“As dead as a dodo”

Posted on 2019-10-11 07:23:31


One of the mysteries of the human species is why so many people take pleasure in wanton killing of animals. Author Bill Bryson wrote that only human beings, “for no purpose at all”, ruthlessly exterminate creatures that do them no harm. He happened to be talking about the dodo, wiped out in Mauritius between 1683 and 1693 and said that the dodo’s “millions of years of peaceful isolation had not prepared it for the erratic and deeply unnerving behaviour of human beings”. “As dead as a dodo” actually became a simile in our language to emphasise the finality of animal extinction.

About seventy years after the last dodo died, the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford decided to throw out the museum’s stuffed dodo because it had, he said, become mouldy. It was at the time the only dodo in existence. A museum employee, appalled that such a treasure was to be thrown out, managed to save no more than its head and one limb, so we don’t know what a dodo really looked like and have to rely on old drawings.

The dodo was the largest-ever member of the pigeon family, although it apparently looked quite different. It was over 30cm tall. Since it was flightless, it nested on the ground. This made it extremely vulnerable, not only to human beings, but to the dogs, pigs and monkeys they brought to Mauritius. After its millions of years of existence, human beings wiped out the dodo in just seventy years, yet it was totally harmless to them, and they were not even interested in eating its flesh. They killed it just because it was there.

What has always been difficult to understand about human beings is why so many of them can be thoughtlessly cruel. One sees this even in some children, which is one of the reasons why young people need to be educated regarding compassion. People tend to assume that kindness cannot be taught, but this is not so. As an educator myself, I know there is plenty of opportunity for educators to talk about the value of compassion and how this quality enriches one’s life and adds value to the world. In fact, no matter what subject a teacher or lecturer teaches, they are ideally placed to emphasise the value of kindness and integrity.

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