Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

– John Muir, Scottish-American naturalist, author and environmental philosopher

A beautiful thing has happened amid the coronavirus pandemic. The animals are running free, and we are all stuck in our little boxes that we call home.

A video that showed what looked like a flying lemur at a residential area in Batu Kawah went viral on social media recently. And then, a video of monkeys taking over a swimming pool at a condominium in Tanjung Bungah, Penang.

In Sabah, the world’s rarest otter the species of which had not been seen in the state for over 100 years and had been thought to be extinct until last March, was caught on video by accident.

The same thing is happening all over the world. In a WhatsApp video sent to me about two months ago, a mob of monkeys runs around a city plaza in Thailand. This horde of animals lives in Lopburi, home of the country’s Phra Prang Sam Yot monkey temple.

The monkeys, which are usually fed by tourists visiting the city, are finding a new scarcity because of the coronavirus. And they’re not alone. Over the past few weeks, the flow of tourists has been reduced to a trickle as a result of quarantines, travel restrictions and a general reduction in visitors put in place to stop the spread of the illness.

Now, for better or worse, thousands of animals are being forced to fend for themselves.

At Ocean Park, a Hong Kong amusement park featuring roller coasters and captive animals, a two Pandas had sex. I learned from the news that zookeepers have been trying to get Ying Ying and Le Le to mate for 10 years.

Watching the act on Twitter, it has made me the happiest for weeks. To be frank I’m thrilled for Le Le and Ying Ying. Not just because mating in captivity is such a lift for their species, or because nobody else seems to be hooking up right now, but because of the implication of their timing.

As it happens I recall talking to my wife and kids about the survival of the pandas when we visited Zoo Negara four years ago. I said saving the giant panda from extinction is of the utmost urgency but somehow the urgency isn’t felt by the pandas.

They are so cuddly, but not to each other and so choosy. They only want to get down when they have really hit it off with a partner, and that, unfortunately, rarely happens.

I don’t know if panda sex is truly facilitated by the averting of human eyes, but I’m clinging to the idea. Humanity has been shuttered indoors, but our feeds are overgrowing with tales of a revived natural world.

These stories suggest that the coronavirus has had a healing effect on Earth’s nonhuman affairs, and we humans are loving this idea. Images of clear waters and frolicking critters have proved alluring enough to override ecological reality.

I saw a set of viral photographs showing swans “returning” to the canals of Venice which was actually taken in nearby Burano, where swans are regularly spotted.

Most of the people sharing videos of a mob of monkeys and weird, creepy, demonic looking flying lemurs are not expressing a latent death wish. The appeal of the coronavirus nature genre is, in part, its subtle massaging of the human ego.

It feeds the fantasy that centuries of environmental abuse can be reversed by an abbreviated period of sacrifice. With a few weeks’ supply of junk foods and Fox drama series, we can save the Earth.

Even as the natural world appears to thrive in humanity’s absence, we are busy re-centring ourselves in the story. When I see images of loved-up pandas and supposedly flying lemurs, I am not exactly celebrating my own retreat from nature. I have found myself instead identifying with the animals themselves. I enjoy vicariously in their freedoms.

When Le Le and Ying Ying had sex, I felt a strange surge of pride. I felt that by doing nothing, I had accomplished something. The best thing we can do for these animals is to leave them alone. I had made the world a better place, if only in my imagination.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.