“Society itself is a lonelier place. As a species, we had always been close to nature. From our days as hunter-gatherers to our millennia of living in close quarters with livestock, animals had been ubiquitous in our existence. When they disappeared from our day-to-day experience, we lost part of ourselves.”
― David Grimm, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs
I love these words by David Grimm. He gets to the essential reason why modern society has lost its way. Violence, inequality and stress are too much a part of our lives. Why is that? It’s complicated. However, I believe that when we no longer had a direct bond with the natural world, and with animals in their natural state, society began the fall to an epidemic of unhappiness, because we lost part of ourselves. But what does that really mean to each of us, and to the unique bond we have with the animals in our lives?
People who live with animals on farms (not industrial!) or in nature have an opportunity to understand that non-human animals have unique presence and personality. Their inner world has nothing to do with us. If we really pay attention, each animal has much to teach us.
These are lessons that I, as a confirmed city-dweller, had to learn slowly, and sometimes painfully. When I didn’t understand animal behavior I was quick to put human labels on it. The animals in my life were well-loved and cared for, but it took a while for me to understand that there was a much deeper bond waiting to be created if I just opened to it. I needed to listen, learn, and deal with my human ego.
Working with wild animals as a zookeeper was my best education. I understood that the relationship with the animals under my care was collaborative, and that it was up to me to learn the unique needs of each individual on their terms.
An insightful example was an Orangutan named Eloise who had a reputation for not wanting to come inside at night, even if tasty treats awaited. I had been warned of this behavior. For a while it was very frustrating, watching and waiting while Eloise sat just outside the door as her companions marched right in. I was sure she was taunting me, and I felt I had no power. I took this very personally!
One evening I decided to play some music and do other chores and not think much about Eloise. The others came in as always, and Eloise sat outside the door. I stayed aware of her presence but didn’t attach any expectation to her behavior. If Eloise decided to come in, that was her decision, and she would get a tasty treat. If not, that was her decision too, and she would spend the night outside without a treat. Suddenly, she came in on her own. There was rarely a problem after that.
I can only guess what changed in Eloise’s mind. But the change I know of was in me. I opened up to accept any outcome, with no judgement.
This was like a Soul-to-Soul photography session, without the photos! Eloise and my work relationship became less stressful and more respectful. I found the part of myself that could understand what was needed to make this relationship work.
Eloise taught me so much, especially patience and detachment from ego. Challenging lessons for me, and a good start.
This experience helped me on the road toward finding part of myself that was “lost” — the part that respects an animal’s right to be his or herself, even when I don’t completely understand what that means.
What does your companion animal teach you?