A Conversation with Carl Safina: Beyond Words
by Aryae Coopersmith, Richard Whittaker, Aug 14, 2020
Through its Awakin Calls, ServiceSpace helps amplify the work of inspiring people around the world. They do this through in-depth conversations each week. Following is the trascript of a conversation with Carl Safina, founder of the Safina Center and a leading conservationist. Safina is the author of several acclaimed books including: Becoming Wild - How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace; Beyond Words - What Animals Think and Feel; Song for the Blue Ocean; Eye of the Albatross; The View From Lazy Point - A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. Safina works to show that nature and human dignity require each other and that our relationship with the natural world affects human relations. His conviction is that scientific facts imply the need for moral and ethical responses from us. His most recent books explore the cognitive and emotional capacities of the minds of animals.
Host: Aryae Coopersmith
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Aryae: I'm happy to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call. Today, our special guest speaker is author and renowned conservationist Carl Safina. Our moderator is Richard Whittaker. In 1998, Richard founded the art magazine works & conversations. He’s also the West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. So Richard, over to you.
Richard: Thank you, Aryae and thank you Doctor Safina for being with us today. Those of you listening have read our guest’s impressive biographical notes so I won’t go through them. To begin with, Carl, I thought it would be interesting to hear a little about the early influences in your life that pointed you in the direction of the work you’ve been doing for so many years. Would you talk a little bit about those early influences?
Carl Safina: Yes. Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York, a city kid, not in a wild place. Yet, my father’s hobby was breeding canaries, so there were always birds singing in our apartment. My parents were inclined to bring me to places like the zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the Coney Island Aquarium, the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. For reasons that I don’t understand but maybe have to do with those early exposures, I always really loved animals. I was just totally fascinated by everything having to do with animals, how they looked, how they moved. They just seemed, I guess from a kid’s point of view, they just seemed really cool.
When I was really quite young, about seven years old, I started raising homing pigeons in our backyard in Brooklyn. I got some very intimate experiences in those ways with the canaries and the pigeons, you can just be inches away, watching them get on and off their eggs, and feed their babies, and have their squabbles. The main strokes of their lives seemed very similar to ours. We lived with our families and our apartments, and like my pigeons, the grownups left and came back and fed their babies, and then everybody went to sleep. The similarities were very obvious and those were my early experiences.
I guess there could be other people who would have the same experiences and move along to different things, but I just really fell in love with living things and animals and always wanted more. I wanted to be closer and I wanted to see wild animals somehow, where they lived in wild places, which I didn’t get to anything like that until I was nine years old. So, I think that wild places seemed really exotic to me, whereas to a lot of people who grew up on farms, cities seemed exotic. That’s the way it was for me anyway.
Richard: You know, there’s something about the kind of purity of a child’s experience with an animal. When you’re seven years old and you’re there with your pet, or in your case with your pigeons, that experience is so immediate. Can you say a little bit more about any particular moments with a pigeon or a bird or some animal through your child’s eyes?
Carl: Well, with the pigeons particularly, we had a founding pair and I felt like I knew them very well. I think my flock eventually got to be about 20 or two dozen birds at its largest. I only had them until I was ten years old, we moved away when I was ten years old. We had to “get rid of”, as we said, all the pigeons, and that was very hard. But I would just like, be in the coop, and they would be doing their thing. I’d be feeding them, or I’d be cleaning the coop, or I’d just be watching them, and I’d let them out, they’d come back in. I loved watching them fly around. We all knew what the routine was. If I let them out, they knew they could go get some exercise and fly for a while. Then, when they wanted to come back, they would come back, and after they came back, I would feed them.
But it was very close. It was not too different from the feelings people have about their dogs or cats, I guess. They weren’t affectionate with me, but they certainly recognized me. They knew who I was and we all knew what the routine was. In that way, it was just very close and personal sort of experiences. Later, I had a lot of other kinds of experiences with other sorts of…mostly wild animals, although I have had dogs and cats. I used to be a falconer and I actually caught, and tamed, and trained several hawks and falcons. Even more recently, every now and then we somehow fall in with an orphaned wild animal of some kind and raise it. We’re a little more sophisticated now, I think, because we’ve been able to raise some wild orphans without ever confining them, and they hang around and keep coming back.
