We experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world. Sensory perception is this ongoing interweavement: the terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain.” David Abram - Becoming Animal
I am remembering my routine two springs back, before the Pandemic changed everything, when I was volunteering at Native Animal Rescue. I would offer syringes full of insect formula to a variety of baby birds who craned their necks toward me with their mouths stretched wide, as others chirped loudly, reminding me not to dally. Spring is the busiest season, when the Center is filled with sick, injured and orphaned animals being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. As soon as I finished attending to each of the featherless newborns in makeshift nests and the fledglings in wire cages, it was time to start over again.
I recall placing a cup of dried mealworms into the cage of a young raven with a splinted wing. She promptly hopped on my forearm, her talons piercing through my sleeve. Extremely intelligent, ravens and crows can discriminate between people’s faces and remember those they wish to avoid. This raven peered right at me. New to each other, we have no relationship. I couldn’t read anything in her round eyes, but her gaze clutched me as tightly as her claws.
Then I peeked into a cage housing a full-grown injured hawk. He stared back at me, giving no quarter. Fierce. Inscrutable. Such a contrast to the softness in the rabbit’s eyes as she awaits her feeding. I realize I experience prey versus predatory animals somewhat differently. One evokes instant tenderness and draws me in closer, while the other engenders respect as I step back, to give them space, and perhaps myself as well.
Such mystery. As much as I observe, read and think about animals, I can’t truly know who they are. As a therapist, I am drawn to the unknown, intricate territory of the psyche, motivated to discover another’s experience. It’s hard enough with human beings, how much more so when attempting to comprehend a hawk’s or rabbit’s inner state.
I approach this interspecies challenge by trying to access the sensory and internal landscape that we share with other animals. This requires sinking beneath my busy mind to access a more embodied intelligence. Finding my way to this state is an equivalent process to navigating the forest when I leave the well-traveled path to follow a deer trail. These paths are not designed with maps and shovels, but through repeated use by other animals, often only faintly visible to the human eye.
On these outdoor adventures, as I first veer away from the human pathway I am still quite homo sapiens, striding upright, but as the deer trail narrows and then disappears I end up snaking under brush, slithering over fallen trees, or on all fours scrambling down steep slopes, drawn by the scent and sound of a swollen creek. By the time I am soaking my feet in the bracing water, I am now a finely attuned sensory being dynamically engaged with my environment. Whether I’ve literally walked my way into this state in the woods or imaginatively descended into my innate mammalian knowing, the interspecies gap now seems more bridgeable. Meeting another animal on hands and knees allows a different perspective.
In certain animal encounters, I experience their presence viscerally, as if they burrow inside me, and I can feel their presence for months and even years later. Right this moment I can easily conjure the coyote that ten years ago sat on his haunches just twenty feet away on the path leading down to my patio. I too was on my “haunches,” seated on a deck chair. It felt like a form of recognition as we held a gaze for what felt like many minutes before the coyote turned and trotted off, although most likely it was less than sixty seconds. Whatever the objective passage of time, however, this coyote resides within me forever, alongside the fox who visited my glass door at significant moments over the course of two years and the three hawks that held vigil with me for several hours before relinquishing my deceased parents’ beloved property to new owners.
When graced with unusual encounters or through tending an animal over time, it’s almost as if the animals become absorbed into my blood stream, passing through my veins and arteries that resemble the maze of deer trails I’ve followed in the natural world. These internalized mammals, birds and reptiles don’t linger in my brain crowded with facts, ideas and plans. Instead, I envision them flowing through my heart chambers, absorbing affection like oxygen molecules, then dispersing throughout my body at the cellular level, seeking common ground: nerves, bones, muscle, sinew. Animalia.
For several reasons, I’m reminded of a shy baby opossum I fostered at my home for Native Animal Rescue until he was ready for release into the wild. This small marsupial certainly found his way inside me – I feel a wave of fondness as I see his quivering pink nose and silky round ears. But he also comes to mind because he allowed me to witness firsthand the emergence of instinctive capacities.
My mentors at Native Animal Rescue provided several dead songbirds that hadn’t survived, despite our efforts. Our intention was to transition this opossum from cat kibble to what he might eat once he was out foraging on his own. I placed one small bird in the front of the cage.
Prior to this he had mostly stayed hidden in his little cardboard “cave” at the rear of the crate, scurrying back inside whenever I appeared. Now he boldly emerged and sniffed the air, then lost no time in approaching the bird. I was transfixed. He seemed to expand in size as he towered over his first “prey.” With no prior experience, he methodically devoured this bird - bones, beak, and leathery legs. Two small feathers were the only evidence of his transition from timidly nibbling kibble out of a bowl. The wild had merely lain dormant, waiting to manifest.
Observing him made me wonder what mechanisms might suddenly trigger me out of my ordinary thinking brain into a more instinctive way of “knowing.” Certainly powerful emotions, such as sudden fear, can shift us into primal instinct. A few years ago, hiking in rugged terrain, I was startled by a mountain lion down the trail. Instantly, I was transported into my reptilian brain, all senses alert to threat, my eyes rapidly scanning, my muscles poised to run or fight. Only then did my reasoning mind join forces as it recalled trailhead advice when encountering a mountain lion: Do not kneel or run. Back away. Look big.
A very different set of emotions, such as tenderness and deep empathy, can also facilitate an embodied intelligence, which does not rely on intellect. Walking through a meadow, I stumbled across a fawn nestled in tall grass. Not wanting to alarm this deer, I intuitively signaled with stilled movements, slowed breathing and a softened gaze that I wasn’t a threat, hardly even there in fact. Like the spotted fawn blending into the hillside, I, too, began to melt into the landscape.
