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Rewilding Our Hearts: Maintaining Hope and Faith in Trying Times

Some practical ideas for a new personal social movement

A recovered Jasper playing with his red ball (Courtesy of Animals Asia)

We're running out of world and wildness

Humans are a force in nature. "Tell me something I don't know", I hear you lament. We're all over the place, big-brained, big-footed, arrogant, invasive, menacing, and marauding mammals. No need to look for mythical Bigfoot: we're here! We leave huge footprints all over the place and have been rather unsuccessful at solving urgent problems. Robert Berry fears we're simply "running out of world" (2003. God's book of works. Continuum, London). Perhaps we've already "run out of world" including wildness. Some go as far to argue we've created a world that's so technologically and socially complex we can't control it.

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I'm always looking for ways to remain positive and hopeful in challenging times. And I know how difficult it can be when it seems that so many things are going wrong. Mass media constantly begins with horror stories about death and destruction and then at the end of a TV show, for example, we hear about the good people who are working to make the world a better place for all beings. They sometimes get a minute or two after almost 30 minutes of negativity. I've often suggested that TV and radio news shows should begin with a two positive stories, talk about other news, and then end with at least two positive messages.

There's Always Jasper

We can learn a lot about being positive from other animals and there's always Jasper, a recovered Asiatic moon bear, to think about for hope and inspiration. After years of horrific suffering Jasper has become the spokes-bear for forgiveness, peace, trust, and hope

I can't thank Jasper enough for sharing his journey and his dreams. Jasper, like the dogs, cats, and many other nonhuman animals ("animals") who also need us, make us more humane and thus more human. The true spirit of humans, our inborn nature, is to help rather than to harm.

Rewilding as a personal journey: Reconnecting with (M)other Nature

For a book I'm writing called Rewilding Our Hearts I've been thinking of ways to keep that loving feeling in times when many people are suffering and can't seem to see the light. Because of what I do for a living I look to the animals for guidance. And I found just what I was looking for when I began to read about what are called rewilding projects.

The word "rewilding" became an essential part of talk among conservationists in the late 1990s when two well-known conservation biologists, Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, wrote a now classic paper called "Rewilding and biodiversity: Complimentary goals for continental conservation" that appeared in the magazine Wild Earth (Fall 1998, 18-28. 15).

In her book Rewilding the World conservationist Caroline Fraser noted that rewilding basically could be boiled down to three words: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. Dave Foreman, director of the Rewilding Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a true visionary, sees rewilding as a conservation strategy based on three premises: "(1) healthy ecosystems need large carnivores, (2) large carnivores need bug, wild roadless areas, and (3) most roadless areas are small and thus need to be linked." Conservation biologists and others who write about rewilding or work on rewilding projects see it as a large-scale process involving projects of different sizes that go beyond carnivores, such as the ambitious, courageous, and forward-looking Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, well known as the Y2Y project. Of course, rewilding goes beyond carnivores, as it must.

The core words associated with large-scale rewilding projects are connection and connectivity, the establishment of links among geographical areas so that animals can roam as freely as possible with few if any disruptions to their movements. For this to happen ecosystems must be connected so that their integrity and wholeness are maintained or reestablished.

Regardless of scale, ranging from huge areas encompassing a wide variety of habitats that need to be reconnected or that need to be protected to personal interactions with animals and habitats, the need to rewild and reconnect and to build or maintain links centers on the fact that there has been extensive isolation and fragmentation "out there" in nature, between ourselves and (M)other nature, and within ourselves. Many, perhaps most, human animals, are isolated and fragmented internally concerning their relationships with nonhuman animals, so much that we're alienated from them. We don't connect with other animals, including other humans, because we can't or don't empathize with them. The same goes for our lack of connection with various landscapes. We don't understand they're alive, vibrant, dynamic, magical, and magnificent. Alienation often results in different forms of domination and destruction, but domination is not what it means "to be human." Power does not mean license to do whatever we want to do because we can.

Rewilding projects often involve building wildlife bridges and underpasses so that animals can freely move about. These corridors, as they're called, can also be more personalized. I see rewilding our heart as a dynamic process that will not only foster the development of corridors of coexistence and compassion for wild animals but also facilitate the formation of corridors in our bodies that connect our heart and brain. In turn, these connections, or reconnections, will result in feelings that will facilitate heartfelt actions to make the lives of animals better. These are the sorts of processes that will help the new field of compassionate conservation further develop. When I think about what can be done to help others a warm feeling engulfs me and I'm sure it's part of that feeling of being rewilded. To want to help others in need is natural so that glow is to be expected.

