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On nature and human nature: American Pharoah and San Bernardino

 American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win – cemented at the Belmont Stakes, seen here – should garner him Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. Photograph by Mike Lizzi

American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win – cemented at the Belmont Stakes, seen here – should garner him Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. Photograph by Mike Lizzi

Is it right to talk about Sports Illustrated’s controversial nomination of American Pharoah for Sportsman of the Year at a time when there are so many lost souls and unanswered questions amid the mass shooting of a facility for the disabled in San Bernardino, Calif.?

I think it’s relevant. We are divided from nature, of which we are a part, in part because we are divided in our own human nature.

There are two types of people who misunderstand nature. The first doesn’t care about it and ranges from those who toss the ice cream pop wrapper out the car window onto the highway to those who abuse animals.

Then there are those who love animals but human beings, not so much. They tend to romanticize and anthropomorphize animals in a vain attempt to control them and to attain the kind of love that may really only be possible amid the mess of human relationships.

How well did the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers control the Mississippi River in Hurricane Katrina?

How well did Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy fame control Mantecore, the white tiger who bit him on the neck in 2003, partially paralyzing him and in effect ending their animal act?

Nature isn’t good or bad, moral or immoral. It just is what it is. A lion isn’t being mean when it attacks a zebra. It’s just hungry.

Which brings us back to American Pharoah. Maybe he lacks the cognition necessary for “sportsmanship,” but he still won the Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup Classic – the first horse to capture the Crown in 37 years and the first ever for the Grand Slam of the Crown and the Cup. To put this in perspective:  Before the Pharoah won the Triple Crown, more men had walked on the moon (12) than horses had won the Crown (11). That’s astonishing.

But if animals are incapable of the cognition necessary for ethical choices, they can have gentle instincts. After AP won the Cup, trainer Bob Baffert led him out to his adoring fans. There was a young man in the front who seemed to be disabled in some way with poor control of his motor functions. A woman helped him pet the horse.

And the Pharoah bowed his graceful head for the young man to do so. I wept.

Here is an animal with the instinct to meet fragility with tenderness.

The California shooters consciously chose to meet fragility with violence.

And that is the difference.