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Making Contact With Richard Louv: How Animals Save And Heal Us
November 10, 2019
Making Contact With Richard Louv: How Animals Save And Heal Us
"Our Wild Calling," the new "game-changing" book by Richard Louv, explores why our connection with other species is good for society, our mental health and the wild places that matter to us
The term, which means "love for life and living systems,” was invented by social psychologist Eric Fromm. Wilson used it as the crux for his own notion, called “the biophilia hypothesis,” advancing the idea that we humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other beings sharing the web of life with us.
It's a momentous indeed to come up with a concept so universally recognized by society and so fundamental to our common existence.
Another rarefied thinker who has achieved this distinction is Richard Louv, the American writer who helped bring the term “nature-deficit disorder” into our lexicon. In his paradigm-shaping book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv used it as a platform for pondering how the modern world—which many today call “the Anthropocene” or human-dominated age—has resulted in Homo sapiens being increasingly disconnected from the same nature that birthed us.
continues to point out, farm and ranch-raised kids have become fewer and farther between. Those dwelling inside the perimeter of the suburbs—where most Americans and Canadians live— no longer grow up taking adventures to back woodlots and swimming holes the way their predecessors did because their high-strung, over-protective parents over-worry that harm might come to them. Meantime, virtual reality has replaced children physical contact with the natural world with frogs, butterflies and bees seeming more abstract than real. Any exposure they are having with the natural outdoors and green spaces often happens within the highly choreographed context of youth sports.
And if that's not enough, mass media sensationally suggests that lurking in the shadows just beyond our sightline at the edge of town, are creatures (predators—both human and animal) lying in wait and ready to devour.
No matter what the reason, the loss of interactions with the texture and sensual experiences of nature has come at a steep cost. Disconnection on a planet with more people than ever before, has led to a growing pandemic of estrangement, isolation and loneliness. Louv has also argued it’s one reason why proponents of pubic wildlands and wildlife conservation are finding a difficult time gaining traction with urban society.
How do we find our way back?
Louv’s latest book, Our Wild Calling points us down the path and the answer is suggested in its subtitle, “How connection with animals can transform our lives—and save theirs.” Indeed, fascinatingly, he demonstrates how nature-deficit disorder can find a partial cure in re-embracing the principles of the biophilia hypothesis in daily life.
“Once, we were born in kinship with the ones we hunted or worshipped and the one who hunted and watched us; the wolves who came closer and eventually became our friends and workmates; the cattle and sheep and pigs that, for a time, shared our houses,” he writes. “Within our collective lifetime, in most of the world, the ancient patterns fell away. We struggle to fill that emptiness. Sometimes we succeed.”
But often we are failing.
The best hand-hold for re-engagement, he says, is casting aside the narrow-minded human tendency to dismiss the non-human animal world as a lesser “other.” One need not be an animal rights advocate to recognize that dogs and cats, horses and even chicken possess intelligence, emotions and other sentient qualities we are only now beginning to understand. And, in this age dominated by disconnection and various kinds of social traumas, animals hold the power to help us heal the discord.
How we treat animals, he suggests, reflects what resides in our soul. In the Children & Nature Network Research Library, which he he was instrumental in creating, there are links to 1000 studies confirming the link between human health and natural settings that support wildlife.
As Louv lays out, citing research and numerous examples, having more contact and possessing more respect for other creatures engenders more compassion, generosity, kindness, optimism and hope. It begets less violence and hostility, less isolation and depression, less self-centeredness and more awareness that focusing only on fulfilling our own personal material desires does not lead to better communities.
This has huge implications not only for city slickers but those of us drawn to rural areas and wild landscapes. “To fully protect anything, we must know it, love it, act in mindful reciprocity—giving back to animals as they give to us,” Louv writes.
Our Wild Calling makes clear how our objectified treatment of animals and subjectified categorizations of animals as “good vs. bad,” “wild vs. tame,” and “valuable vs. worthless vermin” are both ignorant and wrong-headed.
Bill McKibben called Our Wild Calling “a remarkable book that will help everyone break away from their fixed gaze at the screens that dominate our lives and remember instead that we are animals in a world of animals.” In his regular column, "Animal Emotions," for Psychology Today, ethologist, biologist and retired college professor Marc Bekoff says the insights in the book are "game-changing."
Louv and Mountain Journal recently had a conversation and we’re sharing it with you exclusively because we know you’ll find it intriguing.
MoJo's Exclusive Interview With Richard LouvTodd Wilkinson for MoJo: Last Child in The Woods warned about the lack of connection between modern people, especially urban kids, and nature, and the consequences of that divide. Your follow-up to that book was The Nature Principle that warned about the addiction to technology and you described it as being "about the power of living in nature—not with it, but in it. We are entering the most creative period in history. The twenty-first century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world." Your own thinking continues to evolve.
