The problem with writing about animal “sin,” besides the fact that animals can’t sin, is that several of the Seven Deadly Sins could be categorized as “overindulgences,” which evolution often abhors. Eating more than you have to, for example, can slow you down, and is only useful when you’re threatened with starvation. The same is true for “greed:” why spend time accumulating things you don’t really need when you could be doing something useful, like foraging or fucking?
Yet there are hoarders. I don’t mean animals that cache food for later, like a squirrel. I mean animals that take, steal, and collect objects they don’t really need because it suits their fancy. And when you say “hoarder,” the first animal you probably think of is…
The Pack Rat. (Not to be confused with The Rat Pack.) Out here in the Western half of the U.S., pack rats collect sticks, grasses, animal dung and stones to build messy nests called middens, which are usually a foot or two high but can be over six feet tall. Notwithstanding the fact that a two-inch mouse doesn’t really need a house the size of a beaver dam, the “greedy” part about pack rats is their keen eye for shiny objects. If they encounter a piece of jewelry, they’ll often drop the stone they were carrying for this new bit of tinsel, lending them their other name, the “trade rat.”
This propensity towards kleptomania is shared by another of my favorite Western animals, the magpie.
I have a magpie tattoo in remembrance of my mother, who wove intricate baskets imbedded with shiny objects we collected at flea markets. When she lived in L.A., my mother lived next door to an elderly couple who would puzzle over the fact that the wife’s jewelry seemed to be going missing, one earring at a time. At first, the old lady thought she was losing her mind. Then, she accused her husband of losing his mind. And the mystery wasn’t solved until my mother saw a magpie fly into her neighbors’ open window and fly out with a necklace in its beak. When they followed the bird, they found half the contents of the old lady’s jewelry box woven into its nest. Magpies are proof that nothing ever really disappears. Nothing is ever entirely lost, just repurposed.
Why do glittery things seem to have value to some animals? It may be because metallic things are more durable. But it’s more likely for the same reason they have value to us: aesthetics. A magpie’s nest or a pack rat’s midden, richly decorated with diamonds and pearls, may serve to advertise the creature’s fitness and the wealth of its territory to a potential mate. It’s “Animal Planet: Cribs.”
The wonderful thing about pack rats’ need to amass wealth is that they inadvertently build elaborate time capsules. The sticks and scat that make its house are incredibly durable, when cemented with an adhesive urine and preserved by our desert aridity, and scientists can examine middens as old as 40,000 years to see what plants grew in the area in the past, what animals were around, and what the climate was like. Pack rat middens are like microcosms of their world: a little of everything in their environment, heaped indiscriminately into an trove of treasure and detritus. Someday, archeologists in the future might examine the trash pile houses of today’s pack rats and find out what tinsel we loved: the watch you lost, the locket, the beer can ring, the button, a scrapbook of everything you ever misplaced.