In the early 2000s, I spent much of my time following, interviewing, and writing about some of the most dedicated environmentalists and conservation scientists in southern Africa. These were animal people, the sort who could spot the nearly invisible tail of a lion through waving blond grasses, or who could differentiate individual elephants by the notches in their ears.
They respected nature, and animals. But only a few believed that other animals felt human-like emotions. Anthropomorphizing wild animals was a mistake, they would tell me again and again. No matter what we think we see in the elephant’s gaze – or the dog’s, for that matter – it is foolhardy to assume that other creatures feel anything akin to our own sentiments.
For years, this was the widely accepted dogma of the scientific community and beyond. But as Richard Louv argues in his fascinating book, “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Transform Our Lives – And Save Theirs,” it might well have been misguided.
Over the past decade, a spate of new research suggests that most animals, whether dogs or bats or octopuses, have complicated emotional, sensory, and social lives. Whether because of new behavioral observations or state-of-the-art DNA analyses or brain scans, a growing number of scientists are willing to argue that we have more in common with these other creatures than we are distant from them.
This is no small idea. Indeed, once one sheds the concept of human exceptionalism, along with the long legacy of French philosopher René Descartes’ theory of the “bête machine,” a new sort of worldview starts to open. What happens when a person starts to imagine her life within a network of emotional species; a world not centered around human goals or careers, but part of a tapestry of beings all going about their interconnected lives? What happens when one starts to think about the commute to work in terms of the impact it might have on the songbirds who might nest by the traffic light? Or when one stops not only to watch, as Louv did, the intricacies of the ground squirrels digging around one’s home, but to imagine that maybe these little rodents feel happy, or sad, or something in between?
One result, Louv argues, is a reduction in what he sees as an epidemic of “species loneliness.” People, he writes, have become increasingly isolated not just from each other, thanks to everything from long working hours to technology, but from the rest of the animal world. Our lives are spent increasingly on concrete and with ear buds; our habitat destruction and farming methods have lowered species diversity around us; our technology has us looking at screens instead of at the world. And according to many studies, we are suffering from it.
Louv points to the increase in pet ownership and the desire for backyard animals such as chickens as attempts to compensate for this species disconnect. He explores the various mystical connections that people (and sometimes full societies) have claimed to have had with certain animals. And he looks at ways people “cross over” into animal worlds, and the results from doing so.
Taken together, Louv’s argument is somewhat familiar. His bestselling 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” popularized the notion of a “nature deficit disorder” and argued that our health and happiness depended on a return to the natural word. Again, in “Our Wild Calling,” he argues for a shift in the way we not only approach nature, but how we position ourselves within it.
“Our moral challenges will intensify as we recognize that our connection to other animals is unattainable through technology alone and is deeper even than biology,” he writes. “Our coexistence with animals is essential to the survival of all species. Consequently, protecting our extended family is ultimately an issue of rights – the rights of human beings to a nature connection and the rights of nature itself.”
“Our Wild Calling” is part theology and philosophy, and part science and culture journalism. Louv’s writing most shines when he is focused on the latter; his reporting from reptile shows and scientific labs give as much insight as any philosophical musings. But the larger picture also comes through as essential. “Our Wild Calling” makes one see the world differently; as a place more interconnected, personal, and full.