Some Traits That Animals Can Teach Us
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The day Russia invaded Ukraine and provoked the terror and bloodshed that has dominated the world’s attention since February 24, I contemplated peace and coexistence while watching a herd of elk make tracks in fresh snow right outside our window.
Our year-old dog, Dakota, watched them too. Our domesticated animal stared at the wild ones, and they stared back, holding each other’s gaze in a way that appeared curious, not threatening.
Our pup bursts with enthusiasm whenever she sees something or someone she desires, so I marveled at her self-restraint. Somehow, she must understand her place on the food chain. Her desire to make friends—an aspect of canine emotional intelligence, reinforced by human interaction—battled internally with her instinctive caution, and instinct won. The elk, meanwhile, somehow learned that our property is a haven because we don’t hunt. They come and go past our house, digging through snow to forage and showing little fear, always ambling, rarely stampeding.
The beauty, innocence, and natural dynamic of that scene touched me deeply. Their behavior reminded me to act in certain ways—respectful, curious, and mindfully observing like my dog; resourceful and collectively caring for one another like the elk—as if animals know best.
I revisited those thoughts a few days ago while studying the coyote who lives in the aspens next to us, our property belonging as much to her. She worries me, because at one point she jumped on the wire mesh of the chicken run, and she probably would have found a way in if Morgan hadn’t seen her and chased her away. She also would likely hunt our cat, if we let the cat outside (which we don’t, because the cat wants to hunt birds as much as mice).
This coyote, whom I call “she” because I’ve seen her squat rather than lift her leg, is threatening yet also reminds me of the need for mutual respect. I was so angry and rattled after her attack on the chicken coop, I toyed with the idea of hunting her (or more precisely, getting one of our neighbors who hunt to track her down).
Then I learned more about coyote behavior. Their habitat is limited, and she left her pack to make our home her home too. If she were eliminated, another coyote would establish its territory here. So we need to give each other space and share the land.
I watch her sniff the snow, sense a vole underground, and dive through to dig it up for a meal. I’m grateful she’s keeping the vole population in check because those gopher-like rodents burrow through the meadow and disrupt the grass. But I worry about the coyote getting the sweet bunny that hops around our barn and hides under my car, so we leave the barn door open a crack for the bunny to seek refuge. The hay bales are covered with bunny poop, but I don’t mind, I sweep them up. Same with the mice droppings. We trust our cat to keep our house rodent-free, but we’ve given up on barn mice. It’s inevitable they’ll live where we store horse grain.
All these creatures and critters live together not in harmony per se—because stalking and killing one another for food naturally takes place—but in balance. I try to live here in a way that doesn’t disrupt that balance, though obviously, our development of this formerly untouched acreage already has. Everywhere, every day, humans disrupt and destroy ecosystems. At least we can endeavor to minimize our impact and save wild habitat for them.
Being a quiet observer of the animals soothes me during times of stress and makes me ponder how humans’ power, greed, and dominance lead to conflict and destruction. Our pets interacting with the wild beings outside shows me to live with greater respect and humility for neighbors, both wild and human.
I’m taking a break this week from writing about running, and dwelling on animals instead, because recently a writing prompt challenged me to describe an animal who came into my life and taught me something. I wrote a story about a horse, which I intend to publish here, but it would make this post too long. Therefore I’ll share it tomorrow.
The idea to write tomorrow’s horse story came from another newsletter called The Isolation Journals that each week gives a prompt for writing and creativity. Suleika Jaouad started The Isolation Journals during the pandemic. She wrote one of my favorite memoirs, Between Two Kingdoms, about her cancer journey as a young adult. The book is now in paperback, and sadly, she is back in the hospital.
How about you, what animal would you write about that taught you something, and what did you learn?
Read the followup story—a buddy story about a horse—here.
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