Our Wild Calling is about the profound benefits of humans having contact with other creatures and not merely traveling through landscapes. What was the genesis for this book?
Richard Louv: As a boy growing up in Missouri and Kansas, I spent a lot of time in the woods with my collie, Banner. My encounters with wild animals often felt like doorways into alternative worlds. At the same time, my dog taught me, by example, certain ethics. In the book, I wrote that Banner saw me the way I wanted to be seen, and he expected me to live up to what he saw.
When Last Child in the Woods was published in 2005, I learned that, no matter what someone’s politics were, they wanted to tell me about the treehouse they had when they were a kid, if they were lucky enough to have a connection to nature. The same propensity is true of our relationship with other animals. Hard core scientists, anglers, physicians -- just about everyone—had a story share their stories about animals, wild or domestic, who changed their lives.
Rich Louv and his trusty childhood companion, Banner. Banner was a comfort dog long before anyone thought of inventing the term. The scientific evidence is strong in showing the benefits that children experience in their emotion development when they have animals in their lives. Photo courtesy Richard Louv
Wilkinson: Can you cite a few examples?
LOUV: An encounter between an oceanographer and an octopus; a mother and child who learned to talk with birds; a young girl who believed a swan had protected her from bullies; a polar explorer stalked by a polar bear for days; a wildlife biologist whose career was redirected by desert bats; an international tour operator who learned everything he needed to know about business by observing African elephants; and many more. The storytellers found meaning, in those encounters. Whether the meaning was inherent or projected, their lives had been changed.
Wilkinson: Over the years I've had a lot of conversations with ethologists about sentience. Ancient Eastern religions and the spiritual beliefs of indigenous peoples in the Americas have recognized it for thousands of years predating the arrival of Christ. Why is it so hard for people to embrace the notion of sentience—that animals have feelings and awareness— even after study after emerging study confirms not only the intelligence and emotional landscape of other beings, but a knowing that is often not visible to us?
LOUV: One reason for that reluctance is our ambivalence for how we use or consume other animals—something we all do, one way or another. Much of Western society has accepted the 17th philosopher René Descartes’ notion of bête machine (from the French, literally “animal machine” and as some have claimed "stupid machines."). In science, we see the taboo on anthropomorphism. It’s true that projecting human characteristics onto, say, an octopus, can obscure the truly mysterious nature of octopus intelligence.
Now, however, scientists are learning more about animal cognition and communication—within and across species, including our own. True, a raccoon would never be able to invent Facebook, but Mark Zuckerberg is not as exceptional as he probably thinks he is. Neither are the rest of us. There are other ways of knowing the world.
Wilkinson: You address the debate over anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characteristics to a god, animal or object.
LOUV: Frans de Waal, an authority on primate behavior, suggests one alternative to the taboo on anthropomorphism. He divides it into three categories: First, Anthropocentrism, an assumption that you, as a human being, are at the center of the universe, and other creatures are only here for your use or entertainment; second, anthropodenial, or blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals; and third, animal centrism, an effort to understand what life must be like for a member of another species.
Wilkinson: There are a lot of fascinating conversations swirling around the question of whether it's okay for wildlife biologists to exhibit empathy for the animal subjects they study or manage. And some say that those who condemn anthropomorphism do it because they don't want to accept responsibility for treating animals badly. Thoughts?
LOUV: I interviewed biopsychologist Gordon Burghardt, who, with a herpetologist colleague, introduced the concept of “critical anthropomorphism.” When studying a snake, he suggests, first collect and consider all the hard science regarding how the snake perceives the world, then use your imagination, or “wear the snake’s shoes,” his tongue-in-cheek way of describing the use of empathy.
By using this process, he believes, a researcher can ask better scientific questions about the snake. In Our Wild Calling, I argue that critical anthropomorphism and similar tecniques should be taught in schools, not only to lead to better science, but to build on what research already tells us, that connections to other animals help build the capacity for empathy in children. The same is true for adults.
Wilkinson: What are a few of the things you learned while doing research for this book that previously you were unaware of?
LOUV: Research into animal communication within and between species is growing quickly. I learned that horses have more facial expressions than dogs, and are surprisingly similar to the signals that human faces send, but happen in micromovements difficult for most people to detect. Communication among animals is occurring around us all the time, in a kind of animal extranet. Male alligators attract females by emitting low-frequency sounds that bounce droplets of water on their backs. Try that on your next date. Birds do more than tweet.
