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Our Wild Calling
How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives—and Save Theirs
By Richard Louv
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—The New York Times Book Review
“A wondrous tapestry.”
—Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Audubon Medal winner Richard Louv’s landmark book Last Child in the Woods inspired an international movement to connect children and nature. Now he redefines the future of human-animal coexistence. In Our Wild Calling, Louv interviews researchers, theologians, wildlife experts, indigenous healers, psychologists, and others to show how people are connecting with animals in ancient and new ways, and how this serves as an antidote to the growing epidemic of human loneliness; how dogs can teach children ethical behavior; how animal-assisted therapy may yet transform the mental health field; and what role the human-animal relationship plays in our spiritual health. He reports on wildlife relocation and on how the growing populations of wild species in urban areas are blurring the lines between domestic and wild animals. Our Wild Calling makes the case for protecting, promoting, and creating a sustainable and shared habitat for all creatures—not out of fear, but out of love.
Includes a new interview with the author, discussion questions, and a resource guide.
A few years ago, at an isolated camp on Alaska's Kodiak Island, I walked up a path through the woods at the edge of a still lake. I was heading to the main lodge to meet my son, who worked there during his college summers. The light was fading. Usually when I walked this path, I was watchful. On this island, massive brown bears often followed the shoreline, sometimes wandering into the camp. But on this evening, my eyes were down as I thumbed through the contents of my wallet.
When I glanced up, I was startled by two piercing eyes. They shone like stars.
A black fox stood three feet in front of me. The foxes on Kodiak are among the largest in the world. This one was the size of a coyote. Its gaze was disconcerting, and it wasn't budging. We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds. In those eyes I felt a distant kinship or perhaps only the suns of a parallel universe. The fox held perfectly still. Was it was anticipating food? Not likely. The lodge's policy was not to feed wild animals. Or was it rabid?
I stepped forward. The fox moved aside and continued to watch. I lifted my hand and said, "I'm going to the lodge. Would you like to come with me?"
Earlier that year, I had noticed how aquatic iguanas and sea lions basked within inches of each other on the volcanic ledges of the Galápagos Islands. When I asked a naturalist how each species perceived the other, he said, "To the iguana, the sea lion is just another part of the landscape. That's all." To the fox, then, was I just another part of the landscape?
The British writer, painter, and art critic John Berger, in his famous 1977 essay, "Why Look at Animals?," describes how a wild creature's gaze unnerves us by forcing us to see ourselves across an abyss through an unfamiliar lens. The fox followed me toward the building. Several yards from the door, it veered off and dissolved into high grass.
Today I recall few significant details about most of the people I met that summer in that Alaskan camp. But the black fox's eyes are still watching.
I often wonder about the quality and mystery of that encounter. Like many people, I had experienced similar moments, particularly as a boy, but had never really paused to think about their deeper nature.
During the following years, I have asked friends, colleagues, and strangers of different ages and cultures and professions—including scientists, psychologists, theologians, trackers, teachers, physicians, traditional healers, and one polar explorer—to describe their brief encounters and longer-term relationships with other animals, wild or domestic. Everyone had a story to tell: the glance of a kestrel on a fence or a pigeon on a sidewalk never forgotten; a cat who curled on a chest, warmed the heart, and somehow provided deliverance from depression; a dog who parented a child; a sounding porpoise; a whale's eye; a stalking bear; a cougar at once there and not there. Even a protozoan, trembling beneath the lens, revealed openings to other worlds and to what I've come to call the habitat of the heart. The storytellers were often surprised by the meaning they discovered in their own tales. But that act of telling was part of the process of knowing, one that our ancestors would recognize.
