Audubon educators are in schools several days a week teaching nature-based lessons this time of year, working hard to connect lessons to the 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) program, each year’s readings focus on 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 and 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 its range of colors, shapes, patterns and sizes. They can also learn about the body parts and behaviors that help these animals survive.
But this is all about what we, as humans, can learn about animals. This does not cover what we can learn about ourselves. Reflecting on my own experience, I have only ever had vague thoughts on this topic. Expressing what I learn about myself through my experience with animals requires a different mindset.
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 can I fit in with the millions of animal species with which we share the planet? I am a member of a species. I am also an animal. Just by observing, I can both feel very small, but also like a piece of something much bigger than me.
Audubon is home to two birds, Cricket, an American kestrel, and Soren, a red-tailed hawk. Audubon’s goal is to train birds to use programs, which means working with them daily. The education team learned a whole new set of skills: preparing meals, using new equipment, giving commands, reading body language, and much more. For me, when I enter the aviary to care for a bird, I have to work on more than just knowledge. To ask a bird with sharp claws to stand up and eat food from my hand, I also have to believe that I can do it. By interacting with these birds, I also learned to have confidence in myself.
Like many people, the animals I interact with the most are my pets. We have two cats and a dog. Cats are independent creatures, so I spend most of my time with Rose, our very energetic Labrador Retriever.
To give Rose the exercise she needs, we go outside every day. And even though it sounds great, sometimes it’s not. We go out in all weathers, when I want and when I don’t want. We do this because it’s not about me. We walk or play fetch. I’ve learned that it doesn’t always matter how I feel. Sometimes what’s most important is what I do. However, I have also found that most of the time I feel better after going out.
Rose’s biggest priorities for a happy life are food, attention, tennis ball, exploring and snuggling with “his people” at the end of the day. If I replace the tennis ball with my bicycle, our basic needs are not that different. When the world seems terribly broken and overwhelming, I find it good to go back to basics and be more like my dog. I learned to focus on meeting my basic needs, feeling safe, and feeling like I belonged. These are essential before I can do anything else. Oh, and save some time to play a little.
I think pets are some of the best creatures to remind us that we need to feel loved too. When I come home, it doesn’t matter what I accomplished or failed that day. My pets don’t care if I say the smartest thing, the stupidest thing, or nothing at all. I’m me and that’s enough.
Wild animals can also teach us something about ourselves. The comments left on an exhibition at the nature center are a good illustration of this. Staff members’ favorite birds are displayed with a note explaining why they are favorites. Visitors are invited to do the same. They fill out a sheet explaining what makes a particular bird species special to them.
Here are some notes from visitors.
“My favorite bird is the Canada goose because it comforts me and honks nicely. »
“My favorite bird is the puffin because it falls and is very clumsy like me.”
“My favorite bird is the crow, because it is an outcast, just like me.”
I don’t know much about the authors of these notes. I know nothing about their experiences, motivations or views. But it seems to me that they find comfort in animals. They see themselves reflected in other living beings. Perhaps they learn that what might be considered a negative trait is actually what makes them special.
What do you learn about yourself and humanity from your experiences with animals?
What I like about this question is that it makes the learning personal. Your answers will probably be different from mine because your experiences are different. The question invites reflection. A reflection on ourselves and a reflection on how we are connected to other living beings.
The result of building connections is compassion. Animals offer the opportunity to see ourselves in new and different ways. We learn that we are not alone and that we have the capacity to show great care, concern and love. And this compassion has the capacity to extend not only to other animals, but also to our fellow humans and perhaps even to ourselves. What can we learn about ourselves by observing and interacting with animals? I think we learn to become better humans.
Audubon Community Nature Center creates and maintains connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be observed at any time. The Nature Center is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.