Advocating for the souls of animals | An interview with Gay Bradshaw

Bradshaw: Yes, I do. Ethical living entails banning all enslavement no matter who the species. “Organic,” “free-range,” “humanely raised,” and similar labels describe the same purpose – to kill. “Humane” is not congruent with any kind of practice whose ultimate aim is to kill. How can one say one is honoring someone when the object of the relationship is to kill?

The MOON: In A language older than words, Derrick Jensen writes that the natural world, including animals, is always speaking to us, but that we have silenced it by refusing to listen. Do you think that’s true? How did you learn to listen?

Bradshaw: I do think it’s true. We objectify animals so we don’t listen to them. You don’t expect communication from an object so animals’ communications generally fall on deaf ears.

Listening involves a different dynamic than speaking, or teaching, or directing, which is how most of us communicate with animals. For example, you and I are having a conversation. We take turns speaking and when it’s not my turn to speak I’m tuning into you to understand what your meaning and intention might be. I really think the first step in listening is considering the other a being, not an object; and the second is caring; believing that being is of value, someone whose communication I want to receive. Listening is really a form of love. It grows out of the desire to “be with,” or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “inter-be.”

Listening also involves being open—like a satellite dish. When you’re open you start to receive, or perceive, things—sights, sounds, impressions, sensations—that you didn’t before. Receiving those impressions changes how you respond, opening you even more. Now you’re transforming. You become different because of your relationship to another being. There’s a softening. You’re more receptive and responsive; you’re not always running your own agenda on the world around you. You’re aware that other beings have purposes of their own.

The MOON: Can you tell us about some of the relationships you’ve had with animals that have transformed you?

Bradshaw: There was one that took place in my childhood that I’d forgotten all about until I was writing my book about elephant PTSD. Suddenly, out popped a memory that I hadn’t recalled for years. It was when I was a child and I went to a zoo with a friend and her family. I’d never been to a zoo before and this particular zoo was fairly decrepit. At the chimpanzee exhibit a zookeeper had a kind of show going on. People stood in line and one at a time could come up to the chimpanzee, who would make a face, or a sound, or have some kind of response to the person, and everyone would laugh. I didn’t want to do it; I was shy, but my friends pushed me forward. I was mortified because everyone was staring at me, but the chimpanzee had no reaction. The zookeeper started making jokes, trying to get me to relax, in case I felt bad that the chimpanzee wasn’t doing his “trick.” I just wanted to disappear.

All of a sudden, though, the chimpanzee grabbed my arm, and our eyes locked. It was one of those timeless moments in which I felt as if that chimpanzee and I communicated—wordlessly—down to our very souls. Of course the moment could only have lasted a second because the zookeeper immediately grabbed the chimpanzee and got him, or her, away from me out of fear for my safety. That relationship—brief as it was—transformed me. It became a reference point that I’ve been able to draw upon in my later life.

The MOON: I’ve been impressed with the stories on the Kerulos website of yours and others’ amazing work with animals: Karen Paollilo’s relationship with hippos; Charlie Russell’s life among grizzlies; your own work with elephants and The Billy and Kani Fund. You’ve worked with countless animals. Do you think close relationships are possible between humans and all animals—at least the ones we take the time to know?

Bradshaw: I think it’s like Charlie Russell says so beautifully (I paraphrase), “I live in the same neighborhood with bears, but we have different jobs. Some of them I’m close to, and some of them I’m not, which is how it is in most neighborhoods. Yet even if we’re not close, we’re cordial and try not to bother each other.”

That’s pretty much how I feel. Not all animals want to be our friends, but that doesn’t mean they are our enemies. Just as with humans. In fact, I think we can get along with humans a lot better than we currently do. Nonhuman animals, by comparison, make it easy to get along with them, but still, nonhuman animals have different personalities just like humans do. Some are going to be more fearful or skittish, or just not that interested in having a relationship. Again, focus on the “who” of an individual.

We live in an area surrounded by hunting and poaching and the wildlife have no refuge. We can’t legally protect them, but they know we respect them and provide whatever we can to give them peace. Our Tortoise and the Hare Sanctuary provides for rescued rabbits and special needs desert tortoises. We’re in relationship with all of them, but some you fall in love with and feel as if it’s mutual, and some the relationship never gets that close even though I still care about them, and vice versa. I’ve lived with nonhuman animals who perhaps didn’t feel as affectionately about me as I felt about them. So the whole spectrum of relationship is present and possible, just as it is in our relationships with other humans. I’ll give a specific example.