There are at least two good reasons for further exploration of our personal relationships with other animals. One is human health and well-being. Since 2005, the number of studies indicating the psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits of nature experience has grown from a relative handful to nearly a thousand. Most of these studies have focused on the general impact of green nature in our lives—for example, how the proximity of trees can help reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder in children. Today, researchers—including those within the traditional disciplines of biology and ecology and also those working in the relatively new and exciting fields of anthrozoology, ecopsychology, and animal-assisted therapy—are exploring the evolving relationship between humans and other animals. These studies reveal what Indigenous people have known all along. Though an encounter with any animal, wild or domestic, can sometimes be dangerous, our relationships with other-than-human beings can also have a profoundly positive impact on our health, our spirit, and our sense of inclusiveness in the world.
A second reason centers on the current condition of the natural world. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert describes the five mass extinctions during the past billion years and interviews the scientists monitoring the sixth extinction, which some predict will be the largest since the time of dinosaurs. Between 1970 and 2014, the global wildlife population shrank by 60 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
To a species so familiar with the corrective features of Photoshop, the threat seems impersonal and unreal. In 2016, a year after Kolbert's book was published, the electronic gaming magazine ZAM reported that the "explorers" of a self-generated universe depicted in the online game No Man's Sky had discovered ten million virtual species in the first twenty-four hours after the game's release. Creating or discovering new species seems easy in the imaginative space of a video game. Taking action in the physical world will require a more demanding leap of imagination, a journey into the habitat of the heart. By that, I mean that reversing or slowing biodiversity collapse and climate change cannot be accomplished solely through science, technology, or politics. We have much of the information we need already. Success will require a far larger constituency than what exists today, one with greater emotional and spiritual connection to the family of animals, recognizing in all nature the "inescapable network of mutuality" that Martin Luther King Jr. called for among human beings.
I'd like to think that the fox knew what it was doing that day. Its gaze snapped me awake to what I was already dreaming. It suggested a path.
Or perhaps I was just in its way, and it was telling me to pay attention.
Oceanographer Paul Dayton telling his grandchildren the octopus's story
Life-Changing Encounters with Species Not Our Own
And only then, when I have learned enough,
I will go to watch the animals, and let
something of their composure slowly glide
into my limbs; will see my own existence
deep in their eyes. …
—Rainer Maria Rilke, "Requiem for a Friend"
In the Family of Animals
Right now, my wife, Kathy, and I are living temporarily in an old stone cottage in the Cuyamaca Mountains sixty miles east of San Diego. The house's twenty-nine-inch-thick walls were quarried from the site; at the end of the nineteenth century, the structure was an apple storage barn, and in the 1940s it was converted into a house.
The cottage once belonged to the late Scott O'Dell and his wife, Dorsa. O'Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins here. Based on a real event, the novel tells the story of an Indigenous girl who lived for years stranded and alone with her dog on an island off the California coast. The book became one of the classics in young adult literature. After they divorced and Scott moved away, Dorsa continued to live in the cottage with her dogs. Up until her death at age ninety-six, she was known in nearby Julian, population fifteen hundred, for her feisty political views and her support for local artists, whose work and art, much of it devoted to the animal life in these mountains, decorates this book-filled home known as Stoneapple Farm. Kathy likens it to Snow White's cottage.
Now, in the early morning hours and toward dusk, a flock of wild turkeys pokes and scratches and moves like an extra shadow through the live oaks and pear trees. Four mule deer arrive. They dip their heads to grass that has survived a long drought. One of the deer, a doe, limps. Two red-tailed hawks circle. One of them is particularly vocal, repeating plaintive cries to its mother, who is training it. An acorn woodpecker with his bright red helmet knocks on the woody parts of the cottage. I answer the woodpecker's knock by pounding my fist on the inner wall. The woodpecker squawks what sounds like a four-letter word, then goes silent. When our sons visit, Jason, the older one, calls this a "neighborhood of animals."
I have bonded with the barn cat on the property, who each morning brings us exactly one gopher head and, placed carefully two inches from the head, the gopher's innards. Yesterday at dusk, I stepped in the latest gifted gut sack. In bare feet. This is not the kind of animal connection I currently have in mind.
