Marianne Moore’s praise-poem to the pangolin (“impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear”) is a work I often revisit for its luminous vision of a world where humans’ relations with animals are grounded in respect and wonder. This exquisite poem was also my first introduction to the Asian and African anteater whose covering of super-hard, delicately overlapping scales makes it unique among the world’s mammals.
Tragically, the huge demand for these scales in Asian traditional medicine has made the pangolin the most hunted animal on Earth, the victim of illegal poaching and a thriving black market trade. This terrible fate would have made Moore heartsick, for it is a genuine love of this remarkable creature that animates her poem. As readers, we absorb her delight in the pangolin’s artichoke-like shape; its patient nocturnal hunting skills, solitary, peaceable, persistent character and the armature of sting-proof scales so resistant not even a lion can bite through them. We feel her wonder at this “night miniature artist engineer,” “this near artichoke with head and legs/and grit-equipped gizzard.” (Because the pangolin has no teeth, it swallows stones to grind up the ants that are its main sustenance.)