People rescuing animals in flooded areasPhoto by: Stock Photo

 by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the general policy was to rescue people but require them to leave their pets behind. This was unbearable for many.  There was a story on the radio about an 81-year-old-woman who refused to leave her dogs and cats. In the end, she perished.  

Things have changed dramatically since then in our awareness of people’s bonds with their animal companions. A bond of love. A bond with one whom you consider a family member regardless of species is really unbreakable without severe damage to our souls. We have made a different policy during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma – one that is more in the service of Life. And happiness.

If you check out the feel of shelters with and without animals, there is a difference. A tangible energy comes across from the shelters with animals companions, even through the virtual world of the web. There is a sense of comfort, of warmth, of caring for another that goes beyond the caring found in shelters with humans only. We humans can calm each other – and we calm even more if there are animals. People are happier. More soothed. More in touch with each other. Why? What is happening?? For some reason, taking care of other species as scared as we are comforts us. Just their presence calms us. What does that mean? Where does exploring this more deeply take us?

It is easy to be moved by pictures of first responders heroically rescuing other’s pets. You can feel the depth of their feeling for the animal, even though it isn’t theirs. Or by seeing photos of people going to great lengths to save their own animals, holding them, soggy and dripping and bedraggled in their arms, or pulling them in a makeshift boat as they trudge through water, material possessions left behind. But there is more than simply being moved. We lose something by not exploring this profound phenomenon, so important to our psychic well-being and equilibrium. 

Tahi the cougar being cuddled by Jean | Photo by Earthfire

In our last Conservation Conversation, we explored this. It was titled, Being Supported in Ways We Don’t Recognize. We tend to recognize what our companion animals do for us – but often not fully, and we usually don’t expand that awareness beyond our companion animals. However I think lying beyond the circle of human existence is a whole lot of love and support, though not perhaps in the immediate, vivid sense we typically experience it with our pets. It is a larger, more “spiritual” love. It starts with animals closest to us, but I think lovingness and need for companionship is inherent in the nature of the universe, expressed in different ways and levels of intensity.  

Whoever made the emotionally numb and destructive policy to leave people’s pets behind has no connection with other than human life. That is how we get such decisions; one with no redeeming features. Aren’t people anguished enough by the flood and loss of their homes? Who made the decision to require them to abandon their animals, too? On what basis?  

This “thinking” is so misguided. Save human lives, others aren’t important. But that thinking leads to the environmental mess we are currently in. We depend on other lives for our own in every sense, and disconnecting ourselves from that fact leads to disastrous environmental decisions. If we draw lines anywhere, it leads to a block of the energy flow and understanding and expansiveness that leads to good decisions, simply because we are including more information and perspectives. Any place we draw a line is destructive:  immediate family; community; race; religion; human; non-human- but-like-us; plants. Any time we create a wall we are generating a destructive energy rather than the warm, productive orientation of consideration and inclusion. So simple. So basic. So hard to follow.

Susan and Thunder the wolf | Photo by Earthfire

We may weigh different groups differently – it is hard not to value an immediate family member more than a stranger far away because that is how we are wired. But to an outsider, one without the direct emotional connection, one individual is not more important than another. This leads to the difficult but important Buddhist ideal of compassionate and unattached love.  But loving some more than others (because most of us are not capable of attaining that level of compassionate, unattached love) is not the same as disregarding them and their value and own importance. If we are not inclusive of all life, it leads us into problems. We are in fact one interconnected community. Anything that disrupts that fact is a destructive force and seriously deprives us of joy, wonder, relief, companionship, healing and happiness.

It is really very simple. Instead of us versus them, it is all of us together.  

So very difficult to remember and live.

But necessary.

We need to support one another in this.

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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