At sunset, I walk alone a few miles along the narrow roads through the mountains and long stretches of brown grass. The fields and hills of oak darken. I watch the red strip over the distant Pacific fade. Bats flick through branches. On the darkening road, I meet a mother and her daughter dragging a deer's leg. It's a long story, the mother says.
Back at Stoneapple, I sit outside with the cat on my lap and stare up at the handwriting of the Milky Way. The cat looks up, too, then to the side and down. Later Kathy and I can hear thumping and skittering in the walls and attic. Squirrels, wood rats, mice, or raccoons from the neighborhood of animals.
In the morning, the property's handyman arrives to plug entry holes and set live traps. As he packs up his tools, he asks me what I am working on. I tell him about this book. The handyman pushes his ball cap back on his head and says, "Yeah, I sometimes kind of think about animals as omens. I was driving up Pine Hills Road and this golden eagle swoops down right in front of my car, and I think, 'Yup, that's an omen of good things to come.' Couple weeks later, I get the license to open my video store up there in Julian." The handyman's tale is an offhand remark. He didn't consider it particularly unusual, just something that happens in everyday life. No big deal. But still.
When some people talk about their spiritual relationships with animals, it can be mildly off-putting. What if a person has never had a spiritual experience in nature? Such a story can be "alienating because it might sound so far out, hippie and silly," says Mollie Matteson, a practical wildlife biologist. Or because it is told to cast an air of specialness on the storyteller. Or it suggests that an experience with another animal must be larger than life: a bird in a burning bush, an encounter with a four-legged deity on the road to Yellowstone. Matteson has a point. Then she too admitted to a profound experience of her own, with bats—actually, the bones of a bat. That story, which I share with you later, redirected her career and life.
This afternoon, I'm staring at the ground squirrels from the kitchen window. They dig their burrows under large slabs of granite that have been smoothed by wind and water and the feet of deer and long-ago Kumeyaay and present-day suburbanites from San Diego. Young or old, the squirrels scurry across the rocks, dip into holes, pop up from the leaves, do their work, talk their squirrel talk, and walk their squirrel walk, always vigilant. Their pups bounce, jump, and wrestle, filled with what seems like teasing humor. They remind me of my sons when they were small and how Jason and Matthew, now men, still grapple playfully in the first hours of a visit with their parents.
I realize in this moment that I have never really seen ground squirrels. I had looked but dismissed them as poor excuses for squirrelness. But here they became personal. I Googled them (of course) and learned that California ground squirrels lead a complex life. They try to protect themselves from their nemesis, the rattlesnake, not only with watchfulness and conversation but also by chewing shed snakeskins and licking the scent onto their fur. Then they lick the bodies of their pups, passing along the chemicals that may provide some protection. The wiry, common little ground squirrels enrich my day. I find them to be beautiful.
For years, Jan van Boeckel, a Dutch artist and naturalist, has argued that science and the environmental movement need art and heart, that without a commitment to beauty both are diminished—and so is morality. Recently he wrote to me about the work of Norwegian ecophilosopher Arne Naess. Following Immanuel Kant, Naess makes a distinction between a beautiful act and a moral act. When people fulfill a moral obligation, they often feel compelled to go against their own inclinations, against what they would normally want to do. "A beautiful act, in contrast, is an act where one acts with one's inclinations; one acts in a moral way because that is what one wants to do," wrote Van Boeckel. "We can learn to identify with other humans, with animals and plants and even ecosystems. This takes a process of spiritual and psychological maturation. By thus identifying with the earth, we want to protect it and by doing so we are actually not acting against our deepest inclinations." The desire to act beautifully—rather than merely morally—is something that can be nurtured at a very early age. It is, he continued, "a way to go forward for the environmental movement." And, setting politics aside, for all our relationships.
To fully protect anything, we must know it, love it, act in mindful reciprocity—giving back to animals as they give to us. Engaging with animals and then telling our stories of these encounters can be beautiful acts. Our future with other animals and each other, as individuals and within society, are in fact shaped by the stories we tell. They can offer redemption and hope if the heart is generous. In our everyday lives and in our organizational and civic policies, we can choose empathy over separation or superiority. We can take strange comfort in the knowledge that zebra finches experience REM sleep, that dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors, that our early ancestors may have been domesticated by wolves.
