Travel and Adventure

Why animals carry life lessons—not just cargo

Retracing our ancestors’ path on foot, writer and explorer Paul Salopek reflects on the grace of his four-legged companions.Saturday, January 5, 2019

By Paul Salopek
Arati Kumar-Rao, one of journalist Paul Salopek's walking partners, made this sketch of Raju, the tough little cargo donkey who accompanied him a thousand miles across northern India.
Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from northern India.

“Come, sir.”

It’s the man helping me bury Raju.

Raju was my pack donkey. A tough little animal, he accompanied me a thousand miles across northern India, until an unnameable fever struck him down. The man assisting me pile rocks atop Raju’s body is a labourer, a member of India’s lower castes, a so-called untouchable. Many Hindus believe it is not wise to display strong emotions at the scene of a death. Open expressions of grief or longing might entangle the departing spirit on our earthly plane—prevent it from escaping samsara, the painful cycle of dying and rebirth.

“Aaie!” my helper says, urging me to leave the graveside: "Come!" But he gives up waiting. He finally walks away. He leaves me to stare at the pathetic cairn of stones.

Salopek, with guides, leads a pair of cargo camels, Fares and Seema, across Ethiopia's Afar desert.

For six years I have been walking out of Africa. I am retracing the pathways of the earliest Homo sapiens who first explored the unknown world. Often on this long foot journey I am accompanied by animals: by camels and mules, sometimes a donkey, more rarely a horse. These four-legged partners assist me by carrying rations and camping gear. The Stone Age pioneers I follow did not enjoy this company. (Animals hadn’t yet been domesticated.) Their loss.

Animals, of course, are teachers.

Two cargo ponies in Kazakhstan deepened my understanding of their light-drenched steppe world. Choosing campsites to meet their needs, I was forced to read the minimal landscape far more closely. I learned the local grasses. (Some fodder is richer in protein than others.) And I became adept at finding the subtle wrinkles in the grasslands where secret waterholes pooled and glimmered. In this way, horses redrew my map of Central Asia.

But other animal lessons chart the heart.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I rescued two camels daubed with yellow paint, the badge of the slaughterhouse. Together, we traversed hundreds of miles of the Hejaz desert. The big bull, Fares, whose jaws could easily crush my bones, would walk up behind me and gently squeeze my shoulder with his giant teeth. It was his signal that rocks were hurting his padded feet. Camels prefer sand.

A geriatric cargo mule named Kirkatir paced off Turkey with me. She was a 360-kilogram eccentricity. One of her neuroses was weaving: she stepped forward and backward all night long—her hooves clomping, clomping, clomping—driving my Turkish walking partner and me into sleepless despair. Hoping for a cure, we reconstructed her mulish dance steps for a startled small-town veterinarian. A large crowd gathered to watch our performance through his clinic door. They cheered our idiocy. In this way, animal companions serve as bridges. They become ambassadors to other humans.

In Kazakhstan, Salopek and his horse arrive at the Yesmambet-Ata necropolis.

Raju, my Indian donkey—and the seventh donkey employed during my global walk—was improbably good at this.

A puny, smoke-grey animal, he was mocked by most the Indian farmers we met. Donkeys lack respect in Indian culture. The major Hindu gods ride sacred animal spirits called vahanas: mighty lions, powerful elephants, resplendent peacocks. Only the goddess of smallpox, Sitala Mata, rides a donkey. Worse still, Raju was missing his ears.

Nobody, including the previous owner, would tell us why. But a rumour suggested an old mix of human greed and cruelty. Some Indian farmers are said to default on livestock loans by claiming to banks that the animals died immediately after purchase. One proof: the severed ears.

“Raju is a walking bankruptcy scam,” my walking partner Arati Kumar-Rao said angrily.

Yet still he managed to charm.

Raju’s secret was sheer tirelessness, indefatigability, pluck. He shouldered through the wheat fields of the Punjab, across the gravel pans of the Thar Desert, and through the monsoon mud of Madhya Pradesh. His earless head bobbed halfway across the subcontinent. Onlookers, initially skeptical, soon recognised an underdog. They cheered him on.

It was the red stone hills of the Chambal that stopped him.

He weakened suddenly in a remote, stone-quarrying town called Sirmathura. He stopped eating. His head slumped. My walking partner Priyanka Borpujari and I paused to nurse him. We consulted vets. They injected Raju with antibiotics. Suspecting colic, a doctor prescribed a solution of baking soda funnelled through the donkey’s clamped jaws using an old pop bottle. We dosed him with pain pills. We kept vigil. On the afternoon of the fifth day, Raju fell on his side and never got up. I pressed my hands on his shuddering rib cage and felt his last agonised breath.

We have lived with domesticated animals for so long now—at least 10,000 years, in the case of goats—that it is hard to imagine life without them. Yet the terms of human-animal coexistence remain a paradox.

We invent codes called 'morality' to protect the planet’s 'lesser' organisms from harm. (Hence: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ethical laboratory protocols, dog spas, etc.) But we also see fit to artificially breed 65 billion sentient creatures a year, under brutal conditions, solely for the purpose of eating them. (Today, factory-farmed chickens are by far the most numerous birds on Earth.)

Raju is the first pack animal to die on my walk.

Cranes soar above Raju, Salopek's first pack animal to die on the trail, in this scene by Arati Kumar-Rao.

Standing at his graveside in an abandoned rock quarry in northern India, I feel a certain hollowness in my bones. I will not walk again with animals. Not for a while. But I still remember how, along my trail, an empathetic Saudi Arabian butcher hid the knife from his sheep. And later, I will look up a half-forgotten passage from the book Dominion, by the writer Matthew Scully:

“How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph—bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world’s joy or to its despair… Perhaps that is part of the animals’ role among us, to awaken humility, to turn our minds back to the mystery of things, and open our hearts to that most impractical of hopes in which all creation speaks as one.”

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.