In this video, I offer a short memorial service for those 49 animals that were killed in Zanesville, Ohio on October 18, 2011, and for Terry Thompson. May we know that their light is always with us.
While in Belize last month I witnessed a small snake attacking and carrying off a frog, whose size was much greater than the snake's head. I reflect on how we all are caught in the predatory/prey cycle and if we can nurture this nature, perhaps we can find a way to live sustainably as we live the solution.
What are you looking for?
Meaning? Love? Belonging? Beauty? A way to save the world?
I invite you to watch this video about my recent time in Honduras where a group of us came together to build a world that we all are looking for.
Recently as we Unitarian Universalists seek to bring justice to the world through food, I have heard pain and discouragement regarding how much we wish for the well being of all humans and nonhumans, and how far off that dream of the beloved community seems. Even after the passing of the Ethical Eating SOC, or especially so.
I know intimately this despair regarding the challenges of nourishing a world, let alone my companions in Unitarian Universalism. For the hope of offering support to you, I would like to offer these words. I was going to speak them from the “pro” plenary mike in support of the statement, but we ran out of time right before my turn. Here are those words, only slightly changed to account for a future not asking for the passing of the statement, but for the implementation of the statement.
Hello. I am the Rev. LoraKim Joyner and I am a delegate from the UU Fellowship of Gainesville. I come before you today as a Community Minister in Multispecies Ministry and Compassionate Communication. I have also served as the president of the UU Animal Ministry for 8 years and am their current Reverence for Life Coordinator. I also enjoy serving on the Ethical Eating Core Team. In addition, I am a wildlife veterinarian working largely in Latin American conservation. I say all this to let you know that I know how difficult it is for us to talk, and to take action on food. We doubt that we can love enough to take care of all beings given what we perceive as a perponderance of needs and claims that compete with one another.
They do not.
I have just come from 2.5 months working in Latin American to support environmental justice and conservation of birds. The people there who live close to the land know that their well being is tied closely to the well being of animals. One group of indigenous people with whom I work, the Miskito people of Honduras, are literally dying to protect their wild birds, while they themselves do not have enough to eat. To insure that they have enough to eat and can nourish their families, birds, and trees, they have opened their hearts to protect all life, together. Everything is at risk they told me, and so they are willing to risk everything.
Their hearts are big enough.
Our hearts are big enough.
The needs are urgent; there is no time to lose.
Everything is at risk.
So let us risk everything we can today.
Let’s implement this statement by using it as a tool to crank open our hearts so that the world can fall in and fill our lives with ever increasing love and compassion.
I and others remain dedicated to what is not just a 5 year Study Action Item process, but an effort that will span our lifetimes.
We will find a way to breathe hope and justice into this statement, making it a living covenant with all of life.
Rio, the top box office draw over the last two weekends, is a story of liberation. The main character, Blue, is a large blue macaw and the last male of his kind. He was taken forcibly from the wild as a chick and raised in the U.S. by a caring human; however, he never learned to fly. Now 15 years old, he volunteers to go back to Brazil to meet up with the last female of their species, Jewel, who trapped from the wild and now residing in a large flight, is desperate to escape.
These aren’t the only two characters who are trapped. The woman who came of age with Blue, lives a happy, though apparently solitary and staid life. She meets up with the Brazilian conservationist, who is caught up in his own narrowly focused and urgent need to save a species. The foils of the story, the “boss” of an illegal animal trade business and his two henchmen, unable to rise above their favela (slum) origins, are caught in a web of desperate business adventures that often turn to violence. A temporary member of their gang is an orphaned street boy, who out of necessity aids the trappers, and then regrets his actions.
The movie shows how birds and humans are not living the good life, except for the wild birds in the opening and closing musical number who joyfully dance and sing “Rio” in a jungle scene reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Their paradise is shattered when humans enter their realm and catch them, including Blue as a chick. We see the contrast of a beautiful nature without humans, and a devastated earth with humans. Reminding us of the movie Avatar, this movie screams “pop culture” in that it raises the question increasingly before us, “How are we humans to escape a future where we are so caught in our consumerist ways that we threaten all lives around us?” I don’t mind trendy movies at all, and in fact adore them when they help us understand who we are, especially in terms of parrot conservation.
