are careful watchers of the landscape. They can’t kill to eat, and many of them are “obligate carnivores,” meaning they don’t do vegetables. So they have to wait for dead animals. Vulture studies show most of what they eat is not downed by bigger teethed predators like lions or tigers, but they feed on ungulates (hoofed animals) that have died from disease and starvation.
And that’s not all they consume. Along with the carrion flesh, vultures tuck away vast quantities of bacteria like anthrax, foot and mouth, and rinderpest, which are destroyed in the acid bath of the vulture’s digestive tract. This service of running interference between disease carriers and the rest of us may have prompted the naming of one large genus of vulture Cathartes, the Greek root of which means to cleanse. Van Dooren calls vultures “an ecological HAZMAT team” and adds that in addition to consuming the sources of infectious diseases, “the removal of the actual carcasses also prevent the build-up of rotting flesh that might foul soil, water and air.”
On to the contemporary thwacking of the natural order of things. Vultures are endangered everywhere, their numbers in steep decline. To the usual culprit of habitat fragmentation, there is added poisoning by the inflammatory drug Diclofenac, used widely on cattle in India. Millions of vultures have died in India by this route, leaving the famed holy cow carcasses to rot on the landscape. In addition to festering diseases that the vultures would have dispatched, street dogs and rats tend to proliferate in response to this bonanza of carrion. Street dogs and rats do eat the dead, but not as efficiently as vultures do, and they don’t contain disease and contamination the same way. And…dogs bite more than 17 million people in India a year.
Losing species of course has these kinds of horrifying effects on human well-being. Not least of which will eventually be the loss of the best metaphors for human travails. Van Dooren quotes Melville’s description of Ahab’s obsession with the whale in Moby Dick: ‘God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.’