A part of working with animals is learning as much about them as you can. Since common names are confusing, scientists will use taxonomic names for each animal. In taxonomy, animals are separated into various groupings according to their DNA and biological characteristics. Therefore, every animal has a scientific name based on where they fit in the Web of Life. Taxonomy (this scientific classification system) is essentially the animal’s name, rand, and serial number.

Taxonomy aids in understanding how animals are alike and how they differ. Take badgers for example. Honey badger (Mellivora capensis) of Africa, North American badger (Taxidea taxus), and Eurasian badger (Mele mele) are called “badgers” because of their distinctive badger stripe. However, each of the these animals are not directly related to each other except as members of the larger Mustelidae (weasel, badger, and otter) family. From the taxonomic first name, you can see that these various badgers are not closely related. Instead, they are in their own sub-groupings of Meles, Taxideae, and Mellivorae within the Mustelidae. Therefore when consulting “animal totem” dictionaries, check to see which “badger” they are discussing since each have different teachings. Eurasian badgers live in ancient setts (homes) developed by their ancestors, while American badgers, who live alone, dig a hole to stay the night in.

Contrast that with the manatees. These mammals are members of the Sirenia family (which also contains Stellar sea cows and dugongs). Besides both being vegetarians and having nails on their flippers, West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) and West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) are closely related. Both manatees are members of the same sub-group of Trichechae in Sireniae. Teachings for one species of manatees will hold for the other species of manatees.

Most ordinary people prefer to group animals in a more accessible manner. Their groupings are not the scientific classifications of animals but folkloric ones. The groups that most people know about are the “cold-blooded” (i.e. reptiles and amphibians), “crawling” (i.e. insects and other land invertebrates), “warm-blooded” (i.e. mammals), “water” (i.e. fish and water invertebrates), and “winged” ones (i.e. birds). These folkloric characteristics highlight how people generally think about these various groups of animals.

I would add the following to these five groupings – the “extinct/prehistoric” (i.e. dodos and dinosaurs, et al.), “mythic” (i.e. dragons, unicorns, et al.), “mysterious, unknown” (i.e. Bigfoot, lake monsters, et al.) ones. Most people have animal teachers from the more well-known groups. However, other people do embrace dragons and unicorns as animal teachers, as well as, mammoths and dire wolves. I have yet to meet anyone who works regularly with the “mysterious, unknown” ones such as yeti.

In my years of teaching about animals, I have found that most people prefer knowing the winged or warm-blooded ones and usually fear the cold-blooded and crawling ones. Few consider any of the others such as the water ones. However, they all have wisdom to teach people.

Teachings of each:
Cold-blooded: Sensitivity to one’s environment
Crawling: Transformation
Extinct/prehistoric: The secrets of life
Mysterious, unknown: The place between fantasy and fact
Mythic: Relations with Other worlds
Warm-blooded: Friendship and nourishment
Water: Moving through fluid realms with intuition
Winged: Living in the moment