Friday, April 13, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Animal Calls

by Peggy Robin

On Monday we announced our new contest on the Cleveland ParkListserv: Name the animal you would like to see designated as DC’s state animal. We pointed out that DC already has a state bird, the wood thrush, but we lack a state animal, and it would be great if listserv members would step in to help remedy this deficit in our civic symbolism.  We announced that we would go through the entries by April 30 and pick a winner, who will receive our prize of a time-lapse camera (you can see it at ).

The following day we received an email from a list member, Judith, who pointed out with undeniable accuracy that birds are in fact animals.  She also mentioned that this is the kind of word usage question I would be likely to address in my weekly column. Well, yes, that's true, and so that's just what I'd like to do now.

Of course, a bird is an animal, and so to be precise in the use of language, we really should have invited list members to designate a DC “non-avian-animal” -- but that just sounded too awkward to our ears. The problem is that there’s no ordinary, intelligible, one-word term for the type of creature we were seeking. Everything we came up with would have needed too much definition and outlining of parameters; we thought it best to keep the contest description short. On the other hand, I don’t have to keep this column that short, and so will cover a few of the considerations that led us to settle on “animal.”

We couldn’t call for list members to designate a “state mammal” (Judith’s suggestion) because that would deprive list members of the opportunity to propose any number of plausible amphibians and reptiles. There could be a great argument for DC to have as its symbol the poison dart frog, or the phenomenally invasive cane toad, or perhaps the fat-tail scorpion. Or what about the camel cricket? (That’s the enormous but otherwise harmless brown insect that leaps around like a maniac when you try to try to trap it under a paper cup in order to remove it from your basement.)

In the second paragraph of the contest description we did actually use the term “four-legged animals” but we regret it, because it implies we would reject an entry that nominates a snake, a bat, or an octopus, or perhaps a pinniped (a seal, walrus, or some other flipper-footed animal). We are very open-minded as contest judges.

Brevity, then, is the main justification for the use of the term “animal.”  But we also looked to see what other states have done in this regard. If DC is to be treated like a state, we reasoned, it needs to act as much like one as it can, and this is as good a place to start as any. What we found is that states are (to use a fitting phrase) all over the map on this topic. Here are some examples:

California has the grizzly bear as its state animal; its state bird is the California quail. It has, in addition, an official state marine mammal, the California gray whale, an official state insect, the California dogface butterfly, and an official state fish, the golden orange fish.

Connecticut’s state animal is the sperm whale. Its state bird is a particular favorite of mine, the American robin (no surprise there!). Though it lacks a state dog, it does have a state shellfish, the eastern oyster.

Delaware’s state animal is the horseshoe crab, which is neither a mammal nor a four-footed creature.

Hawaii’s state animal is the Hawaiian monk seal, and our 50th state also has a marine mammal (even though a monk seal is a marine mammal): the humpback whale. The state bird is the nene goose.

Maryland, apparently, does not have anything called a state animal, but it does have a state dog, the Chesapeake Bay retriever. And it has a state crustacean, the Maryland blue crab.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, not only has a state animal, the right whale, but also has a state dog, the Boston terrier. And a state cat, the tabby cat. And a state horse, the Morgan horse. And it has two state birds: the regular type, the black-capped chickadee, and the shoot-it-and-eat-it type, or official state game bird: the wild turkey.

Then there’s Texas, which has officially designated animals in two sizes, small and large.  The official state small animal is the banded armadillo, while the official state large animal is the Texas longhorn. On top of that, there’s an official state bat, the Mexican free-tailed bat. (I’m not so sure this south-of-the-border-named bat would still pass muster if it were up for a vote in the Texas state legislature today.) And just in case you were wondering if Texas is the only state with a state bat, the answer is that there’s at least one other equally batty state: Virginia, with its officially recognized big-eared bat.

Besides the bat, Virginia has an official state bird, the cardinal, and it has a state dog, the American foxhound, and state fish, the brook trout -- but, like Maryland, it lacks an official state animal. So if the Council acts quickly, DC could leapfrog ahead of both Virginia and Maryland on the animal front. 

I will close out this multi-state discussion with the curious case of Wisconsin, which has two state animals, the badger and the white-tailed deer. This dual-animal designation was the result of a political feud between the northern and southern regions of the state, resolved in 1957 with a compromise resolution that named the badger the official state animal and the white-tailed deer the official state wildlife animal. Which has got to make you wonder what badgers are, if not wildlife? Domestic pets? Wisconsin also has an officially designated farm animal, the dairy cow, and a state dog, the American water spaniel.
What should DC’s state animal be?  Let us know your choice --and your explanation of that choice in 100 words or less-- by sending an email to dcanimal [at]   


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland ParkListserv and All Life Is Local on Fridays.

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