About a year ago we were given a very small, nearly dead screech owl chick that had fallen out of its nest, but nobody knew where the nest was. That owl is loose on our property and shows up at dusk every night, and it waits for us before dawn every morning. It comes when it's called. I mean, I never actually trained it to do anything, but we have a fantastic relationship with this wild, little owl—it’s amazing.
Richard: Yes. I remember when I was six or seven I found these garden spiders where I lived just mesmerizing. They were so beautiful. I also remember I lived in a small town and seeing something outside my window, and being absolutely transfixed by it. It turned out that it was a hummingbird. That moment of encountering a miraculous thing out there hovering in the air remains with me even today. Then there were butterflies, cats, dogs - the lizards. From my own experience, the intensity of these impressions are life-long.
Carl: You just jogged my memory about something that I sometimes talk about. I'm glad that what you just mentioned about the hummingbird reminded me of it. When I was a little kid and were in that Brooklyn apartment, we had the kitchen window open one night, and a bird flew in. Like I said, this was Brooklyn and it was an apartment building, but a bird flew through the window, and it was an incredible bird. It was like nothing I had ever seen before or imagined.
My father had sort of an early prototype of a field guide. It wasn’t what you think of with lots of good pictures and setups for identification. He determined, and I remember it this way because I was not old enough to read, but he determined that it was called an olive backed thrush. It had all these spots on its belly and breast. I thought because it came in at night, it seemed like a messenger from some gigantic, mysterious world that was going on in parallel out there, with things somehow moving through the darkness.
There’s a story about Einstein as a child seeing a compass for the first time, and seeing how the compass needle was behaving in obedience to unseen forces, and it made a lifelong impression on him. I think that that thrush, in that way, that mystery of what’s out there and parallel with our lives, made a very lifelong impression on me.
Richard: What a beautiful metaphor, bringing in the compass, where the needle responds to unseen forces. That strikes me as profoundly apt in how that bird represented a universe of, in a way, unseen forces. I think I mentioned in a brief conversation we had a couple of days ago, how it seems that children are often instinctively attracted to animals very deeply. Do you think there’s some truth in that? And do you have any thoughts about that?
Carl: Yeah. It generally seems that kids are curious. Maybe small animals or many other animals when they’re small, are in their most curious, early learning phases, and I think humans are not different from that. I think that sort of the tragedy is that a lot of parents squash that curiosity by saying, “Don’t touch that,” or “That’s dirty,” or, “I'm over here.” I see these kinds of things and it sort of breaks my heart when children are drawn to something and are curious. Somebody told me that the definition of a scientist was the person who didn’t stop asking why is the sky blue?
Richard: That’s beautiful. Well that does seem like a tragedy and one could extrapolate from the way our early experiences with nature are put away somehow, that in some large way, that allows us to do the sorts of heartless things we do with animals, the loss of a sense of connection with the natural world we can feel when we’re children.
Carl: Right, right.
Richard: I mean we go to the store and we get things in packages to eat.
Carl: Yeah. Most people’s food is very impersonal and I sometimes say you can define a good meal by how much of a story there is in a meal. If you’re growing your own food, or even if you’re fishing or hunting, or in my case, we often go clamming. That kind of self-produced food comes with a bit of a story with it, and there’s not much of a story to getting your food across a counter.
Richard: Yeah, wrapped in plastic. Do you see a trajectory in your own life, beginning with your experiences as a child with birds and pigeons, and where it’s led you in your work in recent years?
Carl: Yeah. Well, my first interests were what do animals do and why do they do it. I became an ecologist and I studied the behavior of wild sea birds, to follow on that. I did that for about a decade, that and studying hawks and falcons. I noticed that especially in the ocean, the fish, and the sharks, the sea turtles were getting scarcer all the time, every year. So, I became a fisheries policy advocate and activist and I did that for about ten years. We worked very hard to reform fisheries’ policy with some astonishing success in some cases.
Then I started doing more writing, which resulted in my first book. My writing went from writing about my research, to writing about policy, to writing some books about issues of the ocean, mostly. Then in the last few years, three books or so, my work interests have broadened into the human relationship with the rest of the living world much more broadly than just a working focus on the ocean and ocean conservation. It’s this relationship between humans and the rest of the world, and also, as part of that, going much deeper into what life is and what life means for wild animals, how they actually live, what their social groups are like. That’s been the main focus of my last main book and the new book that’s coming out in April of this year, which is called, Becoming Wild.
