Therapy for Our Relationship with Animals

Because we are allowing animals to go extinct at a rate faster than the dinosaurs' and yet are dependent on them to maintain life's support systems, we badly need to include animals in our concept of "community."

Because we are allowing animals to go extinct at a rate faster than the dinosaurs' and yet are dependent on them to maintain life's support systems, we badly need to include animals in our concept of "community." The dangers emerging from the extinction of so many species (scientists have named but a fraction) because of the ways we live now need to be confronted, or else we will blindly continue to orchestrate our own extinction. Are we going to remain so?

Here is where psychology becomes important. Some of us are so despairing that we have grown numb. Some of us have so long denied or repressed our fears just to get along during the day that we no longer know what we feel, much less what to do.

We'd do well to accept that we are part of a large extended genetically-linked animal family. Our current species, Homo Sapiens, appeared as the result of the animals that came before us, and we can be sure that we won't be the last. All "animal people" (a phrase used by the Indians) have in common needs for food, shelter, and safety in raising their young, but animals have adapted to different niches and play varying roles.

But our laws and management policies are still based on human supremacy, "power over" attitudes instead of sharing power. Therapy means the art of care. It is no accident that our loss of contact with nature and the destruction of flora and fauna coincide with a rise in human depression, inability to concentrate, alienation, and a host of related symptoms. Since inner and outer conditions reflect one another, therapy can heal both aspects. First, we must analyze our relationship with animals and understand how in the past the dominant society projected murderous, greedy tendencies onto other animals and how sometimes we still deny their reality in order to get what we want. Secondly, we must use psychological awareness to see other animals as they are, separate from ourselves and our desires, just as we are exhorted to be open to differences in human relationships. And finally we can become aware of the meaning of animals that appear in our dreams and meditations, our spontaneous reflections and images. When these messages from the unconscious are integrated, our relationship to animals can be improved and strengthened in ways that benefit us and the Earth.

Let's look at some examples of wild animals, which reveal much about our psyches.

1. Wolves have been the greatest object of a national obsession first to destroy and then to restore. In actuality they are alert, swift, playful animals, who howl to signal location and to speak to each other in the night. They band gather together to hunt a large elk or moose and to den and raise their pups. They know how to establish order among themselves for greater efficiency and security. Once upon a time people regarded wolves' nurturing habits with such respect that the citizens of Rome were proud to have their founders Romulus and Remus be suckled by a wolf. But around the Middle Ages, when plague generated fear among the people, and starving wolves were seen to eat corpses, people projected their horror of the disease onto the wolf. The Big Bad Wolf emerged from the shadows. Later in the United States. when ranchers and farmers were desolate over the loss of sheep and crops due to severe drought and freezes, they found it easier to exercise their anger on wolves rather than God. Although actual estimates of loss of cattle or sheep to wolves was less than 1%, many people took satisfaction in shooting wolves wantonly. As more and more people were lured westward, even the government supported getting wolves out of the way. Some trappers indulged in long, malicious torturing of their victims. Between 1859 and 1940, wolves were virtually exterminated.

The severity of this behavior has been modified recently by fervent activities of some people to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Utah and even New Mexico. The birth of every pup as well as the movements of all packs are monitored and followed by surrounding communities. These people feel more humble in relation to other animals and want to "do the right thing" by them. It seems that as wilderness diminished, more people felt a sense of loss and impoverishment. Bringing back the wolves was concomitant with the desire for more wildness in their souls.

The appearance of wolves in dreams and visions was always of great importance to the first Americans, the Indians. Many Indians admired the way wolves bonded and hunted, making totems out of their fur and teeth. Wolves appear in the dreams of many modern people, showing they have not lost their power. Often people find they are being chased by one or more wolves, and they are terrified. Invariably the message of the dreams has to do with restoring the strength, perceptiveness, and vivacity of the wild to the person's life. In Women Who Run With the Wolves Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggested many ways for doing so (that apply to men too).

2. Most people abhor insects more than any other animal and yet insects do more for our Earth's resources than most animals and probably will outlast us. Insects continually enrich the soil and air. Without the pollination of bees, most plants would not exist. We find it especially hard to believe we are kin to insects too. Yet, water fleas reproduce through live birth, as we do. Their hearts and digestive systems are vestiges of our own. Insects create tunnels for conducting nutrients that operate like the circulatory systems of our bodies. Decomposers break down matter, as do our digestive systems. We all share the fact of death. But insects do more -they can turn death into life.

Consider the honey or bumblebee. Here is a creature of amazing body design and community life. Out of its own fluids it builds a hive to house its family. In bee society the female is all-important. She gives up her wings to breed, and by common assent, the others serve her needs and carry out other housekeeping functions. Some nurse larvae, some clean, some search for food. A bee can communicate the precise locations of food and other important matters to its kin by motions of its body - what we have called "dances."