I especially find Rio poignant because human ownership of parrots has tenaciously been before me in the last two weeks. The weekend the movie came out, I was amongst many captive birds. I was invited to be the guest presenter at The Avicultural Society of Chicago during a fund raising dinner for my conservation work (thank you!). After all day staffing a booth on behalf of One Earth Conservation and Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife while it snowed (yes in mid-April), we gathered in th evening to learn about the people and parrots of Latin America, and what we might together do to preserve the splendor of the earth. Though I never brought up the inherent tension between birds in homes and birds in their native habitats, many people did. It was on their minds, for they spoke of how much they wanted their birds to fly free, and the inappropriateness of caging their beloveds. I suppose they also wished that for themselves, for like the humans in the movie Rio, they too are trapped, each in their own way. They wanted to know what I thought of the movie, and I believe also, what I thought of their lives.
Their lives are in sharp contrast with where I had just come from, a land of wild jungles, indigenous peoples, and free flying parrots – Guyana. For the last 12 days I had been traveling in Guyana with Foster Parrots, a bird sanctuary as well as a leader in Guyana conservation. While in Guyana we saw amazing jungle scenes, replete with startlingly and awe inspiring free flying parrots. They might not have been singing to a calypso beat as did the cartoon birds in Rio, but observing them inspired awe and a sense of liberating joy, much like the opening and ending scenes in the movie.
What haunts us though is whether the real life trappers and resource extractors of the Guyana forests will win out. It has already in fact happened at least with one macaw species much like the movie depicts. The Spix Macaw, also all blue in color, used to fly over the northeastern landscapes of Brazil. Their numbers declined due to trapping until there was only one lone male left in the wild. A female bird was found in captivity that had originally been caught from the wild, and she was relocated to the jungle, and then released in the area of the lone male. Unfortunately the female disappeared before a successful union took place, and the male died in 2000. Now there are no birds in the wild, only captive birds who are hopefully the beginning of a new flock, and not the end of a species.
This movie shows how we might bring about a different ending than what happened to the Spix Macaw. Though the birds are repeatedly caged, chained, and grounded, Blue eventually learns to fly, and in so doing, frees his new love who has an injured wing. Blue discovers the thrill and passion of flying and he elects to stay free. With his new mate, they return to the wild and live happily ever after. So too do Blue’s woman companion, the conservationist, and the orphan boy who become a family. The trappers end up defeated and their evil days come to an end.
Let be me so pedestrian as to suggest some underlying themes that jump out at me in this movie:
1. Many of us do not know we are trapped, or that life could be more wonderful and liberating.
2. If we don’t know we are trapped, we cannot free ourselves, or others. If we are trapping others, we ourselves are trapped.
3. We are interrelated in our imprisonment – the tragedies wrought by humans damages humans who end up orphaned and in slums, or birds who never know of flight. If any one of us is imprisoned, so are all of us.
4. We are interrelated in our liberation – in freeing others, we become free. To free everyone, we must work together and be in solidarity with the plight of both the trapped and trapper.
5. There are no clear demarcations between the trapped and the untrapped. Some free flying birds suffer greatly, while some others in cages lead what looks to be good lives and seem to flourish. Ultimately, only the individual his or herself can know what is missing, or where the wounds are. Even though we may never know the “other” or even ourselves with much clarity, we can always offer freedom to ourselves and others by cultivating choices.
6. We are trapped by our evolution and culture, yes, and we are freed by our choices in how we wish to live, grow, and give to others.
Am I saying that the story of our 21st century can end like the movie Rio with happy, joyful humans and birds frolicking together in a beautiful forest? In so many ways we already do, at least that’s what it feels like sometimes during my parrot conservation work in Latin America. However, I am ever so cognizant of the dual reality of how much we are losing, and how fast; birds and humans are frantically trying to survive. Even if we somehow make it eventually in some century, we won’t ever vanquish the reality that the jungle is a harsh place, with our without humans. There will always be sadness, loss, harm, pain, and yes, the cruelty of our ways, and evolution’s.
I accept this reality, and so reject the surrealism of Rio which suggests that we can totally excise suffering from our world. However, knowing this, I believe we come begin to accept what we as a species have wrought, and open ourselves to all of who we are, the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this embrace of a world both wondrous and terrifying, we can intentionally find the ways to guard our failings without trapping beauty, unlock our potential, and set ourselves free, and all beings with us.
How will you gain your freedom, and offer it to others?