"Research into animal communication within and between species is growing quickly. I learned that horses have more facial expressions than dogs, and are surprisingly similar to the signals that human faces send, but happen in micromovements difficult for most people to detect. Communication among animals is occurring around us all the time, in a kind of animal extranet."
Wilkinson: Elaborate on that.
LOUV: One of the people I profiled in the book is Jon Young, the founder of several nature connection programs, including 8 Shields and the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington. He has taught hundreds of people how to communicate with, or at least understand, birds. “Deep bird language,” as he defines it, refers to the specifics of bird life but is also about a different frame of mind and awareness.
Humans and other animals have modes, gestures, sounds, bleeps, and blurts—identifiable patterns that precede human language. Young has noted that people who learn bird language often apply what they have learned to how they communicate with their spouses, children or even their boss. And their lives improve. This is the Oldest Language, its origins older than most species living today.
Wilkinson: What role can technology play in bridging the divide between human and non-human animals?
LOUV: In some cases, technology will help us connect with the life around us. For example, in livestock management. Or crowd use of the internet, enlisting thousands of citizen naturalists who count birds and chart the growth or reduction of biodiversity. Cornell University is working to apply Artificial Intelligence to track and protect savanna elephants.
Some scientists are working to develop technology to communicate with other species, to decode their languages and behaviors – from dolphins to dogs to prairie dogs. We also see the rapid emergence of what I call the Replacements: robot dogs as pets, an “internet of cows,” a method of raising factory animals in a way that the proponents call more humane; digitally “enhanced” animals, the creation of creatures combining the traits and parts of humans and other animals.
One scientist reports progress on a canine smart harness designed to use wireless communication to send information from dog to computer, which interprets and translates data and then sends it to the human on the other end of the leash. The usefulness of this approach is puzzling, considering the tens of thousands of years that dogs and people have co-evolved, and communicate quite well without electronic gizmos.
Wilkinson: How do you think that having more empathy/sympathy for other life forms leads to a better society?
Research shows that the urban parks that have the best impact on human psychological health are the parks with the highest biodiversity – the widest array of animal and plant species. I don’t believe that’s an accident. As a species we are desperate to know that we are not alone in the universe. But intimacy is all around us. The number of dogs in the United States, proportionate to the human population, higher than ever.
Wilkinson: So too people having "comfort" and "support" animals?
LOUV: Turning to animals for support, formally or informally, “is arguably one of the biggest health care strategies that people use informally every day,” according to Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor and executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.
In our moments of deep connection with other animals –- even during a few seconds of eye contact with a wild animal -- it is impossible to feel alone in the world. Developing deeper connections with our companion animals and with wild animals is one pathway beyond what Harvard scientist E. O. Wilson has called the age of loneliness (the Anthropocene) and into what I call an Age of Connectedness.
People who live in "green cities" and landscapes—places healthy enough to support wildlife—live longer. Connecting people to nature is a social justice issue and animals are part of the equation.
Wilkinson: As you note, some pretty big innovators in wildlife conservation credit early experiences in childhood with planting seeds that would sprout into their meaningful landscape and species protection work.
LOUV: When the late Alan Rabinowitz, whom I interviewed for the book, was growing up in Brooklyn, he stuttered so badly that he could barely communicate. During this time, he was given drug therapy and even shock treatment, a remedy later discredited for stutterers. Adult expectations only made him nervous, worsening his stutter, and for a while he gave up trying to talk to people. Then his father began taking Alan to the Bronx Zoo. There, the boy would sit beside the cage of a jaguar that ignored people, but not Alan.
When the jaguar would come close to him, Alan would begin to whisper. They returned to the zoo again and again. “The jaguar, the animals, had no expectations of me. They accepted me as I was. Words would come out. Sentences would come out,” he said. “I realized I could talk to animals and they had feelings and they couldn’t express those feelings either. These animals were just like me.” As his stuttering improved, he promised the jaguar that if he ever found his voice, he would be a voice for animals. He went on to become the director of Panthera, a worldwide nonprofit organization that helps protect thirty-seven wild cat species around the world, including jaguars.
Wilkinson: In rural areas, people readily acknowledge the personalities and spirit of their livestock and pets around the farm or ranch, yet some demonize wolves and predators, putting them in the category of "other" or "lesser than." Some hunters do this, too. Do you have any insights on why that might be?
LOUV: People have to make a living. The threat that a wolf may pose to a rancher’s family income is something that many urbanites would be hard pressed to understand, but soon may be learning. One section of the book refers to the “Betweens,” the wild animals that, in increasing numbers, are moving into suburban and urban areas. There’s a lot we don’t know about that. Wildlife ecology is complex as it is, but cities are a relatively new frontier.