Through critical anthropomorphism, a process explored in more detail in chapter 5, we can become the bear from that wild world. We can be mindful of every experience with animals, even in the most densely populated cities, and by doing so begin to imagine a different future for the children of all species. We can learn from the wisdom of our pets and the languages of birds and be touched by the mystery of the wild animals that pass through our neighborhoods at twilight; we can choose to go forward to nature while combining new technologies, "biophilic design" (which incorporates natural elements into our built environment), and the rest of contemporary science with ways of knowing that are older than humankind. We can create places of healing for our own and other species. We can share all this with the young and with children who might otherwise never hear the profound near-silence of an owl's wings in flight.
Through these beautiful acts and the stories we tell, each of us can experience a deeper connection to our own lives and then give thanks. The poet Mary Oliver writes:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
A few days ago, I heard from my friend Anne Pearse Hocker: "I have wanted to ask you for a while, why don't you and Kathy have pets?"
We did have pets for most of our lives, but two final trips to the vet, for Rex the wonderdog and Binkley the cat, were two too many. Then, when Kathy's mother was dying, that caregiving consumed her for a long while. Now, however, we're thinking about pets again—or companion animals, as some people prefer to call them. Anne wrote back encouragingly:
Even with a travel schedule, a couple of rescue cats would fare just fine. They need "staff" more than constant interaction. I hope your cat or dog (or both) finds you. Adopting a rescue animal saves two souls, usually. I have rearranged my life to accommodate the critters who share it. But I'm kind of a nutcase for animals. They die young, in our terms. But their lives are still rich and meaningful if we let them have the chance.
If you are going to be away a lot, I'd suggest you adopt two animals, so they have each other. I adopted two who had been given up when their owner went into a nursing home. The easiest adoption I've ever done was my thirteen-year-old black Lab rescue from Idaho, Old Bob. Nobody wanted a thirteen-year-old Lab. Bob fits in like he's been with me all his life, and for whatever time he has left, he is having fun, chasing balls and patrolling the perimeter. He was already trained, mellow, grateful, and sweet. His teeth are awful, but everything else seems to be working. He will not spend his final months or years in a shelter wondering what the hell happened.
In kind, loving, conflicted ways, people are reaching out to animals, our fellow travelers. Around the world, good-hearted people are becoming the New Noahs, creating new habitats for wild animals or operating rescue centers for abused dogs and birds with broken wings. As animals save us, we discover new ways to save animals. The Book Buddies program of the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Pennsylvania, for example, invites children to visit the shelter and read to cats waiting for adoption. This helps the children practice reading and offers the cats affection while they wait. Simple. Effective. Literacy and empathy are surely related. As we include more of Earth's creatures in our lives, the definition of family grows richer. I'm thinking of two older women in our former neighborhood who have lost their spouses and are living alone. Each of them rescued a dog from the pound and cannot imagine life without them.
Consider again my friend Anne. She has lived a life of adventure and conflict and loss. She has experienced the world through innumerable prisms, often through the senses of other animals and people who touch her heart. In 1974, she talked her way into the American Indian Movement's church occupation at Wounded Knee in South Dakota (the site of the 1890 massacre of three hundred Lakota by the U.S. Cavalry) and brought her camera. Her photos of the occupation are now housed in the Smithsonian. She later became a news photographer for national TV networks, married a country doctor, moved to the mountains of Virginia, and became a wildlife rescuer. She remembered:
I would be up all night bottle-feeding orphaned infant squirrels, doing my best to be a surrogate mom and worrying about them when they were old enough to release. Taking care of injured wildlife took me from a life of TV journalism, where I always had a bag packed and my passport current, to analyzing the protein composition of various wild mammals' milk and facing a constant chore list of cages to clean. I knew I had crossed the divide when CNN called me to be part of an all-woman crew for a trip, and I hesitated a second, looking at the four baby fox cubs someone had just brought me as the only licensed wildlife rehabilitator in the area, and I told the caller that I was booked and gave them the name of my fiercest competitor to call. Never heard from them again.