Reasons for hope and inspiration: There's no going back to the way things were

Erle Ellis, who works in the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, notes that while it's true that we've transformed Earth beyond recovery, rather than looking back in despair we should look ahead to what we can achieve. He writes, "There will be no returning to our comfortable cradle. The global patterns of the Holocene have receded and their return is no longer possible, sustainable, or even desirable. It is no longer Mother Nature who will care for us, but us who must care for her. This raises an important but often neglected question: can we create a good Anthropocene? In the future will we be able to look back with pride? ... Clearly it is possible to look at all we have created and see only what we have destroyed. But that, in my view, would be our mistake. We most certainly can create a better Anthropocene. We have really only just begun, and our knowledge and power have never been greater. We will need to work together with each other and the planet in novel ways. The first step will be in our own minds. The Holocene is gone. In the Anthropocene we are the creators, engineers and permanent global stewards of a sustainable human nature."

In addition to being proactive we need to be positive and exit the stifling vortex of negativity once and for all. Negativity is a time and energy bandit and depletes us of the energy we need to move on. We don't get anywhere dwelling in anguish, sorry, and despair. In a taxi cab in Vancouver, British Columbia, on my way to a meeting about animals in art I saw a sign in front of a church that really resonated with me: "Make the most of the best and the least of the worst." Amen.

Compassion begets compassion and there's actually a synergistic relationship, not a trade-off, when we show compassion for animals and their homes. There are indeed many reasons for hope. There's also compelling evidence that we're born to be good and that we're natural-born optimists. Therein lie many reasons for hope that in the future we will harness our basic goodness and optimism and all work together as a united community. We can look to the animals for inspiration. So, let's tap into our empathic, compassionate and moral inclinations to make the world a better place for all beings. We need to build a culture of empathy

People who care about animals and nature should not be considered "the radicals" or "bad guys" who are trying to impede "human progress;" in fact, they could be seen as heroes who are not only fighting for animals, but also for humanity. Biodiversity is what enables human life as well as enriches it. It is imperative that all of humanity reconnects with what sustains the ability of our species to persist and that we act as a unified collective while coexisting with other species and retaining the integrity of ecosystems. There are no quick fixes and we need to realize that when animals die, we die too.

We need to retain hope and try as hard as we can to realize our dreams for a better future for all animals and our planet as a whole. If we present a negative picture to youngsters and those working to make the planet a better place for all beings then we can hardly expect them to do much at all. As we learn more about what we can and cannot do I truly believe that we will be able to succeed in many of our attempts to right the numerous wrongs and bring more compassion, peace, and harmony to our world. As Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman in the movie Invictus) told the South African soccer team, "We must exceed our own expectations".
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When I need an "upper" I find myself revisiting another essay I wrote on remaining hopeful and keeping our dreams alive. Some guidelines included:

-- Be proactive. We need to look at what's happening and prevent further abuse and not always be "putting out the fires" that have started.

-- Be nice and kind to those with whom you disagree and move on. Sometimes it's just better to let something go, so pick your "battles" carefully and don't waste time and energy. Don't waste time 'fighting' people who won't change and don't let them deflect attention from the important work that needs to be done. Don't get in 'pissing matches' with people who want you to waste precious time and energy fighting them, time and energy that must go into working for animals and earth and peace and justice.

-- If we let those who do horrible things get us down or deflect us from the work we must do, they "win" and animals, earth, and we lose. While this may be obvious I thought it worth saying again because it's a common ploy to get people to get into tangential discussions and arguments that take them away from the important work that must be done.

-- Teach the children well, for they are the ambassadors for a more harmonious, peaceful, compassionate, and gentle world

We can all make more humane and compassionate choices to expand our compassion footprint, and we can all do better. We must all try as hard as we can to keep thinking positively and proactively. Never say never, ever. Perhaps a good resolution as we welcome in a new year is that we will all try to do better for animals - both non-human and human - and earth and work for more peace and justice for all. We can and must keep our hopes and dreams alive (see also).

When all is said and done, and more is usually said than done, we need a heartfelt revolution in how we think, what we do with what we know, and how we act. Rewilding can be a very good guide. The revolution has to come from deep within us and begin at home, in our hearts and wherever we live. I want to make the process of rewilding a more personal journey and exploration that centers on bringing other animals and their homes, ecosystems of many different types, back into our heart. For some they're already there or nearly so, whereas for others it will take some work to have this happen. Nonetheless, it's inarguable that if we're going to make the world a better place now and for future generations personal rewilding is central to the process and will entail a major paradigm shift in how we view and live in the world, and how we behave. It's not that hard to expand our compassion footprint and if each of us does something the movement will grow rapidly.

The time is right, the time is now, for an inspirational, revolutionary, and personal social movement that can save us from doom and keep us positive while we pursue our hopes and dreams.

Rewild now. Perhaps make it one of your new year's resolutions. Take the leap. Leap and the net will appear. It'll feel good because compassion and empathy are very contagious. 

Images of Jasper courtesy of Animals Asia

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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