Recently walking up Main Street in Park City, Utah, I saw in the Visitor’s Center doorway what looked like a man holding a great-horned owl surrounded by children. As his voice carried across the street, I heard the man explain that this owl had been found with an injured wing after being struck by a car.
I love owls. I love the haunting sound of their hoots in the darkest hours before dawn. I love the joy that accompanies the lucky sight of a splash of brown feathers against newly-fallen snow when an owl makes the rare decision to reveal herself in winter daylight. I love how owls’ mysterious nature have made them omens in so many cultures’ imaginations. So, when I saw what I thought was a great-horned owl, I automatically crossed the street with a feeling of anticipation.
Many of a great-horned owl’s characteristics were observable in the creature the man held. There were beautiful, downy brown and white feathers flecked occasionally with yellow. There was a sharp, curved beak. There were powerful wide wings – though they were tightly-clasped as this creature hugged herself for comfort.
From a distance I could see her eyes had the same shape and colors of a great-horned owl’s – big and round with an orange ring circling black. I recalled the eyes of the great-horned owls I have seen watching me from the tops of ancient juniper trees in the chilly foothills of the Great Basin. The orange in their eyes flamed and blazed. Sometimes, the black reflected impenetrable depths of wisdom. At other times, the black became a pool reflecting the silver notes of stars in the Nevada sky. And, at still other times, the black became the night soaking up the shadows before lifting with flight to disappear into clouds.
As I approached, I saw that the man’s right forearm was wrapped in leather. Two steel rings pierced the leather. Connected to the rings was a chain, about two feet long, made of still more steel rings tightly wound and welded together so the chain would never break. The chain was wrapped around and tightened to the left leg of what I had mistaken for a great-horned owl.
This was no owl. Not anymore. An owl is so much more than her eyes, beak, and talons, than the small space she occupies, than the blinking, swaying, and beak clacking she is famous for. An owl is more than the physical collection of her feathers and bones.
An owl is the rabbits, hares, mice, and voles who become her body when she eats them. An owl is the tree she sits in, the sky she descends from, and the wind she rides on. An owl is the meaning revealed in her nature. An owl is an expression of all the relationships creating her. An owl is wild. An owl is free.
Stolen from the wind, kept in a cage, and chained to a man, this creature was no longer an owl.
For a brief moment, she lifted her eyes to connect with mine. And, I was horrified by what I saw.
The orange and black in her eyes were only echoes of color. Not even the faintest trace of light remained in them. It would have been better, easier to accept if sadness or anger or even desperation was found there. But there was nothing. Nothing, but emptiness.
I knew these eyes well. These were the eyes of a creature pushed beyond pain into numbness, overwhelmed with despair, and fading into the void. These were eyes I have seen on the street. These were eyes I have seen in zoos, in aquarium tanks, and in cages. These were eyes I have seen in prison, in psyche wards, and at funerals.
I knew these eyes because I have seen them reflected in the mirrors I have peered into before trying to kill myself. I knew these eyes because I have seen them in myself.
Disturbed and overcome with sorrow, I fled in horror.
What is the precise nature of the horror I saw in those eyes?
First, I was witnessing the aftermath of the destruction of an owl. Captivity deprives an animal of what makes the animal an animal. Principles of deep ecology confirm this. Deep ecology is the recognition that life is an ongoing process sustained by healthy connections between living beings. Through this recognition, deep ecology teaches that each living being is best understood as a specific collection of connections with other living beings.
A captive animal is no longer an animal when humans physically cut off the animal’s connections. Neil Evernden, a foundational deep ecologist, describes how this happens to a gorilla kept in a zoo in his brilliant work, The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment. Evernden writes: “[An animal] is an interaction of genetic potential with environment and with conspecifics. A solitary gorilla in a zoo is not really a gorilla; it is a gorilla-shaped imitation of a social being which can only develop fully in a society of kindred beings.”
Evernden goes on to undermine one justification for keeping animals in zoos (preserving their genetic legacy) and in the process explains further why a gorilla in a zoo is not really a gorilla. He writes, “To attempt to preserve only a package of genes is to accept a very restricted definition of animality and to fall into the trap of mistaking the skin-encapsulated object for the process of relationships that constitutes the creature in question.”
In other words, an animal is not an object. An animal is an ongoing process of relationships. To destroy these relationships by restricting an animal’s physical ability to engage in the relationships that sustains the animal, you destroy the animal. When I saw the creature on the chain, I recognized how the driver who struck her and the man who chained her isolated her from the specific relationships that sustain owls. She had been reduced to the “skin-encapsulated object” Evernden describes.
It was impossible to see the creature on the chain and not think of all the creatures on chains, in theme park pools, and in zoo cages. I thought, specifically, of the way a growing amount of media attention is being given to the captivity destroying individuals of two species sharing many similarities with humans: orca whales and elephants.