In the last several decades, neuroscientists such as Stephen Porges have developed theories to explain our capacity to shift states of being. Our bodies house a polyvagal system, which transmits signals from the heart, lung and digestive systems to the brain. Sometimes called the second brain, the vagus nerves respond before thought kicks in, instantly assessing danger or safety and directing our physiological responses.
The ventral vagal nerve, sometimes call the smart nerve, is part of this system. It not only facilitates internal calming but also co-regulation, signaling safety and connection to another being through facial expression, gaze, tone of voice and synchronized breathing. This soothing capacity allows subliminal communication, one body to another, and explains how attunement with another can help shift us out of a disorganized or fearful state. While we may more typically associate this with human-to-human interactions, it can also occur across species.
My guess is people described as a horse or dog whisperer are able to easily drop into this state. Clearly they have found a communication system that does not rely on words. “The Animal Communicator” is an amazing documentary about such a person. One only has to watch Anna Breytenbach being accepted into a troop of feared wild baboons to witness the polyvagal system in action. Shortly after her arrival, the camera captures her lying among them while several baboons gently stroke her hair and arms.
Very down to earth, with a prior career in technology, Anna does not fit into any New Age stereotype. She believes anyone can communicate with animals by learning to enter a deeply respectful, calm reverie, and then becoming aware of any images and feelings rather than explicit verbal messages in human language. When she translates the very specific concerns of an aggressive black panther into words that the preserve’s animal handler can understand and thus address, we viewers are privy to a profound transformation.
While it takes dedicated training to develop this ability, I believe profound circumstances, if we can suspend our skepticism, temporarily foster a permeable membrane that allows us to access what we can’t ordinarily perceive. During periods of grief, falling in love, or prolonged solitude, we might have a series of incredible synchronicities, inexplicable animal encounters, dreams that feel more like visitations, or a sense of mystical connection with everything. The aftermath of trauma can also create a heightened sensitivity, unfortunately in ways that are often more debilitating than transcendent for the individual, but it can also increase the ability to intuit another’s pain.
A few years ago, a very close friend suffered a series of traumatic losses. Her grief and overwhelm shifted into an extended breakdown, limiting her capacity to engage in activities or human connection for many months. Mostly she sequestered herself at home, like the opossum seeking refuge in his darkened cardboard cave.
I brought her to my house one day, hoping to give her solace and human comfort. Instead, the deepest exchange happened human to non-human animal. My dog Shadow had his own traumatic history before I adopted him. Given his early experiences, he didn’t seek out or easily trust people who weren’t his main caregivers. In the past, Shadow generally kept a polite distance with my friend.
This day was quite different. As she and I began to talk, Shadow jumped up onto the couch next to her. Wanting to keep things as calm as possible, I gestured for him to get off. He obeyed but then jumped right back up, as if determined to be near her. He then rested one paw gently on her arm. She looked over and nodded at him. Then he placed his head very softly on her shoulder, his eyes looking up at her face. They remained in this position for many minutes as she and I continued our slow conversation.
My friend later gave words to her experience. “Given my fractured-ness, I think my wounding made me less a structured human, and more a natural animal. I leaned into animal blending. Shadow abided near me, I think, because he recognized something animal in me that gave us both shelter. It felt like an elemental recognition.” While I can’t fully know what either she or Shadow experienced, I find I am moved to tears each time I recount this story. I struggle to find language to describe my own feelings as I rewind the memory of shy Shadow responding to some tender calling. I am overcome with love.
This was not the only time I witnessed Shadow being drawn into service with a vulnerable human. I was recollecting with a friend who attended a writing retreat at my house over five years ago. She recalls beginning to cry as she experienced a deep wave of grief over her mother’s recent death. “Suddenly Shadow appeared, sitting to my left on the couch, his body right next to mine. It felt like he was looking straight into my heart with his brown eyes. I remember the moment like it was yesterday because I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so seen by a human being, let alone a dog. Shadow’s witness to my grief felt penetrating and the experience was healing to my grief in ways that magnified the love in the room.”
Some might say these are examples of an animal demonstrating human capacities such as empathy and compassion. I would flip that around, saying that when we humans enter a symbiotic, co-regulated state – nursing a baby, soothing an anxious animal, holding a grieving friend – we are accessing our mammalian wisdom that developed well before we acquired human reasoning and verbal aptitude. We’ve entered a common language we all “spoke” well before we ever uttered a word.
Not unlike Anna Breytenbach translating the panther’s concerns, it behooves us at this critical time to listen deeply to the more-than-human world in order to intuit the wisdom and plight of other beings and of the land itself. What do we hear? How can this guide us? We often operate out of fear, leading to simplistic fight, flight or freeze reactions. Like our brilliant internal polyvagal system, can we first harness our smart nerve, communicating calm regard, co-regulating with each other, creating a new ecology?
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To listen to the audio version of this essay:
The film "Animal Communicator" with Anna Breytenbach, made by Craig Foster, can be viewed for free at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2vhV63lx2k He recently received the Academy Award for Best Documentary for his equally amazing film, "My Octopus Teacher," which you can view on Netflix.
David Abram explores the permeability between species (and everything else) in his fascinating book, Becoming Animal. It is one of the most paradigm shifting books I have ever read.
If you want to read related posts, in the two part series "Something More" I share profound animal encounters and synchronicities after my mother's death. My previous blog, "Wild Village" explores our deep longing for connection with other animals. To hear more about my fostering experience with the opossum, click here to read "Ghost." (Or click the essay icons displayed below.)