The day has finally arrived. Tomorrow I head north to New York to catch a flight to Guyana, where as the guest of Foster Parrots Project Guyana I will see what beauty I may, in the hopes that I will find ways to keep beauty ever present in Guyana in the form of the people, parrots, and the other species there.
In so many ways, this will be a unique trip. One, as I wrote last week, they are home to the Hoaztin, a bird I have always wanted to see. Marc Johnson of Foster Parrots read of my desire, and has so arranged that we will stop at a place where they work with these birds in the wild. Another special attribute of Guyana is that they are only one of two countries in Central and South America that speak English. (and the other one is...........). Furthermore, they still allow legal trapping, harvesting, and exportation of their flora and fauna. From 1900-2002 about 175,000 parrots were exported, and 2003 quotas allow for over 20,000 to be exported a year (this does not include in-country trade for birds that never leave the country).
While there I will also be conducting an ethno-ornithology survey where I will conduct interviews that seeks understanding about the relationship between humans and birds in a given country and a given people. For this aim, I am going to win the biggest luggage award because of all the video and camera gear. I'm already practicing my usual reply when people stare at my big blue duffle luggage, "It's all gear, not shoes!"
Along the way there will be only one opportunity for internet access so I don't know if I will be able to blog until I arrive back in the USA on April 13th. There won't be any phone service either so I can't tweet either. However, one of our companions is packing a gizmo (Spot Satellite GPS) that allows you to track where we are in Guyana on Facebook. You can begin tracking now by clicking here.
With beauty before me and all around,
In January I attended the Parrot Festival in Houston Texas. While there I heard a presentation by Rick Jordan, “The Future of Aviculture.” He expressed views that if we lose the ability for people to own and breed birds in captivity, we will lose a great good for the people involved, and for conservation and avian medicine. Throughout his talk, he said that we all needed to talk to one another, even though we may have different views.
In the spirit of his invitation that we should all talk, I met with Rick alone later in the day. I wanted to hear more about him and if he was willing to hear my story. We began talking of our common roots, of how we both had worked at the Aviculture Breeding and Research Center (ABRC) in Loxahatchee, Florida in the late 1980′s. This was a very large avian breeding facility that only in my last months there began to sell the hundreds of birds that hatched there to collectors and to pet owners. I left in part because these birds were so precious to me and I was not comfortable for them to enter the pet trade where many would end up in situations where they would not be adequately cared for over the span of their lives. I spoke of how much I had been a part of aviculture then, like him, and how after listening to him I could see the good that came of it: relationships between people, building a vibrant human community, income, contribution to science, conservation, and veterinary medicine, and fostering human-nonhuman relationships. He agreed and seemed to appreciate this common understanding we had.
Rick Jordan, Sharon Wolf, Julie, and Trent at ABRC in 1989 (mock fighting)
I then told him that after leaving ABRC I had begun to work almost exclusively with wild parrots, and I had changed. Seeing their complex and beautifully compelling behaviors and social structures, I found it increasingly difficult to work with birds who were not free flying. It was as if the birds had become the “sacred other” and that I longed to be in relationship with them not on my terms, but based on their evolved natural states. I wanted to be part of a system where birds were granted the utmost consideration, compassion and care, and nothing less, and not one that often treated birds as objects of human desire and not as subjects with their own inherent worth and dignity. I claimed this story as my own, and did not mean it as a statement of what Rick should or should not do.
It was then that Rick amazed me by saying how he resonated with what I had shared. He told of how he had the chance to see free flying Lear’s Macaws in Brazil. When he saw them, he thought, “I’m glad that there are no Lear’s Macaws in the pet trade. They should be free flying.” Rick then told me that when he returned to the U.S. he was depressed with the reality of seeing his parrots in captivity. The beauty of a flying macaw had shaken him to the core. After several months he then had a chance to see a staff member of his bond with a parrot chick, and the love and care expressed by the human to the bird was also a beauty that deeply reached him.
What surprised us both is how similar we were and how we could get to the heart of what motivated our behavior and relationships with birds. What I also saw was that if we can slow down and hold conversations about our deep appreciation of birds with respect and empathy towards one another, we might harvest the power of relationships between humans, and between humans and birds so that we can make a better life for all. We need all of us at the table to listen and to contribute, because the task before us in conservation and avian welfare is no easy one. There are tragic consequences to our human presence here on this planet, but together, we might just be able to preserve the magnificent splendor of this earth.