Anne continued to care for injured animals, including an old red-tailed hawk with deteriorating vision, possibly a released falconry bird. "Had I followed the regulations to the letter, I would have been forced to have her euthanized," she wrote. "I chose instead to let her live out her days in a covered flight pen in the woods next to the house, surrounded by the sounds of nature with which she was familiar. She learned to know my voice and touch and would eat unencumbered off my fist." From falconers in the area, Anne also learned about the ancient art of hunting with trained birds of prey. She tenderly cared for the old hawk until it died of old age, after which she went through the lengthy training and regulatory process to become a falconer.
She understands the moral objections many people have to hunting, but she does not agree with all of them, particularly when related to falconry. "Hunting with a raptor for its food took me from being an observer of the surrounding habitat to an active participant in the daily life of animals," she said. She explored the woods in the surrounding region with a mission, taking mental inventory of who lived where. Finding fields where her hawk could hunt rabbits or squirrels became a consuming journey, and when some of those fields were bulldozed for a strip mall, the rabbit nests, fox dens, and old oaks with squirrel nests felt like a personal loss. "I had seen how hard these animals had worked to stay alive. And when the dozers and chain saws arrived, it was game over for them."
Not long afterward, widowed and in her sixties, Anne left Virginia and roamed the western states in an Airstream trailer with the companionship of two falcons, two old dogs, two rescue cats, and a very nervous pigeon named Pauline. They are her family now.
The Aching Heart
The cacophony and distraction of modern times make it difficult to experience life fully. Bleating car alarms, grinding leaf blowers, and the nearby freeway interrupt sleep, thinking, emotions, and conversations. Social media does have certain charms and in some cases brings us together. But for many people, electronic connection is metastasizing into electronic overconnection, overwhelming our capacity for patience, interrupting the focus required to build real-time relationships, and herding people into unforgiving political tribes.
This state of constant interruption began long before the internet or power tools were invented. In 1802, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth composed a sonnet titled "The World Is Too Much with Us," in which he blames the Industrial Revolution for substituting our connections with nature with the dissipations of materialism:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. …
In the so-called information age,* humans are even more out of tune. As during the First Industrial Revolution, technology is a primary suspect, but not the only one. A thirteen-year-old girl told me once that she was tired of hearing people say that technology is ruining children, insisting instead, "Children are ruining technology." Only a teenager could say such a thing with such authority. But she had a point: digital tools do not kill souls; people do, with a little help from their gadgets.
Nonetheless, a perfect storm of digital distraction, fear of strangers, poor urban design, competitive overscheduling, and economic insecurity does tend to separate us from one another and the natural world. As a result, alarming new research suggests the growth of what some health officials call an epidemic of loneliness. Epidemic may be an exaggeration (and creativity often depends on solitude), but as former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy writes, "We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s."
A 2006 study by the University of Arizona and Duke University revealed that surveyed Americans had a third fewer close friends and confidants than they did two years earlier, and the number of people who had no friends more than doubled during that time. In a 2010 survey on loneliness, AARP estimated that 42.6 million American adults over age forty-five suffer from chronic loneliness. According to recent census data, more than a quarter of the U.S. population lives alone, over half are unmarried, and marriage rates and number of children per household have declined. Of course, solitude or singlehood does not automatically indicate social isolation, and many adults would argue that being single can be less isolating than living in a dysfunctional nuclear family. But the Economist reports that in Britain "half a million people regularly go up to a week without seeing anybody." In 2017, at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, presented an analysis of 148 U.S. studies showing that greater social connection can reduce the chance of early death by 50 percent. A second review of 3.4 million people in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, found that isolation, loneliness, and living alone were equal to or exceeded other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity for early death.