As part of his work at Chicago’s Urban Wildlife Institute, Seth Magle wonders what’s happening to the intelligence of, say, raccoons when they take up residence in cities. “Is a raccoon a raccoon a raccoon?” he asks, or does it become, in a sense, a different animal in urban areas? How do wild species in cities decide where to shelter, where to look for food, and where to find mates? Do daytime animals become creatures of the city night? Often, they do. And can humans and other animals, including large predators, cohabitate in cities?
Wilkinson: And what did he discover?
LOUV: To find the answers to these and other questions, Magle’s institute is partnering with urban planners, landscape architects, and public health officials to take what he’s learned in Chicago where coyotes learn to look both ways at street crossings and create what he calls “biodiversity-monitoring franchises” in cities. To make policy recommendations, biologists and planners must establish new rules based on science, not sentiment. These rules will likely differ among bioregions over time because development and climate change will be ongoing. So will our desire to connect with other species.
Wilkinson: In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, passionate wildlife watchers have formed formal and informal groups that advocate for bears and wolves whereas previous generations took pride in targeting them for elimination. Is there the potential for similar goodwill taking hold in the suburbs and exurbs for other species?
LOUV: Just as communities already create Neighborhood Watch groups to prevent human crime, we could launch Neighborhood Wildlife Watch groups. A British organization, Wildlife Watch, helps people create wildlife watching clubs. In the most populated urban neighborhoods and the smallest towns members of such groups could track the influx of wild animals, report sick animals, and prevent dangerous encounters.
Young people could learn about the risks and opportunities of more proximity with animals. They could work to convince neighbors not to feed wild animals, and encourage them to create more natural habitat for endangered species. Their mission would be to protect both humans and the other animals who live in, or are moving to, that community. Whether in urban, suburban or rural places, such groups would improve the psychological well-being and confidence that comes with a deeper sense of place and connection to the life in it.
Wilkinson: In order for our society to nurture a deeper connection with nature and teach people of all generations to treat animals with more respect, decency and ethical/moral care, what will it take?
LOUV: Between 1970 and 2014, the global wildlife population shrank by 60 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In recent weeks other researchers reported that nearly a third of all birds in North America – some three billion birds – have disappeared in the past fifty years. I’ve argued for a while that the greatest environmental threats are biodiversity collapse, the climate emergency, and nature-deficit disorder – our disconnect from other species.
People around the world are attempting to build a new interspecies social compact, including mayors and biologists who believe that cities that can become engines of biodiversity; the New Noahs practicing assisted migration or Pleistocene rewilding; ranchers and farmers practicing different forms of regenerative agriculture, and millions of individuals who are creating new rules for their own relationships with other animals.
I also look at the possibility of cities as engines of biodiversity, places where people and other animals could someday live together. And I write about pioneering teachers are practicing animal-assisted education and older ways of teaching and learning, ones that incorporate not only the new science regarding animal intelligence and emotions, but Indigenous approaches to the natural world.
Wilkinson: Your book does not render judgment on people. It meets readers where they are, but it does make a strong case for humans to empathize with other animals and to treat them with humaneness and respect for the space they need.There’s a lot happening on many different fronts with efforts to curb various overt displays of animal cruelty, especially in the categories of killing wildlife for fun, out of malice and states just allowing species to be killed because they are there.
LOUV: Our times call for the adoption of a basic principle that embraces both survival and joy as we repair our relationship with the natural world, giving care and protection to animals in return for the gifts they give us. We might call this the Reciprocity Principle.
Wilkinson: Here's a question related to Last Child in the Woods and it has a link to this book: What do you think is the triggering mechanism by which a "user" of nature is converted or transformed into being a defender of nature and the other beings inhabiting it?
LOUV: One morning, during my own close encounter with two golden eagles on a lake shore, I became intensely aware of the reality that existed between them and me. Even if that reality existed in my imagination, what I sensed had meaning. I felt a change. I told this story to my son (this is the son who has the fishing gene; when he was three, I caught him fishing in the humidifier). I told him: Matthew, whoever I say I am, I’m not. Who I was in those moments is who I really am – and I don’t have the words to explain this.
In searching for those words, I came to this conclusion: We live in two natural habitats. One habitat is the physical environment that we work hard to protect from ourselves. The other is the habitat of the heart, which exists between us and other animals—including other humans.
We often undervalue and fail to protect that second habitat. If one of those habitats dies, so does the other. The human need to connect with other animals, and to find and express meaning through them, is baked deep within our psyches. Once, we told our stories around campfires. Physically acting out the experience, we became the bear. Now we do this around the electric campfire (YouTube) or, preferably, a dining room table, a front porch, a classroom. I’ll bet many of your readers have stories to tell.