Richard: Now, I found some quotations from you. One is from when you were on a boat with dolphins around the boat. They were making dolphin sounds, and the whole thing was pretty intense. Suddenly you felt so deeply touched that you couldn’t resist asking - as you put it, “The forbidden question.” The forbidden question is addressed to the dolphins; it’s “Who are you?”
Carl: That’s in the very first few paragraphs, actually the very first paragraph of my last book called, Beyond Words.
Richard: Would you talk about that, about the forbidden question, and how that’s playing out for you?
"I learned this is called “anthropomorphizing” and you’re not supposed to do that. The orthodox view is there’s no way to know what life is like for other animals, that other animals don't have human thoughts or emotions. I learned all of that and then realized that what I knew when I was seven was actually more accurate."
Carl: Yes. When I had the pigeons and the other animals, it just was always obvious to me that, in broad strokes, they were very much like us. Then, as I pursued an education along those lines, I learned this is called “anthropomorphizing” and you’re not supposed to do that. The orthodox view is there’s no way to know what life is like for other animals, that other animals don't have human thoughts or emotions. I learned all of that and then realized that what I knew when I was seven was actually more accurate.
So, because I have the professional training, know all the jargon and have been exposed to all of that thinking, I know what it’s like to not be allowed to follow your thoughts in certain directions. But that’s not really scientific.
Science itself, which, even if you just talk about behavioral science itself, has come around a lot in the last few years. When I was a kid, almost nothing was known about neurobiology, or how hormones affect moods, or the tremendous commonalities between the nervous systems of all vertebrates and even some invertebrates; we know a lot more now. When I was a small child, there was almost no studies of wild animal behavior, but now, there are thousands and thousands of such studies; so things have come a very far way. A lot of that really rigid thinking is softening quite a bit.
Richard: That’s heartening to hear. I see that I just said heartening automatically. I mean, science is a fabulous thing with its empirical method. But on the other hand, many indigenous people locate the seat of real intelligence in the heart. The way we started our conversation with your early experiences - which I'm sure most of can relate to - is that as a child, one feels touched so deeply by other animals. I think it's deep because it includes feeling - a heart connection. Does this spark any thoughts for you?
Carl: Well, I mean it’s such a gigantic sort of topic. We say the heart, and it feels that way, but I think all of this stuff actually happens in our brain. We have thoughts and we have emotions, and sometimes our emotions override our thoughts and our intellect and our better judgment. Well, it’s a weird thing about the human intellect, because I think humans are actually the only irrational animals. We have these intellectual constructs that create tremendous irrationalities and tremendous disconnects with real life and the real world, and in part, those things cause us to deny the obvious evidence that we obviously see.
"We have these intellectual constructs that create tremendous irrationalities and tremendous disconnects with real life and the real world, and in part, those things cause us to deny the obvious evidence that we obviously see."
There are many examples of that kind of thing, but I'll tell you one that’s kind of funny that relates directly to this topic about humans and animals and science and rigidity. There was a researcher named Donald Griffin who was a bit of a genius. He was the person who finally determined how bats navigate in the dark, and that they really did have sonar, and how the sonar worked. Then he came up with two books about animal consciousness. By animal, I mean animals other than humans, because humans are animals, but that’s the way we often talk. So, he came out with these two books and he was widely scorned by behavioral scientists in the academic community, but I was very interested in the topic. It seemed obvious to me that animals have a much better idea of what’s going on around them than they had been given credit for.
So, I went to one of his talks and it was a public talk, it was not in a university. So, he speaks for about an hour, making the case that non-human animals are conscious, that they have felt experiences, that they are aware of input from their sensory organs, that they have emotions, and he makes his case in a way that I thought was - I was a science student at the time - and I thought that was a good talk and a very convincing case. I sort of agreed with him before I even got in the room, because I’d read one of the books, and I agreed with all of it from my own experiences. So, he’s making this elaborate, scientific case, and then it’s time for questions. As I said, this was a public talk. So, the first person raises their hand and says, “Hi. I hope you’ll forgive me if I've missed something, but you seem to say that animals are conscious of the world around them. Isn’t that obvious?” Then he did what a lot of people did, which was tell an anecdote about his dog.