I am grateful for our conversation for it is with the telling of these kinds of stories that we engage in a process of narrative ethics. We place ourselves in the situation of others, and by being there, work out what is ours to do on behalf of others in this complex world.
Thank you Rick for sharing your story with me, and giving me permission to share it with my readers, for I believe that our conversation will help others share likewise, for the sake of all.
Don't mind my inexplicable delight
in knowing your name,
little Wilson's Warbler
yellow as a lemon, with a smooth, black cap..
Just do what you do and don't worry, dipping
branch by branch down to the fountain....
A name is not a leash.
-Mary Oliver (in Swan)
Just two days ago a man came up to me brimming with ideas for a "bird ministry." He wanted to teach troubled youth bird identification as a means to connect, focus, and move towards wholeness. Without dropping a beat I said, "Count me in." I'll do anything to get people to enjoy beauty, so that they can respond to it. Though I have degrees in birds and they are my vocation and calling, I've never been overly concerned with their names, or teaching people names. Beauty is beauty no matter what you call it. In fact, I have seen the pursuit of adding bird names to a "life list" detract from the objective wonder of the bird itself as the ego asserts its control in the field.
In this case, however, teaching the names to young people and helping them recognize the individuality of species is a discipline that is liberating. Identifying birds gives them a choice to contribute as citizen scientists, and is a means to better understand their world. Naming unleashes the wild possibility within.
Here comes the paradox. We need to "know" names to contribute to this world, and we don't need to know names to contribute wholeness and healing. Name it and then let go knowing anything about the bird so that you can meld with pure interconnection.
Dogen the Buddhist might write (if he were a Birdist):
There is a Wilson's Warbler.
There is not a Wilson's Warbler.
There is a Wilson's Warbler.
What might you un-name today?
There is nothing as liberating as a good soccer game. It can also be dangerous in parts of the world as soccer has been the inciting stimulus for riots, death threats, murder, and in one case, a war between Honduras and El Salvador. Recently this harm extended to an owl. A tame barn owl, the mascot of a Columbian soccer team, flew down to the field during a game and was hit by the ball. While still stunned, Panamanian footballer Luis Moreno kicked the bird off the field. The bird died two days later, suffering a broken wing and shock. The crowd yelled "murderer," and Moreno had to leave the game under police escort. Since then he has received threats. He won't be prosecuted because Columbia has no laws against animal cruelty, although the soccer league penalized him by requiring a fine and banning him from the next two games.
This is a painful reminder of how humans in their worst moments do not have the capacity for compassion and care, even when beauty of game and bird surrounds them. But sometimes we do.
In a 2008 soccer game between Finland and Belgium, a great-horned owl visits the game, flying around the stadium and landing on the goal posts. The officials stopped the game and the crowd cheers and applauds the owl. Smiles and laughter abound.
In another instance, rescuers remove another Great-horned Owl that had become entangled in a soccer net.
There is beauty all around us, and there is nothing as liberating as people responding by loving and saving the birds of our world. How though do we make sense of our complicated natures where we both get a kick out of birds and kick them?
Sufi poet Rumi writes, "There is a field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. I'll meet you there."
On that soccer field, great apes and owls are neither wrong or right. Instead we are caught up in our goal directed lives, and make tragic choices that harm ourselves and others.
May we this day see the beauty within and without, and in our gratitude, not penalize the beings of this earth.
The northern spotted owl is in the news again, this time as linked to the death of 1200-1500 barred owls. This summer, the USFWS may release in an environemental impact statement their reccomendation to kill barred owls. This is in response to the increasing range of the native barred owl who pushes out the the endangered spotted owl.
"It's a wrenching decision that splits wildlife biologists and environmentalists. Killing one native animal to benefit another is such a leap that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired an environmental ethicist to guide its discussions."
"There's no winner in that debate," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Portland Audubon Society.
Making difficult decisions is not new in wildlife management and conservation. Federal workers have killed comorants, terns, and seals to protect salmon and in Puerto Rico, Red-tailed Hawks are killed to reduce their predation on the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot.
As a wildlife veterinarian I have been faced with the moral dilemmas present in this work and have been severely challenged as I wade with others through the ethical morass of wildlife care and management.
