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Animals and us

Pictured is Cricket on his Jack-O’-Lantern.

Audubon educators are in schools several days a week teaching nature-based lessons at this time of year, working hard to tie the lessons to topics or skills students are learning in their classrooms. To do this, I was reviewing a new curriculum from a school we serve. In their English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, the readings for each grade center around a few main questions. I was struck by one of the questions.

What can we learn about ourselves by observing and interacting with animals?

What a meaningful, insightful question for students of all ages to ponder. At the Nature Center, we care for a variety of live animals, including reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and birds. We want people to learn about the creatures we share the world with. Visitors can observe some of the diversity of life with their array of colors, shapes, patterns, and sizes. They can also learn about the body parts and behaviors that help these animals survive.

But all that is about what we, as humans, can learn about animals. That doesn’t cover what we can learn about ourselves. Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve never formulated more than vague thoughts on this topic. Articulating what I learn about myself because of my experience with animals requires a different tilt of mind.

With a slightly different perspective, I observe again. When I look at Audubon’s live animals, diversity is the first thing that comes to mind. But how do I fit into the millions of animal species we share the planet with? I am one member of one species. I am also an animal. Just by observing, I am able at once to feel very small, but also like a piece of something much larger than myself.

Audubon is home to two birds, Cricket, an American Kestrel, and Soren, a Red-tailed Hawk. Audubon’s goal is to train the birds to use for programs, which means working with them daily. The education team has learned a whole new skill set: food preparation, using new gear, giving commands, reading body language, and more. For me, when I step into the aviary to care for a bird, I need to work on more than just knowledge. To ask a bird with sharp talons to step up and eat food from my hand, I also need to believe I can do it. By interacting with these birds, I’ve also learned how to be confident in myself.

Like many people, the animals I interact with the most are my pets. We have two cats and one dog. Cats being the independent creatures they are, I spend most of my time with Rose, our very energetic Labrador Retriever.

To get Rose the exercise she needs, we go outside every day. And while that sounds great, sometimes it’s not. We go out in all kinds of weather, when I want to and when I don’t. We do this because it’s not about me. We walk or play fetch for her. I’ve learned it doesn’t always matter how I feel. Sometimes what’s more important is what I do. However, I have also discovered that most of the time, I feel better after going outside.

Rose’s highest priorities for a happy life are food, attention, tennis ball, exploring, and curling up with “her people” at the end of the day. If I replace the tennis ball with my bicycle, our essential needs aren’t that different. When the world seems terribly broken and overwhelming, I find it good to return to the basics and be more like my dog. I’ve learned to focus on meeting my basic needs, feeling safe, and feeling like I belong. These are critical before I can do anything else. Oh, and saving time for a bit of play.

I think pets are some of the best creatures to remind us we also need to feel loved. When I come home, it doesn’t matter what I’ve achieved or failed at that day. My pets could care less if I’ve said the smartest thing, the dumbest thing or nothing at all. I am me and that is enough.

Wild animals can also teach us something about ourselves. A good illustration of this is the comments left at a display at the nature center. Favorite birds of staff members are displayed with a note about why they are a favorite. Visitors are invited to do the same. They fill out a card, explaining what makes a particular species of bird special to them.

Here are a few notes from visitors.

“My favorite bird is a Canada Goose because they comfort me and honk nicely.”

“My favorite bird is a puffin because they fall over and are super clumsy like me.”

“My favorite bird is a crow because they are an outcast just like me.”

I don’t know much about the authors of these notes. I know nothing of their experiences, motivations, or viewpoints. But it seems to me that they find comfort in animals. They see themselves reflected in other living things. Perhaps they learn what may be considered a negative trait is really what makes them special.

What do you learn about yourself and humankind from your experiences with animals?

What I like about this question is that it makes learning personal. Your answers will most likely be different than mine because your experiences are different. The question invites reflection. A reflection of ourselves and a reflection about how we are connected to other living things.

The result of building connections is compassion. Animals provide an opportunity to see ourselves in new and different ways. We learn we are not alone and we have the capacity for great care, concern, and love. And this compassion has the ability to extend, not just to other animals, but to our fellow humans and maybe even to ourselves. What can we learn about ourselves by observing and interacting with animals? I think we learn how to be better humans.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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