Orcas are family-oriented and relatively long-lived. They speak a complex language and pass down traditional knowledge such as hunting techniques from generation to generation. These characteristics coupled with the history orcas have of protecting humans from sharks creates a special bond with them in the minds of many humans.
Dr. Naomi A. Rose, in her study “Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity,” states the obvious, “Orcas are inherently unsuited to confinement.” To support this claim, Dr. Rose explains that orcas have significantly lower annual survival rates in captivity than in the wild. In fact, the annual mortality rate for orcas is more than two and a half times higher in captivity than in the wild.
Dr. Rose demonstrates how captivity attacks the bodies of orcas explaining that one of the most common causes of death in captive orcas is infection. Infection-caused mortality is linked to immunosuppression and, as Dr. Rose describes, pathogens that the immune systems of wild orcas would successfully manage become fatal to captive orcas due to chronic stress, psychological depression, and even boredom. So not only does captivity act on an orca’s mental health it attacks an orca’s physical health through the mental disorders it causes.
Elephants provide another example. Elephants, like orcas and humans, live in large, extended families, they develop complex social relationships, and they require large spaces to serve as their home ranges. With a similar declaration to the one Dr. Rose made about orcas, Ed Stewart – president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) that operates three wildlife sanctuaries in Northern California – explains the situation for captive elephants in a piece for National Geographic, “No Ethical Way to Keep Elephants in Captivity.”
To demonstrate why there is no ethical way to keep elephants in captivity, Stewart describes what captivity does to elephants: “The inadequacies for elephants in captivity will always be a source of disease and suffering for elephants. Cramped enclosures and hard surfaces cause a variety of problems, including deadly foot disease and arthritis, infertility, obesity, and abnormal repetitive behaviors such as swaying and head bobbing.” These “abnormal repetitive behaviors” are of, course, psychological disorders.
With my history of mental illness, when I learn about the psychological effects captivity has on orcas and elephants I wonder if there are connections between human mental health and other animals’ mental health.
Of course, there are. Just like psychological disorders open the way for other health problems in animals like orcas and elephants, mental illnesses like depression dramatically increase a human’s risk for other illnesses. Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Kramer notes in his book Against Depression that humans suffering from depression are four times as likely as those without to die from cardiac disease, five times as likely to die of coronary artery disease, and four times as likely to die from angina, coronary artery bypass surgery, and congestive heart failure. As a poet with major depression, the power of the metaphor created by the way depression literally attacks the heart is not lost on me.
I am certainly not the first person to investigate these connections. Since about 1980, westerners investigating these connections have called themselves “ecopsychologists.” Meanwhile, traditional peoples have worked to understand these connections since time immemorial.
Theodore Roszak, in his essay “Where Psyche Meet Gaia” written for the anthology Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, explains the history of ecopsychology. It is not new. He writes, “…in fact [ecopsychology’s] sources are old enough to be called aboriginal. Once upon a time all psychology was ‘ecopsychology.’ No special word was needed. The oldest healers in the world…knew no other way to heal than to work within the context of environmental reciprocity.”
While it appears that the incidence of mental illness in traditional societies is drastically lower than in civilized societies, perhaps we would do well to “work within the context of environmental reciprocity” as the oldest healers in the world have always done. Viewing human mental health through the lens of deep ecology is one way to do this.
The late Paul Shepard’s 1982 book Nature and Madness is a foundational text in ecopsychology. Shepard wrote the book to answer the simple question, “Why do men persist in destroying their habitat?” His answer is psychopathology. Or, in his words, “a kind of failure in some fundamental dimension of human existence, an irrationality beyond mistakenness, a kind of madness.”
How did some humans develop this madness? Shepard calls on a concept from biology – ontogeny – to explain the madness. Ontogeny is the development of an individual organism from the earliest stage to maturity. Shepard makes the simple, but brilliant observation, that to understand human behavior we must understand human development.
Ontogeny is most often studied as it pertains to animals, but Shepard is quick to note, “Anyone who thinks the human creature is not a specialized animal should spend a few hours with the thirty odd volumes of the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child or the issues of the Journal of Child Development.” Ontogeny, then, is as appropriate in the study of humans as it is in other animals.
Shepard goes on to explain that the ontogeny of traditional peoples “who seem to live at peace with their world” is healthier than that of civilized peoples. Shepard writes: “Their way of life is the one to which our ontogeny has been fitted by natural selection, fostering cooperation, leadership, a calendar of mental growth, and the study of a mysterious and beautiful world where the clues to the meaning of life were embodied in natural things, where everyday life was inextricable from spiritual significance and encounter, and where the members of the group celebrated individual stages and passages as ritual participation…”
So, humans require certain things to mature from children to adults. Human children need to be immersed in the natural world where they can interact with non-human others that will reveal to them the meaning of life. They also need intact communities with elders who understand the passages of human life to help the young celebrate through rituals. And, ultimately to become elders themselves. I am reminded, again, of Evernden’s statement that an animal is “a social being which can only develop fully in a society of kindred beings.”
