On a recent evening run, down a winding creek trail near my home, I came upon a fox -- so close I could have grabbed his fluffy tail had he not immediately bolted away from me. It is his natural instinct to be frightened of humans, and I had surprised us both. After the fox fled safely across the dry creek bed, he turned to look back at me. I, too, in the excitement of our close encounter, stopped to watch him. For a brief second or two we paused, eye to eye, before he disappeared into the bush. What made him stop? I'd like to believe he was curious about me and sensed my positive reverence towards him.
This is not the first time I have come eye to eye with an animal in the wild. Last fall, sleepily walking at sunrise down a lakeside path in a filled-to-capacity state park, I came upon a bear making his way from the woods to the lake. In front of me, higher up the hill, two men were standing as quiet as statues, except they were using sign language alerting me to look up. I gazed into the trees assuming they had spied a woodpecker or hawk perched on a branch. Realizing I was missing their cues, one quietly but loud enough said, "BEAR!" I cast my eyes lower and looked eye to eye with the bear only 20 feet away. We both paused and regarded each other until the bear nodded his head at me, turned away, and disappeared into the woods. Again, I wasn't frightened -- I was in amazement! These encounters with wildlife are not my only ones. There have been many more. I always feel lucky to come across a wild animal and consider it a good omen.
I share my experiences because I often hear stories of people living where civilization and wilderness reside side by side with barely a border. These neighbors of wildlife cry out in fear, in the name of safety, or in concern for their pets, pleading to rid their world of coyotes, foxes, bobcats, cougars, and bears (and even bees), creatures whose ancestors existed in these territories long before their woodland road was paved.
I live on that "woodland road," and I have two cats and a dog. My domesticated friends live cohesively with their wild relations. One night I woke to my dog barking at a bobcat high in the limbs of our birch tree. He probably came into my backyard for food or water (I live alongside a creek). The home development in my woodland neighborhood, 30 minutes north of San Francisco, has altered his ecosystem. The bobcat did not harm my cats or my dog; he risked a gnarly encounter with my pets (which he undoubtedly would have won) because he was seeking an easy meal or a refreshing drink, not one he had to fight for. I chose my home near open space with the anticipated joy of encountering the wildlife that surrounds me. It is one of the many reasons I love where I live.
Nearly everywhere, you can get in touch with your "wild life." If you are lucky you can view wildlife not only in the wilderness, not only in the countryside, not only in the suburbs, but also even in the cities -- recently coyotes have been spotted in New York City.
Rampant home development is not the only deadly impact humans have on wildlife. Too often I walk, cycle, or drive past dead animals left to decay on the side of the road. Each time it leaves me sad. I am sad that the life of some animal came to such a cruel and violent end. I am sad that this animal was simply left on the side of the road to rot. I am sad that this death was not avoided. I am sad by the staggering numbers of these deaths. High Country News in 2005 published astonishing statistics related to annual road-kill costs.
While there is the rare and occasional incident when one cannot avoid hitting a scampering squirrel, a fast-fleeing frightened cat, or a leaping deer crossing the road, most vehicular slaughter can be avoided. I confess, driving along a rain-slick country road in rural Vermont, a skittish, panicked squirrel ran this way and that way, I slowed down and swerved to miss it just as it switched directions. A painful memory. They are not "dumb animals," as I hear people say who have hit animals. It is not instinctual for them to be aware of fast-moving machines zooming down the road. Rather, it is humans who are not acting wisely. Humans have the intelligence to learn about animal species that reside along their roadways and to be mindful, attentive drivers. Honk, flash your lights, swerve (if possible), slow down, or stop (as I should have done to have avoided hitting the squirrel). In many cases, you can avoid killing animals.
Once, when I was jogging down a country road in Washington State, I came upon a mother deer killed by a reckless motorist -- and beside her was her fawn, still alive, bewildered and frightened. Tearfully disturbed, I ran home to phone the local animal control department. Of course, nothing more could be done than to remove the mother deer's carcass. It took me a while to run that route again, and each time since, I remember and honor both deer's lives.
