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Neighborly Animals Offer Valuable Lessons About Coexistence

As animals come to town in the Anthropause, changes occur for them and for us.

Last week I read an essay by New Scientist staff writer Graham Lawton with the catchy title, "Life in the anthropause." The online version is titled "Lockdown is a unique chance to see how human activity affects wildlife" and isn't yet available for free. The online teaser reads, "Rewilding efforts have been emboldened by the sudden cessation of everyday life during the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists are seizing the opportunity to learn how best to support our wildlife."

The word "anthropause" was coined in an essay by Dr. Christian Rutz and his colleagues called "COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife".1 This seminal piece is available for free online and is well worth reading.

The words "anthropause" and "rewilding" caught my attention. I immediately thought about the roles that compassionate conservation, conservation psychology, and personal rewilding might play in fostering positive interactions between these nonhuman animals (animals) and humans as an increasing number of individuals of different species expand their ranges into what were previously pretty much human environs and for those animals who were already living in and around various cities and towns.2 It's also interesting to learn about how the animals themselves, such as street-smart red foxes, adapt to the presence of humans.

Marc Bekoff
A fox at the door of my mountain home
Source: Marc Bekoff

Mr. Lawton writes, "I like the term anthropause. It captures the current hiatus in human domination of the planet, but also reminds us that the worst aspects of the Anthropocene could simply come roaring back...The pandemic presents a unique opportunity to put it on a more secure scientific footing." His piece is also a reminder that while some people refer to the Anthropocene as "The Age of Humanity", in practice it has turned out to be "The Rage of Inhumanity." We, humans, are all over the place and there aren't many, if any, places in which our destructive footprints aren't playing significant roles in affecting the lives of countless other animals representing a dizzying array of species.

Of course, as various nonhumans move into cities and towns and reclaim what was once theirs, there are positive and negative consequences. In their essay, "COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife", Dr. Ruiz and his colleagues write a lot about what they call the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative. They note, "Reduced human mobility during the pandemic will reveal critical aspects of our impact on animals, providing important guidance on how best to share space on this crowded planet". Also, "what is clear is that humans and wildlife have become more interdependent than ever before, and that now is the time to study this complex relationship. A quantitative scientific investigation is urgently needed."3

Mr. Lawton cashes out the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative by writing, "...scientists plan to analyse animal movement and distribution before, during and after the anthropause to determine exactly how human activity affects them, and then, once life can return to normal, to apply those lessons to the global rewilding movement".

Compassionate conservation, conservation psychology, and personal rewilding in the Anthropause: Lessons from our encounters with urban animals

"Rewilding is largely a matter of humans getting out of the way and letting nature take charge". —Graham Lawton

"...we need education that helps people see themselves as members of larger ecosystems and communities, indeed as part of a ‘common world’—one where all animals (human and other) have intrinsic value and worth." —Gail Kuhl

Some of the ideas that came to me as I read these essays centered on the roles that compassionate conservation, conservation psychology, and personal rewilding could play in understanding what is happening during lockdowns and how we can use this information to ease our global impacts, foster peaceful coexistence, and make life better for all animals, nonhuman and human alike.

The four guiding principles of compassionate conservation are: first do no harm, individuals matter, value all wildlife, and peaceful coexistence. Compassionate conservation is based on the ethical position that actions taken to protect biodiversity should be guided by compassion for all sentient beings. Researchers in various disciplines are working closely and have made substantial contributions to this rapidly growing international transdisciplinary field in which there are numerous success stories.4

Compassionate conservation can play a leading role in fostering peaceful coexistence between urban animals and humans. It isn't only about our interactions with wild animals, and more and more people are learning that many of the nonhumans who wind up in their backyards or on the streets of their cities and towns aren't harmful as long as they're given the space they need. These sorts of connections can be extremely important for humans' well-being. As Diane Ackerman writes in The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us, "Nature is still our mother... We still need and cling to her…" (page 308)

Conservation psychologists also can play an important role in vastly improving the nature of nonhuman-human encounters.5 Conservation psychology "is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world." It, like compassionate conservation, fosters peaceful coexistence between nonhumans and humans, and recognizes how important simply seeing other animals and being out in nature can be very good for our own well-being. Connecting with animals can transform our lives―and save theirs.

Rewilding our hearts. Compassionate conservation and conservation psychology ask people to "unleash and rewild their hearts" and to connect with all of nature. In wildlife conservation, rewilding refers to restoring habitats and creating corridors between preserved lands to allow declining populations to rebound. In my book, Rewilding Our Hearts, readers were asked to become re-enchanted with the world, to act from the inside out—from their hearts—and to allow their hearts to guide them, and to dissolve false boundaries so they could truly connect with both nature and themselves. I argued that by personally rewilding—by undoing the unwilding that can easily happen in the hustle-bustle of daily life and by reconnecting and becoming re-enchanted with nature including other animals—we can overcome negativity and see the world in more positive ways.

