Take a Walk on the Rewild Side

Animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., wants to save the world.

Posted Nov 05, 2014

Who doesn't want to restore and protect our wilderness and wildlife? Great idea. Yet getting there, um, hasn't been so smooth. How to fix the problem? Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes that we need to apply rewilding into our day-to-day lives. In his most recent book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, Bekoff sets out to help us reunite with nature and save the planet along the way—and we can do this even if we live in the big bad city. If humanity does not make this internal shift, our world and the sentient beings in it will be lost.

What led you to your passion for nature?

I always attribute my compassion for nonhuman animals to my mother's warm and compassionate soul, my positive thinking, as well as keeping my dreams alive to my incredibly optimistic father. In retrospect, I know I was very lucky to be born into a home where playfulness and laughter were highly valued, as was hard work. I didn't live with any animals except a gold fish. I used to talk to him as I ate breakfast. It felt very natural to do this. I told my folks that it wasn’t nice to keep him cooped up alone. My parents told me that when I was around 3-years-old I started asking them what animals—especially the dogs, squirrels, birds, and ants with whom I had contact outside of our apartment in Brooklyn—were thinking and feeling. They said I was constantly minding animals; not only was I attributing minds to them, but I also was very concerned with how they were treated and always said we also needed to mind and care for them because they couldn’t do it for themselves. My concern for individual animals has continued on for decades as I work in the rapidly developing field called compassionate conservation.

What were you like as a child?

I loved being outside and although I lived in Brooklyn until I was almost 6-years-old, I always asked if I could go outside and play. I found that I was being unwilded by having to go to school and sit inside all day; I fought the unwilding and rewilded myself by spending as much time as I could outside. I liked to take walks and I talked to animals and really felt they heard and understood me. I seemed to have a way with them; animals who, I'm told, didn't warm up to others, really warmed up to me. One fond memory is that I felt more comfortable with the animals than with most people. I could never get too much time outside and this has stuck with me throughout my life.

What do people get wrong about rewilding?

In terms of rewilding and making the world a better place for other humans and other animals, the things people get wrong include: (1) they have to do “big” things like found an organization or make large monetary donations for a positive difference—but small and local acts of compassion and kindness are very effective; (2) they'll get more done if they focus only on themselves and their own wants and needs; and (3) we can continue making more of us big-brained, big-footed, and over-consuming mammals and that all will be fine—but over-population and over-consumption are killing us, other animals, and their homes.

Do people not care about the planet?

I feel that most people do care about the planet, but because their daily lives are so out of control and over-filled with having to do this and that they lose their innate connections with nature. This persistent alienation makes them forget how good it feels to interact with animals and other environs. Many people also "give up" and don't realize that our one and only planet is tired and surely not as resilient as some people claim it to be. I'm a total dreamer and optimist, but there simply is no way that the methods by which we choose to live today can be sustainable even in the short-run. Giving up means our children and theirs will live in a world in which I'd rather not live, so I wonder why so many people are so self-centered and selfish and act as if they don’t care what their kids' lives will be like in the future. We need to rewild education and to allow kids to be kids, to get down and dirty, and to enjoy the outdoors and engage in spontaneous wild play. They seem to give up when they’re not allowed to be the kids they are, and deserve and need to be.

While many people do the cursory things, like I recycle, is there a tendency for us to ignore the rest?

I don't think so. My take is that most people do what they're able to comfortably do, but that's not enough. For those who are able to do something—and the vast majority of humans are not able to do much for others or the planet because they're anxious about where their next meal is coming from—they must do something and they need to it now. And, they must do more and step out of their comfort zones because as time goes on there will be an increasing need to deal with problems that arise because there are too many of us on our planet and individuals in some cultures, like the U.S., are far too self-centered and selfishly consumptive.

What is the most surprising thing you discovered throughout your research?

There have been many surprises, but the one that sticks out as I travel around the world is that most people really are kind, compassionate, and empathic, and care about others. I have also discovered that I can learn a lot from just about anyone. Media ought to play on the theme of global compassion, rather than the horrific things people do to other people, other animals, and Earth. We need to rewild the media so that animals are represented as who they really are, not as what we want them to be.

What is the most profound thing you’ve learned about yourself through this journey?

Rewilding is a personal and transformative process in which we learn to act from the inside out—we, the see-er, become the seen—and being kind and compassionate to other humans is as important as being kind and compassionate to other animals. While I feel that our connection to other animals and to landscapes is innate, it also takes a good deal of energy to retain and to strengthen these connections. I've learned that my optimism and boundless energy really help me get through "the day." I deal a lot with egregious animal abuse and the wanton destruction of magnificent landscapes, and I have to look inside of myself for help and guidance.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the task you have set for yourself?

I work hard, rest hard, and play hard, and to avoid burnout I walk away from my cortex. I do this by watching movies and reading books that don’t require a lot of deep thinking, and by being addicted to watching tennis matches and bicycle races over and over again. A shot of good single malt scotch stirred with Twizzlers also works to reduce the stress from working on animal and environmental abuse. I don't at all mean this lightly. Far too many people who work for our planet and, or, other humans and animals suffer from what's called secondary trauma that causes them to stop what they're doing because it gets to be too much. They often suffer from PTSD. They need to take care of themselves as they care for others, so that they can rekindle and keep on going. I also do this by taking long bicycle rides, often alone. Among my mother’s last words to me were, “Be sure to play a lot,” and my father always stressed that it’s important to be able to look in the mirror and laugh at yourself.

If you had one piece of advice for us, what would it be?

What we're doing now will result in a disastrous situation for future generations. Ecocide really is suicide that crosses time and space. I see rewilding as a process that will result in much closer and deeper reciprocal connections with other humans and other animals and their homes, and that if enough people rewild themselves, rewilding will become a heartfelt and heartful meme, a behavior that will spread from person to person and to future generations as a form of cultural evolution. There are the P's of rewilding—being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, passionate, playful and being present.

We really 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 heart 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 hearts. 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.

Is there one important piece of advice you can give policy-makers?

I would strongly suggest that they look at what we know about the cognitive and emotional worlds of other animals and the wanton and willful decimation and loss of magnificent and irreplaceable habitats, and that we use what we know to make positive changes. We also need to be more sensitive to other cultures and get out of the narrow “western-centric” mode of thinking and acting. We’ll never have the world we previously had, but the longer we wait the less likely the future will be a good one for those who follow in our wake. Why have kids if they’re headed into an impoverished world?

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) will be published in 2015.

For more, see marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff.

See also this youtube interview.

Teaser Image: Hamil Ma