Because similar stories have been told before, I realize this may not seem newsworthy. Yet, I think we must keep telling these stories to encourage awareness and compassion towards all living creatures, and as reminders to change our actions. In a 2010 Psychology Today article posted by Marc Bekoff, Denise Boehler articulates the importance of our interconnectedness with nature to improve well-being. Here is an excerpt:
"We should also consider expanding our compassion footprint to include nonhuman animals with whom we cohabit and into whose living we moved as we redecorated nature. There's no personal cost to doing this. Regardless of one's motivation, religious affiliation, ethos, or sensitivities, animals who use roads are not intrusions nor should they be considered surprises. Indeed, they dwell alongside us and should also have a place in our heart. Increasing our compassion and expanding our awareness of their presence can be accomplished by simple means. Not only will wildlife benefit, but we may also improve our own well-being because compassion begets compassion. By increasing compassion for others and ourselves, we may also enhance our appreciation of the interconnectedness of magnificent and fragile webs of life. As we conduct ourselves in the public sphere we can even become 'Compassionagents' -- individuals with expanded awareness acting on behalf of animals in the vehicular community, eliciting more attention for animals with very little effort."
"Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life." Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984, p.22
Our ancestors, the great sages of humanity, knew that by endangering the wildlife of creation we endanger the wildness within ourselves -- the natural, instinctual, unfettered energy and passion for life that is essential to our vitality. Edward O. Wilson introduced and popularized the biophilia hypothesis, which reconfirms that there is an instinctive bond between the human species and other living systems. Humans evolved in the natural world, and I believe that we hold an affinity with wildlife and nature, that it is ingrained in our genotype. This has been recognized in the psychological profession by ecotherapy and wilderness treatment programs, which understand happiness and psychological well-being of humanity is linked to our relationship with nature.
So there is no wonder that there is an increased popularity in ecological tourism, ecolodges, and ecoresorts. These appeal to people's desire to commune with nature, a chance to get closer to wilderness. Are these new travel destinations redefining our sense of wilderness? Do we expect a buffered and pampered experience with the wild, one with organic hemp towels, recycled wood furniture, and organically grown gourmet cuisine? It is not easy to go to the Wild, like author Cheryl Strayed. And a visit to Yosemite, Mt. Whitney, the Appalachian Mountains, or even Mt. Everest is rarely if ever done in isolation anymore. Not only can one expect to find other nature-loving likeminded travelers, but crowds of intrepid explorers. Even in the remotest wilderness, humans are impacting wildlife. We are threatening to kill the thing we love, our Eden.
Wherever I travel I seek out nature. In Los Angeles, New York, or Houston, for example, I routinely take time to find refuge in city parks. Within these parks are a variety of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks foraging for food, and an abundance of native plants to discover. I, also, enjoy traveling to experience flora and fauna in other countries. I may regularly enjoy deer foraging in my nearby woods, but I will never encounter an elephant in the wild unless I travel to Africa, a capybara in Brazil, or a kangaroo unless I travel to Australia. This brings me back to peoples' fear of the wild.
During my travels to Australia, while chatting with a local, I commented on how many deadly dangerous creatures resided in Australia, including the great white shark, the yellow-bellied sea snake (that my son nearly stepped on), the Sydney funnel-web spider, and the Australian paralysis tick. She responded saying that Australian species were nothing to fear compared to what we have in North America. She believed the coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, and black widow spider all more ominous than anything she had in her backyard.
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," quoted H.P. Lovecraft.
All that is required is to get to know your "wild life." Become familiar with your environment, including all that is alive and vital in the region. Once we know, understand, and respect our natural environment, there is no reason for fear. I assume from the perspective of most animal species, humans are the most deadly, dangerous creatures. Our lives and all wildlife are interdependent on coexisting together.
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