The findings of other research are particularly disturbing. Psychologist Jean Twenge at San Diego State University found that people who spend more time in front of screens and less time in face-to-face social interactions are more vulnerable to depression and suicide. A 2018 generational study by Cigna, the global health insurance company, surveyed 20,000 U.S. adults and concluded that each generation, oldest to youngest—from the Greatest Generation to boomers to millennials to Generation Z—is more socially isolated, with the Greatest Gen the least lonely and Gen Z the loneliest. It's possible that older people are more likely to minimize their feelings and younger people are more likely to reveal them, but these findings challenge the traditional assumption that social isolation is experienced most acutely by the oldest generation. No generation should feel isolated. But what does it say about the direction of society when the younger adults are, the lonelier they may feel?
At the same moment that social interactions among people are becoming more digital and less personal, there is an isolation of another kind forming: species loneliness—the gnawing fear that we are alone in the universe with a desperate hunger for connection with other life. Believers in a personal God may feel they are not alone, and yet as we move away from nature, they too sense an absence. All of us are meant to live in a larger community, an extended family of other species.
“Louv deftly brings together cutting-edge science, longstanding wisdom and recent discoveries, along with wonder and humor, while never losing sight of the magic that’s possible when humans and nonhumans connect. This is a book that offers hope.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Our Wild Calling is a thoughtful, calm, reasoned book, best read at a chapter-a-day pace, allowing time to think and digest what the author has presented.”
—The Associated Press
"A manifesto for a new way of living in the world, the book reveals a natural tapestry too often ignored."
—The Christian Science Monitor
“Impassioned and compelling . . . A thoughtfully researched, poetically inspiring call to action that will resonate with a broad range of readers.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Louv writes of our need for immersion in nature and of how our interactions with animals can help us to save not only ourselves, but also the planet. In lyrical, sometimes mystical prose, he challenges our assumptions about how we relate to other species.”
—Booklist, starred review
"[An] intriguing and poetic treatise . . . Thoughtful and hopeful, Louv’s work is a stirring look at ‘the blurred lines that have always existed between wild and domestic, human and other than human.’ ”
“Looking at scientific research from a variety of experts, this is a compelling call to reestablish ties with the animal world. Strongly recommended for anyone feeling overwhelmed or spiritually bereft in today’s society."
“Richard Louv has done it again. A remarkable book that will help everyone break away from their fixed gaze at the screens that dominate our lives and remember instead that we are animals in a world of animals.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
“These pages weave a wondrous tapestry in which we all are crucial threads. It’s a picture of our own creation, about a future we will share, a future we can strive to make worth living for.”
—Carl Safina, author of the New York Times bestseller Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
“We need community with nature and communication with animals more than ever now that so many of us live in urban environments. Through many fascinating stories of human-animal interaction, Richard Louv urges us to be open-minded about animals and reposition our species inside the natural world.”
—Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves
“I wish I had written this book! In this deep exploration, Louv celebrates our essential connections to animals—in the wild, in the city, in our dreams, in our hearts.”
—Jennifer S. Holland, author of the New York Times bestselling Unlikely Friendships series
“Not just a brilliant, wise, and eloquent book, but a powerful summons to reconnect with the life all around us. Reconnecting with animals is a remedy for much of what ails modern life including loneliness and boredom.”
—David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Oberlin College
“Powerful. A must-read for everyone who is concerned with the ways in which human animals are becoming increasingly alienated from nonhuman animals, with devastating results for all involved.”
—Marc Bekoff, author of Rewilding Our Hearts
“The timing for Our Wild Calling could not be better. Louv suggests that humans who have strong relationships with animals help their own mental health as well as possibly saving life on earth. This book is incredibly important to our future on this planet.”
—Robert Bateman, artist, naturalist, and author of Robert Bateman’s Canada
“Richard Louv continues to connect all of us to nature through his new book . . . A great read for all!”
—Fran P. Mainella, 16th Director of the U.S. National Park Service
- On Sale
- Nov 10, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Algonquin Books