With respect to other animals, rewilding is a bridge between "them" and us. A rewilding manifesto would clearly state that we must, with deeply passionate and motivated intention, reconnect with nonhumans, other humans, and their homes with as much positive energy as possible

Where to from here? The importance of neighborly urban animals

We need to replace our routine habits of domination and exploitation with compassion if we are to make the world a better place for nonhuman and human animals alike in an increasingly human-dominated world. Countless nonhumans and their homes are brutalized each and every day.

We need a heartfelt revolution in how we think, what we do with what we know, and how we act. Personal rewilding is an excellent guide. The revolution has to come from deep within us and begin at home, in our hearts and wherever we live.

The ongoing pandemic has "brought home" the ability to personally rewild as a variety of nonhumans expand their horizons. In many ways, it's easier to do right now than it was in the past, as different animals become our neighbors. Richard Louv, who coined the now-iconic phrase “nature-deficit disorder," notes: "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. And yet, intimacy—or the potential for intimacy—is all around us."

Of course, no one is asking people to remain in permanent lockdown, but there are scientific and practical reasons for paying close attention to what can be discovered by the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative. For example, Martin Wikelski, one of the initiative's leaders, notes, "...we may discover that relatively minor changes to our lifestyles and transport networks can potentially have significant benefits for both ecosystems and humans...and the human benefits include clearer knowledge of potentially dangerous human-wildlife interactions that increase the risk of viruses jumping species, according to the scientists."

Replacing our habits of domination and exploitation with compassion would go a long way toward making the world a better place for nonhuman and human animals alike in an increasingly human-dominated world. Let's make rewilding all the rage. Let's make it a meme. Now really is a good time to rewild our hearts and souls and to share the joy globally, not later when it's "more convenient," for that time rarely comes.

When animals come to town and reclaim and rewild their former homes and other human environs, it's a golden opportunity to learn more about them and the different ways in which we can all coexist. We can also learn valuable lessons about how easy it would be to put an end to our devastating, never-ending, and ubiquitous impacts on animals' lives all over the world. I've had people write to me and tell me they love seeing new animals and they don't really mind changing their behavior to welcome them to their neighborhoods.

I hope I'm correct in thinking that the animals who move into urban areas will serve as gateway species for expanding our compassion footprint to include other animals. It might not take all that much for us to do this, and bridging the empathy gap would be a win-win for all now and in the future.



1) Christian Rutz and his colleagues write, "We noticed that people started referring to the lockdown period as the ‘Great Pause’, but felt that a more precise term would be helpful. We propose ‘anthropause’ to refer specifically to a considerable global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel. We are aware that the correct prefix is ‘anthropo-’ (for ‘human’) but opted for the shortened form, which is easier to remember and use, and where the missing ‘po’ is still echoed in the pronunciation of ‘pause’ (pɔːz)."

2) Numerous examples of different species changing their living spaces can be found in "Lockdown is a unique chance to see how human activity affects wildlife", COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife, and here.

3) A preliminary illustration of recent changes in human mobility can be seen in their Figure 1. They also note, "Immediate action is required from a range of stakeholder groups to ensure that we maximize the scientific insight that arises from this devastating pandemic", offer practical recommendations, and stress how important it is to learn about what is happening to populations of nonhumans with decreased human mobility."

4) Discussions about compassionate conservation can be seen here.

5) Discussions about conservation psychology can be seen here.

Bekoff, Marc. Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. New World Library, 2014.

_____. Are Humans Driving Wily Urban Red Foxes to Self-Domesticate? (Street smart vulpines show fascinating adaptions for living in human environs.)

_____. Rewilding: A Cultural Meme for Rehabilitating Our Hearts. ("Rewilding Our Hearts" calls for personal and spiritual transformations.)

_____. Compassionate Conservation, Sentience, and Personhood. (Conservation efforts should be guided by compassion rather than by killing.)

_____. Compassionate Conservation Isn't Seriously or Fatally Flawed.

_____. Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age.

_____. "Our Wild Calling" by Richard Louv Is a Game Changer.

_____. Conservation Psychology, Coexistence, Wolves, and Youngsters.

_____. Compassionate Conservation Meets Conservation Psychology.

_____. Conservation Psychology and Animal and Human Well-being: Scientists Must Pay Attention to the Social Sciences.

_____. "Everyone Wants a Lost Dog Found," Bridging the Empathy Gap.

MacDonald, Helen. Animals Are Rewilding Our Cities. On YouTube, at Least. New York Times, April 15, 2020.

The urban wild: animals take to the streets amid lockdown – in pictures. The Guardian, April 22, 2020.

Rutz, C., Loretto, M., Bates, A.E. et al. COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nat Ecol Evol., 2020.

Uchida, K., Suzuki, K. K., Shimamoto, T., Yanagawa, H., and Koizumi, I. Decreased vigilance or habituation to humans? Mechanisms on increased boldness in urban animals. Behavioural Ecology 30, 1583-1590, 2019.

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