Richard: And I know you have a book about dogs and wolves.
Carl: Right. So that book, Beyond Words, which came out a few years ago, has been made into a two-volume, young readers edition, where it’s edited way down for young, like adolescent people, or people who are maybe 12 to 15 years old. The first volume is about the first half of the original book, which is about elephants and whales, the largest animals on land and the largest animals in the sea. The second volume is coming out in April, and that’s about dogs and wolves - and wolves are the ancestors of all dogs.
Richard: Well, you have very touching stories in there. A few years back, I had this thought that if there were more stories being shared—uncanny stories about animals, it would help people more of an empathic connection with animals. I mean, there are just endless numbers of uncanny stories that people have, and yet, the respectable, scientific materialist’s view of animals is that they don’t think, they don’t feel. So these animal stories can help us feel a relationship. I sense that this is a central thing that’s going on in your own work, and it represents your own experience. Would you go along with that?
Carl: Yes. I actually think one of the great advances in behavioral science is the smartphone, because there are videos all over the place now of animals doing things that I didn’t think animals did. A lot of them are really eye-opening and really incredible; they’re all over Facebook and YouTube and they add up to something. Unfortunately, they usually lack context. Yet there’s a lot you can see that’s really quite amazing.
Just a couple of days ago, there was one - a lot of people seemed to see this - of a coyote and a badger together. The coyote was about to go into a concrete tunnel, and was very obviously not only waiting for the badger to catch up with it, but was doing play bows and hopping around; it was in a very good mood. As soon as the badger caught up to it, they both went through this concrete tunnel together. I never thought that would happen, I just never thought that. There was a little note there saying, “Coyotes are known to hunt with badgers.” I didn’t know that coyotes ever hunt with badgers, but there it was. So that was eye-opening for me and lets me look deeper into it and follow that up.
Richard: That’s amazing. And yes, YouTube is full of these videos. It reminds me of a story an artist friend, Jane Rosen, told me. A good part of her adult life was shaped by an experience she had with a hawk. She was walking around on this horse ranch south of San Francisco when she heard this very clear voice saying, “Tell my story.” Nobody was around so she looked up and there was a redtailed hawk soaring just above her. Ever since then, she’s been doing all kinds of sculptures of hawks and she’s quite successful. And a few years later she had her own 40 acre property in the same area. One day her dogs were barking and she went to see what was up. A big raven was stuck underneath her dining room table underneath a chair. So, she got down on her hands and knees. She said to the raven, “You have that big beak and could hurt me with it; and you have those claws, and you could hurt me with them. But if you don’t hurt me, I'll get you out of there. If you hurt me then you’re on your own with these dogs.” This is the story she tells.
The raven was still and she reached towards it under the chair. She said the raven ducked its head and beak down. So she started to pick it up, and the raven tucked its feet in underneath and allowed her to pick it up. So she took the raven outside and set it on a table in her patio and stepped back a few steps.
She said, “You know, the raven didn’t fly away. It just looked at me; it was as if he was saying thank you.” Eventually, it flew away, but ever since then, she’s had a relationship with that raven. So, this is an uncanny story, what do you think of that?
Carl: It’s very hard to know what to think of that, but some people have all the luck. We don’t have ravens in our house. I'm very, very intrigued about ravens because on behavioral tests, they basically perform on a par with chimpanzees. They appear to be exceptionally intelligent and aware of what’s going on. Why in the world a wild raven would end up under your dining room table, it seems like something was very wrong before she got there, so it’s hard to evaluate that story and it’s really, really interesting to me. There’s a wonderful book called Mind of the Raven, by a great behavioral scientist named Bernd Heinrich, who’s written numerous, tremendously insightful books about wild animals’ lives and behavior. So anyway, all I can say about that story is I'm very jealous. I want a raven to come into my house [laughs].
Richard: You know, one of the things that occurred to me, Carl, while I was thinking about our conversation to come, was Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou. It seems that your work is more aligned with an "I - thou" approach.
