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Lions Roar : Nov 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2007 23 ONE SPACIOUS DAY in Washington, D.C., I attended the annual dialogue hosted by the Mind & Life Institute, which brings together the Dalai Lama, other Buddhists and contemplatives, and neuroscientists to discuss topics of mutual interest such as suffering, meditation, and consciousness. Blessed with boyish curiosity and a puckish sense of humor, the Dalai Lama sat onstage in DAR Constitution Hall, wearing chrysanthemum- red robes, an orange golf visor, and a small magnifying loop on a long chain around his neck. “My religion is kindness,” he said simply at one point. “My religion is compassion.” Those words touched me deeply, because I had just spent several years imagining, researching, writing a book about, admiring, and above all empathizing with Antonina Zabinska, a Polish Catholic woman who risked her own life and her family’s to save more than 300 Jews during World War II. Her husband, Jan, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, had smuggled many of them out of the ghetto himself, and the refugees hid in the zoo’s bombed-out cages and were given the code names of the animals whose cages they occupied. Another dozen at a time hid in the nooks and crannies of their house, right on the zoo grounds, which German soldiers often patroled or visited. What first drew me to the story was Antonina’s phenomenal gift of empathy and her radiant compassion, both for humans and the other animals we call animals. With great hart ducha (Polish for a spirited heart), the Zabinskis also adopted orphan animals—hyena pups, a piglet, lynx kittens, a badger, a cockatoo, a rooster, a muskrat, and many more— and helped to preserve a primeval forest on the Polish-Belorussian border that is the refuge of many rare plants and animals. I’m usually smitten with the present moment, so conjuring up the historical past brought a host of challenges. It’s easy to sprain the emotions, and at times it hurt to sense my way into her blitzkrieged world. But I felt close to Antonina, a woman who, in order to savor the world from the sensuous perspective of a seal, elephant, or starling, would slip out of her self as if her self were nothing more than a sweater on a warm afternoon. She often relished imagining that she was a mother lynx, long and lithe, lying in a hollow full of soft, warm mulch, spending the day nursing and washing her kittens—only leaving them for a short time while they napped in order to sniff the ground for the musky scent of mink, fox, or boar, and to listen for the smallest rustle. In her mind, as she searched for animals hidden near the mossy trunks of old trees or in bushy shrubs, her eyes would be half-closed to see better in bright clearings but wide open in deep shade. Reading a faint movement in the distance, she would hunker down in tall grasses, nearly invisible but for nervous front paws and a slight twist of whiskers and, while keeping her eyes riveted on the prey, she’d feel tense and impatient from tip to tail, each muscle ready for her brain to shout “Pounce!” It’s an odd thing, I suppose, swapping one’s animal self for that of other creatures no less complex, carnal, or troubled. But shedding the self refreshes the mind. There’s also the lure of sensory novelty, with its bounty of new pleasures, frights, and games. And walking in another’s paws highlights our shared mortality and our unique morality. We can learn how to bridle our lust for territory and The Zookeeper’s Wife An inspiring story from the terrible days of the Holocaust leads DIANE ACKERMAN to contemplate the nature of compassion, courage, and empathy. Antonina Zabinska at the Warsaw Zoo, 1933. PHOTOCOURTESYOFTHEWARSAWZOOARCHIVE NOV 18-39.indd 23 NOV 18-39.indd 23 8/29/07 2:05:39 PM 8/29/07 2:05:39 PM