Habitat of the Heart

by Belinda Recio

The coronavirus pandemic has had many consequences for humans, with the most tragic being the loss of lives and livelihoods. For the rest of the planet, however, the lockdowns and social isolation have resulted in a different set of developments. One is the way the relative lack of human activity has caused wildlife to wander into human habitats. 

This past spring, deer roamed through the Japanese city of Nara, a herd of mountain goats moved into the Welsh town of Llandudno, and lions napped in the middle of an empty road in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. In Chicago and San Francisco, coyotes fearlessly loitered in urban areas, and a herd of elk gathered on a golf course in Colorado. Much further south, a sea lion strolled down a sidewalk in Mar del Plata, a town near Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

In my own backyard, wild turkeys not only appeared with frequency, but also seemed strangely unperturbed by my presence. I spent one warm spring afternoon lounging in the sun not more than 10 feet away from a turkey who appeared to be doing the same. We occasionally exchanged self-conscious glances like sunbathers at a beach, but rather than flying away, she calmly met my gaze every time. A neighbor reported a similar encounter with fox kits who were playing on her picnic table. Like the wild turkey, the young foxes seemed unvexed by human presence. When my neighbor stepped out her back door, they did not bolt, but simply stopped romping and regarded her with composed curiosity. 

As wild animals began making more frequent and more noticeable appearances in human environments, I started thinking about how infrequently we encounter them. We know that the animals are out there—in the trees, burrows and warrens in our yards; in the stretches of woodlands and meadows between neighborhoods; and in the expanses of preserved wilderness between cities, towns and highways—but we rarely see them, let alone have close encounters with them. The pandemic, however, was clearly changing this. Ironically, the social distancing and lockdowns were reminding us, at a moment when we couldn’t gather with our own kind, that we share the world with other kinds. 

In Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives and Save Theirs, author Richard Louv writes about the impact of living separately from the extended family of other species to which we belong. He references the term “species loneliness,” first introduced by environmental ethicist Michael Vincent McGinnis, to describe the ecological isolation caused by our separation from nature. Just as social isolation can impact our mental and physical health, distancing ourselves from the rest of nature has a negative effect on human health, too. Louv believes that to live a healthy life we need contact with the more-than-human world. 

According to Louv, one way to achieve a reconnection with other  species is to cultivate a “habitat of the heart,” which he describes as a place where shared empathy between species is possible. The habitat of the heart is the connection that extends from ourselves, across the mysterious between, and into another being. Many people feel this with their domesticated animal companions, but Louv believes that it is also possible to experience it with wild animals. 

Perhaps I had entered a habitat of the heart when I looked at the wild turkey and she calmly looked back and remained in my presence. It seemed to me, in that moment, that the turkey and I were sharing a mutual appreciation of the warm spring day. If she had been human, I imagine that she might have said something like, “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?” and I would have nodded. But she was a wild turkey and it’s impossible to know what she felt or thought at that moment. Thankfully, when one is in this place of receptivity, knowing doesn’t matter. 

All that matters is being transported into that rare, magical space where a connection with another creature is possible. 

My neighbor felt the same way when fox kits briefly interrupted their play, looked at her, and didn’t scamper away. She, too, imagined their thoughts and believed that they were thinking, “Oh, it’s just you, the harmless human who lives here.” Others who reported close encounters with animals during the lockdowns expressed similar feelings of mutual understanding between themselves and the wild animals they met. 

There are many profoundly important lessons that we need to learn from the pandemic, starting with the dangers of confining animals in crowded, inhumane conditions that can breed potentially lethal viruses. But there are other lessons, too, such as remembering that the world belongs to more than just our species, and we can meet them in our backyards, as well as in our hearts

BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world. 

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