Carl: I don’t know what an “I and Thou” relationship exactly means. I try, in most cases, to use the word “who,” and try to at least put the language on a level playing field. I think that most people who live like we do here in America, most people have essentially no contact with other species besides dogs and cats. The separation, I think, is getting wider over time. I think this has results that are playing out in a catastrophic way for wild things and wild places - just in terms of their prospects for being able to continue to exist. They have fewer and fewer places to be, and smaller and smaller areas to occupy; most populations of wild animals are at tremendous all-time lows. That largely is a result of our lack of respect for them, and in many cases it’s still a tremendously hostile and fearful way that most people tend to regard free-living animals.
Richard: Yes. So this is terribly alarming and does not bode well for us, for our own future. Now, from what I've read, you use the word “dignity” in a centrally important way. Could you talk a little bit about what you mean by dignity and the importance it has for us for our own preservation?
Carl: Well, in the context of our relationship with the natural world, I think that human dignity and the natural world now are completely dependent on one another, which was not the case for a long time. Where people have lost their dignity, for example, with very oppressive governments or really extreme poverty, they don’t have the luxury to take care of the natural world or to set a place aside. They just can’t afford to, and they can’t afford to think about it, usually. So, they can’t take care of nature. But where nature is not taken care of or is really demolished - like in Haiti, for instance - people cannot regain their dignity. In a place that has no natural beauty or no room for anything, life just becomes a matter of grim survival. So I think that nature and human dignity are completely codependent at this point.
Richard: There’s something essential for our own well-being. That breadth of experience as a human being is absolutely dependent upon the condition of nature around us - you’re saying something like that.
Carl: Yes. I think dignity involves respect and respectfulness. It involves at least enough leisure time to think about life, how best to live, how best to treat people and operate in the world. I think dignity involves those kinds of things, really feeling fully like a human being, in the better sense of the word. There are many people who are deprived of a dignified existence by political oppressiveness or war, or famine, or tremendous poverty, or living totally disconnected from nature.
Richard: And you make a reference to the moral dimension, the moral as an essential ingredient of life. Would you reflect a little bit on that?
"I think one’s morality has to do with how one answers the question how should we live? Obviously, there’s a very wide range of the ways people have answered that question. Our relationship to most living things is, and must be, I think, a moral one, not a practical one."
Carl: Well, I think one’s morality has to do with how one answers the question how should we live? Obviously, there’s a very wide range of the ways people have answered that question. Our relationship to most living things is, and must be, I think, a moral one, not a practical one. As we see, unfortunately, it’s possible to live without a good relationship, a constructive relationship, to the natural world. I mean, most of the things in our own civilization have to do, unfortunately, with destruction of the living world, of other living beings - populations of wild animals and their habitats - and yet, we keep growing the human population based on that.
Many conservationists say that we have to protect wild animals because we need them, and if they’re in danger, then that means we’re endangered. I just think that’s basically false. Until you get to the really, really broad strokes of it - like if the air and water are poisonous - it’s not good for people, although there are a lot of people living with poisonous air and water. We don’t need lions and tigers and elephants. There are no lions and tigers and elephants roaming in the Western Hemisphere, not African lions anyway. Obviously, we do quite well living without those beings. But it would be a catastrophe and a tremendous moral debacle to think that it’s in any way okay for us to destroy them for eternity - and we have destroyed quite a few species for eternity, essentially destroyed them.
So, it’s not that we need these other species in a practical way; we need them in a spiritual way and a moral way - and in a way that leads to continued possibility for them and for us - for human dignity. We need them to let all the people, who I hope will come after us, have choices in the world, rather than cutting their options short. So, those are all moral considerations.
Richard: Of course, there are aspects of the way species are disappearing that are due to our way of life; our extractive technologies and so forth are threatening greater losses going forward. Wouldn’t you agree? I mean, the continuing loss of bees and problems in the fisheries going forward will have a catastrophic effect on us. Don’t you think?
Carl: It may eventually, yeah, and why risk it?
Richard: This moral dimension, and dignity, you point to seems to have an aspect in which we feel related. I have to feel some connection with these other beings, and that happens through feeling, it seems to me. It seems that this is one thrust of your work.
Carl: Yes, that’s definitely true. I think that it’s an interplay between sheer feeling and sheer intellect. Because the more I understand about the living world, the more we understand about interrelationships, interdependence, evolution - the deep relationships among things – these are things we would never know, really, without exploring them intellectually. There’s something about the age of the Earth, about the Earth’s place in the solar system, the solar system’s place in the galaxy, so on - these things are not things you just know by looking around outside. When you do know them, it’s by these really deep explorations where people have taken lifetimes to come up with one little part of the answer to one of those questions; then we get to put a lot of it together in our understanding. It changes how I feel about things, as well as how I think about them.