Spend any time with children outdoors and you will see them find deep meaning in natural things. This is healthy human development. Shepard explains, “Animals have a magnetic affinity for the child, for each in its way seems to embody some impulse, reaction, or movement that is ‘like me.’ In the playful, controlled enactment of them comes a gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships. In stories told, their forms spring to life in the mind, represented in consciousness, training the capacity to imagine.” This “gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships” is essential to a human’s full development.
Shepard goes on, “The play space – trees, shrubs, paths, hidings, climbings – is a visible structured entity, another prototype of relationships that hold.” Forming relationships with trees and shrubs, then, is another essential element of human development.
My four-year old neice, Layla, and my nephew, her one-year old brother, Thomas, teach me that the ecopsychologists are right:
Beneath a cloudless mountain sky in late autumn, Layla kneels on a wooden bridge above a clear pool collecting where a beaver dam slows the cold Snake Creek in Midway, Utah. Mesmerized, her face is drawn slowly downward until a blonde strand escapes from the mess of hair made tangly by an afternoon of play to brush the pool’s face. Barely aware of her own motion, she brushes the wet strand back into place behind her ear. The icy drops that run down the back of her neck and disappear behind her jacket collar do not break her concentration.
I am so fascinated by her behavior that I almost let Thomas jump from my arms to join his sister on the bridge’s edge. Thomas is fascinated, too. I lower him down and let him find his balance with his new walking muscles as his little hand tightens around my right pinky and ring fingers.
We approach Layla as fast as Thomas’ legs will allow. “What are you doing, Layla?” I ask.
She still has trouble pronouncing the short ‘I’ in my name and says, matter-of-factly with a touch of annoyance that I cannot see the obvious, “Playing with the fish, Weel.”
She does not move her gaze from the water and when I get close enough I see what she is watching. There is a small, four inch, rainbow trout, facing upstream gazing right back at Layla. The wide beautiful blue in Layla’s eyes join with the sharp obsidian black in the trout’s eyes. From under a brown stone on the creek bed, a much bigger trout, fourteen inches or so, circles around the smaller one – as clearly curious as I am. The small trout, like my small niece, pays no attention to the approaching adult.
And then I understand what Layla means by “playing.” When Layla leans to her left, the trout whips her tail and swims to the right. When Layla leans to her right, the trout whips her tail and swims to the left. Layla is, obviously, playing with the fish.
Later that night, Layla is taking a bath. Layla’s mother is at the health clinic where she works as a physician assistant. Layla’s father is busy feeding Thomas and he asks me to check on Layla. When I walk into the bathroom, she quickly ducks under water and splashes around. Eventually, she must come up for air and I make the mistake again.
“What are you doing, Layla?” I ask.
Again, she is annoyed. “I’m not Layla, Weel,” she explains. “I’m a fish.” And, she ducks under water once more. I laugh and shake my head. Who am I to disagree?
Finally, I understand the precise nature of the horror I felt looking into that chained creature’s eyes: I saw myself, and so many like me, reflected in her eyes.
Just like an owl on a chain is no longer an owl, an orca in a theme park pool is no longer an orca, and an elephant in a cage at a zoo is no longer an elephant, humans cut off from the natural world are no longer human. We are animals and animals are an ongoing process of relationships. When those relationships become impossible, we lose ourselves.
I do not believe I go too far when I write, “We are no longer human.” By “we” I mean civilized humans who live much like I do.
I exist without most of the relationships that have made humans human throughout our history. I woke up this morning in a bed two-stories above an asphalt floor. I do not know how much asphalt I would need to dig through to reach soil. When I opened my eyes, before the sunrise, I did not see the dark, eternally mysterious forms of clouds traveling across sky. I did not see the pale courage of morning stars holding on to the coldest hours before dawn. I saw a ceiling made from the flesh of once-living, once-wild trees.
When I rolled out of bed, I did not pause at the edge formed by the warmth inside my home meeting the chill of a December mountain morning to enjoy the original pleasure in sensory diversity. I cursed because I let the heat in our apartment dip below 62 degrees Fahrenheit. I did not walk down to a river bank to draw my day’s water. I did not stop to watch the burning glow of the rising sun spread across the river’s face. I stumbled into the shower where I pulled a plastic handle and water stolen from rivers held captive behind dams was heated by the remains of ancient forests ripped from their resting place deep beneath the earth.
And, this was only the first five minutes of a day I have repeated over and over again in 30 years of life. If Shepard is correct, and a stunted ontogeny produces stunted humans, then I, and so many humans like me, are stunted. This does not make me sad, it makes me angry. And that anger feels like an animal reaction to an insane world. I know, as well, it is not too late for Layla or Thomas. It is not too late for their children and their children’s children. In many ways, Layla was right. She is a fish. She is a puppy. She is an eagle. She is all the relationships I have seen her form with the creatures she imitates. And, to protect her, we must protect them.