For this reason I recently finished a chapter, Wandering Through the Wilderness of Ethical Discourse, in the book Topics in Wildlife Medicine: Ethical Considerations in Wildlife Medicine. This book will be published by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). In it I suggest that our lives are full of tragic decisions and that to care for ourselves and others we must improve our skills in ethical deliberation, and we need to do it together.
For this aim I am traveling to the NWRA 2011 Symposium in Albany, NY next week to give a seminar on Compassionate Rehabilitation. My hope is that we can learn and practice together how to talk to one another so that we use our community resources to arrive at the best decisions to help the most species and individuals.
One way I suggest we do this is to practice Needs Based Ethics. In this approach we do not say that one species or individual is of more worth than another. Instead we bring to the table a deep appreciation of the worth and dignity of all of life. What guides our discussion is discerning and empathizing with the needs of all species and individuals within a given situation. By keeping our hearts and minds open, which I admit is difficult given the loss of life resulting from our daily activities, choices, and conservation management decisions, we can come up with creative solutions.
In the end, not all beauty may be preserved in the way we'd like. We may howl over owls, but not at each other through the tactics of shame and blame. In the end, we will have one another with which to mourn and can claim that at least we did not turn from the splendor that is ever present to us in owl, human, tree, and fish.
Dr. Ursula Aragunde Kohl, me and participants at the CC Workshop in Puerto Rico
Last weekend I was in Puerto Rico offering two separate workshops on Compassionate Communication. One was to the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Project and the other to a conglomeration of animal welfare, social services, and faith organizations in San Juan. This was the first time I had chosen to concentrate on organizations that deal with nonhuman animals. My goal in so doing was to support and nourish the humans so that they in turn could help all beings flourish.
In my home faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism I am also gearing up to offer workshops in Compassionate Communication to those interested in the interweaving justice issues that include nonhuman animals. I will do this as part of the Reverence for Life Program that the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry is offering our congregations. Now is the time to struggle with how we covenant with earth and her beings as our association of congregations deals with the Study Action Item: Ethical Eating and Environmental Justice. In the last few weeks congregations and list serves have been abuzz with commenting on the Draft Statement of Conscience that deals with this compelling and complex topic. Comments on the draft are due February 1st and we as an association will vote on the final draft at General Assembly in June, 2011.
How shall we come up with a statement that includes the wide diversity of who we are and yet challenges us to hold the needs of all species ever more tenderly?
My response to this question, at both the workshops and to my fellow Unitarian Universalists is this:
It’s important to think of how animals feel and suffer, how their evolution has brought them to where they are , and what they are thinking as we research how their brains work. Yet, we can never know what is “best” in the morass of ethical vagueness that cloaks humanity. Let this complexity be not a death shroud for any. Instead, let us lift up the few things we can know:
All beings have needs that connect us in an interdependent web of inherent worth and dignity.
We can bring kindness to every moment.
Everything is a practice ground for the skills of compassion.
May this be our prayer in intention, word, and action in the months to come.
It's the turning of the year, and perhaps like me you are thinking of taxes coming due and all that paperwork. Here's a poem by Mary Oliver - "Percy Speaks While I am Doing Taxes."
First of all, I do not want to be doing this.
Second of all, Percy does not want me
to be doing this.
hanging over my desk like a besieged person
with a dull pencil and innumerable lists
Outside the water is blue, the sky is clear,
the tide rising.
Percy, I say, this has to be done. This is
essential. I'll be finished eventually.
Keep me in your thoughts, he replies. Just because
I can't count to ten doesn't mean
I don't remember yesterday, or anticipate today.
I give you one more hour, then we step out
into the beautiful, money-deaf gift of the world
Just this last month I read about language research with a dog who knew more than 1000 words. They do understand a lot.
Currently I am reading the book, "Parrot Behavior" and just yesterday read about parrots that that understand not just hundreds of words, but can combine words into sentences. They do understand a lot.
All of this reminds me of the movie, "Forest Gump" where Forest says, "I may not be smart, but I know what love is."
No matter how we see the intelligence of another being, whether it is comparable to humans or to other species or not, I do believe that we share with the other social vertebrates a common neural structure of emotional responses that evolved out of this beautiful earth.
Baby, we were born to run, to love, and feel deep gratitude for the gifts around us.
And in light of it being National Bird Day, I offer deep bows of gratitude those who were born to fly!
What were you born to do?