Richard: Thank you for that. I wanted to get to this quote from you. The quote is, “What would it be like to be joy-stricken? To labor through the days inconsolably shadowed by delight, pierced by overwhelming, paralyzing beauty. Immobilized by wonder, felled by curiosity, unable to get past appreciation. Unable to function, except to ask over and over giddily, ‘Why me? Why such luck?’” Is that a quote from you?
Carl: Yes, it's from me.
Richard: I love it. Tell us about that.
Carl: It’s in my book, Beyond Words. I don’t really remember what prompted me. Many of us feel grief-stricken a lot of the time. We often read horrendous things that are very, very disturbing, and I find the current time very dispiriting and disturbing in many ways - more so than probably at any other time in my life, and I've lived through some very disturbing times. I think one day I was just thinking, “I'm a little tired of feeling grief-stricken and so disturbed by what I'm reading about. What would it be like to be joy-stricken?”
I wrote a poem along those lines and while I was writing something in Beyond Words, I thought that poem would fit in really well so, I just turned the poem into a paragraph and that’s the paragraph you just read.
Aryae: Richard and Carl, at this point, I’d like to open it up for questions for those who are listening. We’ll be getting to these just after one more question from you, Richard.
Richard: Thank you, Aryae. Well, Carl, I just think that’s a beautiful passage. Now I’m wondering - did you have anything directly to do with that humpback whale that was near San Francisco, and it was wrapped up in lines from crab traps? It probably wasn’t going to survive when some people swam out to it in wetsuits and cut the lines and freed it. Did you have any direct relationship with that story?
Carl: No. I just was amazed by that story. There was a woman who had invented a character for children’s books named “Nina Delmar, little girl of the sea” and she wanted me to write a book for Nina Delmar. For quite a while, I couldn’t figure out what story I could come up. Then I read the news, the San Francisco Chronicle account of that whale and how, after they freed it, it didn’t swim away right away; it went around to each of the divers and was nudging them a little bit, very gently, as if to say, thank you. So, I simply put Nina Delmar on a boat that got the call to go and help rescue that whale. I let her get in the water and help do that. So I fictionalized her into that story. It’s a sweet, little book and the woman who illustrated it did a fantastic job. It’s called Nina Delmar and the Great Whale Rescue.
Aryae: Okay. This is from Genevieve Cassani a caller in Webster Groves, Missouri. She says, “As a child, I was mesmerized by the praying mantis and their slow, thin legs and feelers moving. I wonder, is it possible to listen and hear the sound of movements as well as see them?”
Carl: I don’t know the answer to that question, exactly. There are so many insects that have songs and calls, and obviously we hear them in the summertime if we live where it’s warm. I don’t know about Praying Mantises, but they are almost universally fascinating, especially to children - including myself. On the rare moments when I see one nowadays, I do find them mesmerizing.
Aryae: A lot of us, obviously, know the sounds of crickets. Is what crickets do - do other insects do similar things to make a sound?
Carl: There are many, many insects that call. Then there are fireflies that use light as an attraction. And there are different kind of fireflies; some of them have different codes, and some of them are synchronous where they all flash at the same time. I've never seen those, but they exist. When we talk about things like crickets and fireflies, often, we don’t realize that there may be many species of crickets and fireflies, which there happen to be. It’s like that for a lot of things.
Aryae: Thank you. Now we have a dial-in caller, Wendy.
Wendy: I first wanted to just mention the synchronicity of the call today with Carl, because in the Jewish tradition, today is the day of celebrating the birds. It’s called Shabbat Shirah, and our practice is to go out and feed the birds. So, it kind of blew my mind that the call was for today. I want to ask you about the quality of relationships with animals as pets and animals in the wild. With pets we really want to connect very deeply in putting ourselves forward, and in the wild, I think it’s the quality of stepping back and appreciating. But sometimes I think these ways can get confused. Would you comment on that?