How have humans behaved toward bees? Since recorded history we've been taking their honey and royal jelly, using it for our food, cosmetics and healing products. Some healers even use bee stings to counteract chronic ailments, such as arthritis. All too often bees are thought of in terms of just their use to humans without regard for their style of living or status. They have suffered from the widespread spraying of insecticides that we have used in continual warfare against insects. Imagine how different things would be if we treated those who did the most for the planet like royalty, rather than just humans with certain pedigrees. Insects show up in people's dreams - swarming, boring, and stinging. Usually people are afraid of the changes in their life that insects often herald. It behooves us to become more open and receptive to insects, letting them aid us. Remember how in the myth of Psyche and Eros, when Psyche is faced with the task of sorting the mountain of seeds, the ants come to her aid? The message is about the careful discrimination that must be done in attaining consciousness, and that we can't do it with our egos but need to rely on an instinctual layer of the unconscious, represented by ant qualities.

Antonio Machado in the poem "Time Alone" used bee activity as a metaphor for the transformative aspect of soul work and the nourishment it brings.

I dreamt I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the gold bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

3. Birds are the most popular of animals. People keep meticulous track of sightings, spend hours painting or carving bird images, photograph them and present endless slide shows to rapt audiences. A huge commercial industry has formed around them, including franchised stores, guidebooks, ecotours and hotels in remote corners of the world.

Because they are easily observable, more scientific studies have been done on them than other animals. Charles Darwin's study of finches on the Galapagos Islands led to the theory of evolution. Based on birds' lives, scientists have taught us much about population and community ecology. The field of ornithology has consistently received huge investments and produced a plethora of museums and naturalist books. People have made art of birds since the Paleolithic cave paintings, written songs and poetry about them through the ages.

We've turned birds into muses and deities. In 27-10,000 B.C.E. goddesses were made to look like birds, with breasts thrust forward and enlarged buttocks that cradled eggs, because birds embodied the beauty and fertility of life. Birds were regarded as sacred because they fly close to God in heaven. They've been the symbols of spirit - the leaving of material preoccupations behind and taking flight. We've made the dove an emblem of peace, the eagle of fierce majesty.

The way some small seemingly vulnerable creatures fly thousands of miles, enduring harsh weather patterns and navigating their course so they reach the same place year after year inspires us to try harder in our lives. As Emily Dickinson, the poet, wrote: "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches on our soul."

On a biological level, we exhibit behavior similar to birds'. In the mating game, for instance, we wear bright clothes, like plumage, to attract the opposite sex. We make coy glances and strut our stuff, especially on the dance floor. In our shared vocabulary are soft wooing sounds as well as triumphant cries. Males like to spread their seed around, and females to make the best deal. Our species, as with birds, deals with promiscuity and a full range of partnering - including monogamy, polygamy, female with female bonds.

Birds appear in many dreams, often trapped. Many species of birds, especially migratory, are extremely threatened, if not legally "endangered," because our development of roads, towns, pesticides, open oil pits, electromagnetic cabling, and other obstacles have eliminated feeding and breeding grounds. Many stopover sites have disappeared. Being thus forced out, birds have perished. In our lives, we get hemmed in by factors of urban life too - work pressure, traffic, the feeling there is no escape. Is it not apparent that if we could give birds room and help make their lives more satisfactory, we'd be healing ourselves too? What can you, dear reader, do? Part of good therapy involves taking action. You can "adopt-an-animal," just as we adopt a child in a foreign country. That means you care for it, take responsibility for it. You can read, research, volunteer time - do whatever you can to learn more about the species, its ecology, and interaction with other species. Although we cannot speak in English sentences to other animals, there are other ways of understanding their needs based on mutual respect.

On an inner level, you can notice your thoughts and dreams about animals. In nurturing your relationship with them, be open to their teachings. Let animals be wisdom figures or guides; dialogue with them about how to live on this Earth.

Psychology has revealed to us underlying motives for our behavior. We cover up greed and power drives, but also our yearning for closeness and our really fine qualities. For example, we may be angry over someone's treatment of us and in turn beat our dog. Or, we may want to feel important and thus build an ostentatious house that requires clearing trees and installing roads, in short making land inhospitable to other animals. Many of us shop when we feel anxiety. That ivory jewelry, alligator belt, coral centerpiece have all been extracted from living creatures for our momentary pleasure. Instead of depleting the Earth's live creatures, we can suffer the heat of our anxieties and let it transform us into better persons. In order to change though, we must want to badly enough.

Some have said that to save our wildlife, we need to have a religious movement that believes in doing so. Religion suggests devotion and fervor. As in good therapeutic experiences, we can get that fire by paying close attention to fears, doubts, rages, sorrows, and joys - talking about them, letting them continue to evolve in our imaginations, following them like tributaries of a river to their sources. Enough of this process brings out your strengths. You become more humble, direct, peaceful, and capable of enacting values that embrace the unity of being.


Valerie Harms is the author of The National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment / The Ecology of Everyday Life, The Inner Lover : Using Passion As a Way to Self-Empowerment and other books and articles. For 2 decades she has been an Intensive Journal instructor and teacher of Jungian programs at centers and universities in New England, New York City, Chicago, IL, Berkeley, CA, Montana, Vancouver, Canada, and Skyros, Greece. Currently she is on the Board of Montana Friends of Jung.

Valerie Harms
P.O. Box 1123
Bozeman, Montana 59771
www.valerieharms.com