Ralph Nader — tireless windmill-tilter — is standing at the National Zoo recalling a conversation he once had with an editor at The Washington Post about what he felt was the paper’s less-than-adequate coverage of his presidential campaign.
“I remember saying, ‘There are times I say to myself, I wish I was a panda, given the coverage The Post gives to pandas,’ ” Nader said.
Well, Nader still isn’t a panda, but he is a kangaroo, a dolphin, an elephant, a crocodile, a squirrel, an owl, an Arctic tern, a German cockroach, a European corn borer, a radioactive Chernobyl beaver, and dozens of other mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.
They’re all characters he assumes in his new book, “Animal Envy: A Fable.”
He is also a cheetah: Safe at any speed.
As we walk down the Asia Trail on a recent afternoon, Nader tells me he hasn’t been to the National Zoo since shortly after moving to Washington in 1964 and starting his career as a consumer advocate. It seemed the right place to take him to talk about animals.
In his new book, a character called the Human Genius has invented a computer program that allows animals to talk to one another. They also can converse with the Human Genius. The result is a 100-hour televised special broadcast worldwide in which animals discuss what makes them special and voice their concerns about how they’re treated.
“I am the Olympia oyster,” says a bivalve in the book, “which long ago was your dinner fare. Our species thrived as a result because you wanted more of us from the wild on your dinner plate. Then you polluted our waters with pulp-mill poisons.”
The book can be hard going. “Watership Down” it’s not. Like Samuel Johnson’s famous analogy comparing a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs, the 224-page “Animal Envy” may not be done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.
Nader counts himself among the surprised.
“How did I ever write this book?” he asks in mock astonishment. “I must have been in another dimension.”
He chuckles. It is not a small thing to see Ralph Nader chuckle.
The typical Nader output, he continues, is “all Congress and the courts and corporations and litigation. It’s brutish forces. And I took myself out of my dimension. I entered their dimension. . . . It was very liberating.”
Nader’s animals are concerned with process, fight for adequate representation in the court of public opinion, and aren’t really able to fawn and flatter to win over critics. They sound a bit like Nader.
He admits that he’s never been particularly close to animals. When he was growing up Winsted, Conn., his family briefly owned a rabbit and a dog. The experience was so fleeting that he can’t remember the name of either.
He “very rarely” eats meat.
He despairs of the current Congress — “arguably the worst in American history” — and the rollback in environmental protections, but he still thinks humans are worth saving. Saving the animals may be just the Trojan horse to do it.
“They’re so interrelated that if you protect the animal kingdom — if you’re protecting the habitats — you’re protecting the water, air and soil that you desperately need as humans,” he says.
I snap Nader’s photo near the bison. He’s a bit like a bison himself, I think, back when there were only a handful of the mighty beasts left in North America. At the height of his fame, people would write to Nader for help — with their medical problems or their lemon cars — by just writing “To Ralph, Washington D.C.” on the envelope. Now 83, he tells me he has a hard time getting his phone calls returned.
A bearded millennial in a black T-shirt walks by and does a double take. “Is that Ralph Nader?” he asks.
“Yes,” Nader responds.
“Great work,” the young man says.
I ask Nader why things seem so messed up.
“Commercial values,” he says. “When commercial values get too much power they run roughshod over the universal values of safety, health, respect, posterity, all the rest of it. And so we’re divided among ourselves.”
Animals don’t do that, he says. Sure, they eat one another. But they don’t act against the self-interest of their own species or threaten to entirely extinguish other species.
Consider the African watering hole, he says, where through some unknown alchemy a kind of temporary peace is achieved.
“Water saves them all. The deprivation can kill them all,” Nader says. “We have trouble living with each other on the planet. Where are the watering holes that will bring us all together?”
One egg has hatched in the cardinal nest outside my window. At least, I’ve seen only one chick, its gaping mouth accepting food from mom. I’m worried about the other egg and how the chick will fare. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.