Carl: I'm probably a bad person to ask, because I see the border as remarkably fuzzy. I do think that as a general rule of thumb, wild animals should stay wild. They certainly are not likely to do best in captivity, although they can live a long time in captivity and be healthy. In the wild, many, many of them die early. So, if you think that keeping a wild animal in a cage for more than its natural lifespan is good for that animal, then that’s a different discussion, It’s not going to be breeding; it’s not going to be contributing to reality or having a chance to do so. So that’s a reason for not having wild animals in captivity. As a kid, I was mainly interested in having wild animals in captivity. I tried to catch and trap everything I could get my hands on.
We’ve been watching this PBS series called The Durrells. It’s sort of a fictionalization about the childhood of guy named Gerald Durrell, who as a child, had a backyard zoo and became not only a major zoo manager, but a major conservationist. I was kind of like he was. As I mentioned earlier, I was involved with falconry and I developed actual working relationships, working partnerships with these wild birds, some of which went back into the wild after spending some time with me. And occasionally we raise a wild orphan. We give them free rein, but sometimes they hang around for months or years. So, I found those relationships very enriching, but on the other hand, I also have been a professional researcher of wild animals, and I think we can offer them good care.
These orphans we’ve raised are very healthy, and I think that’s been okay for us and for them. A difference is that when you have really domesticated animals, especially dogs, more than anything else, they are keyed to people and they can be very, very much at home in a human home and a human life. There’s really no other animal of which that’s true of, but even cats can be very at home in your house, although they’re not so different from the wild type emotionally, or physically, or behaviorally. I find all of these animals fascinating and I find interactions with them really remarkable.
I've also been out in recent years with people who study wild animals that are completely habituated to the presence of researchers and can be watched at very close range, essentially ignoring you and going about their business. But they wouldn’t be doing that if the researchers hadn’t spent years getting them accustomed to their presence. I think being able to really watch them in close quarters has helped us understand most of what we understand about their lives. So I guess if I needed to make a rule about it, I would say wild animals do not make good pets; it’s not the best thing for them.
Aryae: Thank you. Here is a question from Heidi Toner from St. Alberta in Canada. She says, “Most of my classmates attended school from farms, where almost everything was homegrown, and all of our animals were treated as pets. It wasn’t easy to eat Molly, but we had more gratitude and reverence for them. We saved birds, bunnies, squirrels, any animal in need. Can you see progress and hope in your time?
Carl: I almost feel like attitudes are splitting. On the one hand, I think there are more people interested in compassion, in vegetarian or vegan diets, or at least giving farmed animals a nicer life before we end it. But on the other hand, we have billions of animals in factory farms who are made to live much worse lives before they die. There are far more of them than ever before partly because the human population has tripled. So, the industrialization of our relationship with nature has, I think, increased the overall brutality, even though we have humane slaughter guidelines. So, on the one hand, we have more people concerned than in the past, and on the other hand, the brutalization seems to have intensified.
Aryae: In response to what you were just saying, Preeta, from our Awakin Call team, asks: “Given all of that, what are your own eating practices with respect to animals?”
Carl: The details of that are in an article I wrote called, What I Eat. Basically, I don’t buy the products of farmed animals. I don’t shun farmed animal food when it’s served to me. I grew up eating all that. If people have me over for dinner and they’ve cooked some meat, I just eat it, rather than make them feel bad. Sometimes they say we were going to make chicken or something, but we made squash instead, and I appreciate that. I do what I do in my home when I go to restaurants, which is to not order farmed animal meat. I think that dairy farming is cruel, but I don’t completely avoid salads that have some cheese. Once in a while, I will go get a slice of pizza, but I don’t buy cheese for the home.
I do go fishing, and one of the reasons I go fishing is because I enjoy fishing. The other reason is that making and producing your own food is, in many ways, a lot better than buying it. If you get a fish from the ocean, it doesn’t reduce the ability of the ocean to produce another fish. Any farmed thing, even if it’s lettuce or broccoli, is farmed on land that is no longer available for every living thing. So, there’s a tradeoff between the pain that’s inflicted on the fish and the destruction that’s caused by farming vegetables. If they’re not organically farmed, then you have a real mess, because you have pesticides and fertilizers involved. So there’s no free lunch and there’s no pure life. We all have to eat something and it has to come from somewhere, so we just try to do what we think is better.
