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Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
13 December 2000

Giving Thanks for Our Good Fortunes:
Four Reasons for Hope

By Marc Bekoff - bekoffm@spot.colorado.edu

On average, Boulderites [are] a very fortunate and blessed lot. We live in a beautiful area laden with spectacular views, splendid and generous nature, a multitude of coffee shops in which to get revved up and solve the world's problems, and good-spirited people. There are also less fortunate souls here and everywhere whose lives need to be given special consideration, those who are dependent on the rest of us - our goodwill and generosity - for their very survival.

While I and many others constantly think about how to make the world a better place, the holiday season rekindles our generosity and reasons for hope. And it should, for many Boulderites truly have what it takes to make other's lives more hopeful, enriched, and fulfilling.

It's known that connecting with other animals spills over into forming more intimate interconnections with other humans, that compassion is contagious and crosses species lines. Boulder's landscapes - animate and inanimate - are more inviting, soothing, and therapeutic than the concrete, steel, and annoying cacophony of big city noise, and could easily catalyze kinship with all animals, human and nonhuman. Sometimes I'm woken up by the eerie squeals of red foxes or raccoons battling it out over food, or the pungent odor of a skunk casually strolling about. The different personalities (or animalities") of steller's jays is fascinating. Some are assertive, others shy, and some downright obnoxious. But it's truly a privilege and a blessing to share their homes. Everyday I hike with my companion, Jethro. I'm in perpetual awe of my surroundings. I've come to calling the Boulder landscape the Boulder "soulscape," for when I get done hiking my spirit and soul are ignited and ablaze.

But, living in other animals' habitats can also be humbling and make one reflect not only on the magnificence and spirit of wildness, but also its perils and fragility. If we lose wildness we'll surely miss it and lose much of what makes us human.

Here are two stories that, despite their harrowing nature, reinforce how lucky I feel to live here. Seven years ago I was walking backwards down my road and yelling to a neighbor, "Hey, there's a lion around." And, when I turned around, there he was, three feet away. Had I continued walking backwards I would have bumped into him. His eyes bore into my soul and I melted from fear and awe. Unknown to me, the lion had just killed a deer. Had I crossed the line between him and his meal I would have become his just dessert, surely not the worst of endings.

I'm delighted to have met this regal carnivore and more pleased I and Jethro survived our tryst. But, if I'd been injured or killed I wouldn't have wanted my new friend killed in return. He was just being a lion and that's what was so awe-inspiring. But once is enough! So, I've sort of changed my ways to accommodate my own, Jethro's, and other animals' lifestyles. This isn't asking too much so I can enjoy and share my beautiful surroundings with other beings.

But to be honest, I really didn't learn my lessons all that well. One April morning two years back when I was hiking with Jethro, I saw two eyes glaring at me from the high grass below my house. Yup, another lion. I called Jethro, dropped my flashlight, and it broke. I heard some rustling, figured the lion had run off (wishful thinking), and pondered if I should keep going or head for home. The traffic jam in my brain made me decide to keep going. For the next hour, meandering about in total darkness, I was downright scared. I thought I'd need pampers by the time I got home (I didn't). Jethro vowed never to take another early morning stroll. But there was something about the exhilarating feeling - my pounding heart, ever-roving eyes, all senses in overdrive - that made it all worthwhile, especially since we made it home safely.

Unfortunately, we can all too easily lose the presence of other animals, soul-mates who are important to our own spirit and health. We move animals around like we move couches. We redecorate landscapes with little concern for maintaining biological integrity. Humans seem to have an inborn urge to expand their horizons at other animals' expense.

Are there solutions for the situations we've created, are there reasons for hope? I see at least four. First, science needs to change its ways, and it is. Holistic "big picture" and heart-driven compassionate science needs to replace impersonal "cold" science that fragments an interconnected earth into little pieces and alienates people from their surroundings, animate and otherwise. While some people find it awkward to deal with the notion of love in any context, the power of love must not be underestimated as we forge ahead to reconnect with other humans and nature.

Second, educating children so that they can experience, understand, and appreciate the awe, magic, and splendor of the natural world will also help us along. As regional coordinator for Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots program, I've been leaving the ivory tower to teach youngsters at an elementary school in Boulder. It's been incredibly enlightening. Kid's love for other animals, human and nonhuman, and the world at large, is unfiltered, their passion, spirit, and wisdom contagious. Children also have this uncanny ability to bring warring parties back together to work jointly for policies that build community and make us neighborly.

Third, listening to elders is essential. Their wisdom often goes unheeded as we rush about here and there. And, fourth, often, it is those who are unfortunately down and out who have wisdom to spare and share. Often they are the most hopeful, who, despite their own misfortunes, really believe that this world can be a rather nice place. Their indomitable spirit unnerves me. I've also discovered that many truly love nature although at times it can be their worst enemy.

Good fortune is some mysterious combination of being in the right place at the right time and having the resources with which to react. But there truly are victims - human and nonhuman - to whom we should extend our hearts, souls, and love. We should show them that they are important and that each can make a difference. It's who we are - our spirit and soul - and what we do, not what we have, that's meaningful. Let's give thanks by giving meaning to less fortunate souls. We can do this by being more compassionate, generous, and loving. Let's set an example for youngsters and other communities. I don't think that anyone could reasonably argue that a world with more humility, giving, compassion, and love wouldn't be a better place in which to live. Boulder is as good as anyplace else to begin to give thanks by giving of ourselves. Let's show how special Boulder really is.

Marc Bekoff teaches in EPO Biology at CU-Boulder.

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