I’m very close with three wild turkeys who survived a massacre. The other members of their flock were shot by hunters while they were asleep in their roosts just off our property. It was extremely traumatizing for them; these surviving individuals were emotionally shattered, and it has been a long, difficult recovery for them.

At any rate, I started this little ritual. Every evening at five o’clock I’d go out with a glass of wine and sit to gaze at the beautiful sky, trees, and listen. The turkeys would be there so I’d bring birdseed. Most of the time, the turkeys are not really interested in the food. They groom, jump up into the apple tree and sit reflecting, or just lie down near me. It evolved into a beautiful communing time. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t realize how important it was for them until Daylight Savings Time ended. I didn’t go out at my appointed time—as told by the sun—but an hour later. They started waiting for me at the regular five o’clock but now the clock said it was four o’clock. I wasn’t ready to sit with a glass of wine yet so I went out and threw out some seed, but they lingered, waiting. They missed and wanted our ritual together. Now I go out at four o’clock with a cup of tea and then when they are finished and ready they walk away to roost for the night.

A lot of people say, “Oh, animals are just there for the food.” And I have to think, “Wow. That’s such a sad way to think.” It denigrates these beautiful souls and also denigrates the whole ritual of “breaking bread” with someone. If we think sharing a meal is just about the food, then we’re dismissing the whole notion of community, of ourselves as social and spiritual earthlings, the land as the generous provider of sustenance, and how lucky we are to be able to eat and be together. The ridiculing or marginalizing of sharing food is symptomatic of decadence and indifference. Another reason why the move to subsistence, plant-based living is wise – it will help re-kindle an appreciation for life and each other.

The MOON: Tell us about the work of The Kerulos Center.

Bradshaw: We’re a small nonprofit, located on thirty-two acres in Oregon, and our mission is to create a world where animals can live in dignity and freedom. We began with my work on the importance of animal psychology and spirituality in conservation. This drew from my research into elephant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In its early years, The Kerulos Center focused on drawing attention to the problems—the contradictions—in our thinking about and treatment of animals and applying the entirety of science (aka trans-species psychology) to ethics, law, and policy. After laying this groundwork we switched our focus to what I call “the solution space.” Now that we know humans and other animals share consciousness, how can we live so that other animals can enjoy dignity and freedom?

Our Center works internationally with elephants and chimpanzees and others advocating their liberation from captivity and freedom from other exploitation. We collaborate with many other groups and individuals. This past year, we created a sanctuary for rescued, special needs endangered desert tortoises who joined our resident rabbits.

We don’t exclude humans from our work. Core to our trans-species mission is support of tribal, subsistence human rights. For instance, we offer education programs like “Sacred Bones,” which is designed to support a deep individual and cultural shift to what we call nature-based consciousness. We provide tools for inner exploration coupled with so-called “objective learning.” Families, children, students, and professionals can take a dynamic mentored curriculum that combines study with practical hands-on work to directly support self-determination of wildlife and tribal people.

We also have a “Being Sanctuary” program based on ten principles drawn from trans-species psychology and trauma recovery. We train people to work in animal sanctuaries around the world. Some of them intern with one of our partners, such as Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand and Animal Aid Unlimited, India. We also teach people how to transform their own homes and communities into a sense of sanctuary. That’s what is really needed—for the world to become safe for wildlife and other animals.

We see our role as supporting and empowering humans, as well as non-humans, in making this transition. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and when people are overwhelmed they often shut down and fall into depression or aggression. Our work is to support individuals as they make meaningful change in their lives and become re-empowered. Loren Eiseley’s story of “The Star Thrower” is one of our inspirations. It is about a man walking along the beach who sees another man far ahead throwing stranded starfish back into the water. Although his first reactions are skeptical—there are so many stranded starfish; what difference can one man make—in the end, he stoops and picks up a starfish, throwing him back to the sea. “I understand,” he says to the man, “Call me another thrower.” And later, he allows himself to think, “The star thrower is not alone any longer. After us, there will be others. . .”

It’s a beautiful story and it says so much about how we can each make our way through these challenging times. Every gesture that helps even a single starfish changes the world for that individual.



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