Aryae: We have a lot of other comments. This one is from Phong in Vietnam. He says, “Dear Richard and Doctor Safina, I'm deeply honored to be in the presence of both of you here. I'm curled up and wrapped in so many different images and sweet childhood memories this conversation has brought up. Can I please ask Doctor Safina, where can we draw strength in these quite despairing times, when our close friends, and especially young children, are so insolated from nature and animals, that a trip to the forest or a low-tech farm seems annoying, at best, or dangerous, at worst?”
Carl: Well, thank you for that question. I think that taking young people for experiences in nature, of any kind, is really good. It may just being able to provide a bird feeder so they get to see some wild birds. Almost anywhere, birds can come for food. It may be a trip to the shore or a trip to the forest, or some farm, or even a good zoo. There are a lot of terrible zoos around the world, but there are some good ones. For me, those things were major experiences when I was young. I would avoid trying to load up small children with concerns about all the things that are bad about the world - threats to animals, pollution, and things like that. If they can learn to love, they will later try to take care of what they love. I think that that’s the best way to approach it with small children.
As far as drawing strength, often when I’m working in my writing room, I’ll walk outside for a break. My head is sometimes about to explode and suddenly I’m startled by how peaceful the world seems. The neighborhood is quiet and some birds are singing. So, for me, the strength comes from balance, not from ignoring or avoiding things. I’ll take the dogs for a walk on the beach, go birdwatching or sometimes I’ll just watch a movie and have a dish of ice cream; just balancing out for a little while. It can get very intense and can kind of grind you down, but it helps if you realize how much beauty is still in the world.
There are things that are important to me that I thought were gone forever when I was young - certain birds like ospreys and Peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Whales were being killed by the tens of thousands every year when I was a kid. Now we have all those birds back in abundance; we have whales that are easily visible from shore during the summer where I live here on Long Island. Some of the fish are more abundant now than they used to be, while some of the fish are a lot scarcer than they used to be.
So, it’s not that all things are going down together. And all the things that have come back, have come back because a few people worked really hard to make that happen. So I draw strength from all of those things.
Aryae: Thank you, Carl. I live on the Pacific Coast and the pelicans were almost gone a few decades ago. The State of California decided to protect them and now we see pelicans all over the place, and that gives me a lot of hope. We’re just a couple of minutes away from our committed closing time. Richard, do you have any brief reflections as we’re closing our call?
Richard: Thank you, Aryae. I'm very touched by your work, Carl. I'm grateful to you, as I'm sure all of us are.
Carl: Thank you very much.
Richard: Now I'm not sure where I picked it up, but somehow I have the impression that music is important for you. I just thought I would throw that out there, in case you wanted to share any thoughts about music.
Carl: Yeah, I love music and I think music is a really miraculous thing. I play the drums. When I was in high school and all through college, I did a lot of gigs and I was able to pay most of my college bills by playing the drums. I still play a bit and go to some jam sessions. I like jazz mainly. There’s a great jazz musician, Wayne Shorter. I was reading something recently where he said that a human being is at their best when they are playing music. I love that quote and I love that idea. I didn’t think into it too deeply, but I'm not sure you can argue too much with it. It’s just really a wonderful thought about human potential, anyway. I also have music going when I'm writing and it seems to help me focus.
Aryae: Thank you Richard. Carl, our traditional final question is, how can we, as members of the ServiceSpace community, help support the work that you are doing?
Carl: Well, I'll answer that directly. I have a not-for-profit group called The Safina Center and you know how that goes. Everybody can use some extra funding. If you go on the website, safinacenter.org, you can see the work, and if you’re inspired to donate, you can. But I thought you were going to ask what can each of us do when it all seems so daunting.
Aryae: That’s a good question, so what can each of us do when it all seems so daunting?
Carl: My basic answer is do something. You can’t do everything, but don’t do nothing. A lot of people are paralyzed by the fact they can’t single-handedly fix something big. I did focus on one area for a long time, which was fisheries’ policy reform, and trying to get better fisheries management. That wasn’t my only interest by a long shot, but it was my focus for about ten years. Then it was the focus of my writing for another five or ten years. But each of us can think about what we’ll eat, who we will vote for, what we will buy, or - if we have enough money - what we will invest in, what we will drive, what groups we will support or join; and we can choose what will we talk about, what we will throw away, what we will do for a living, how many kids we will have and who we want to be in the world. We can all act on those questions. None of us can do everything, but we can all do something.