Our coexistence with animals is essential to the survival of all species,” Richard Louv declares in his latest book, Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives—and Save Theirs (Algonquin, Nov.). Perhaps best known for 2005’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, the author returns to the subject of nature’s critical impact on our mental and physical well-being, this time folding animals into our larger conception of nature.
In Our Wild Calling, Louv’s 10th book, he spends time with a range of experts, including biologists, therapists, and educators, exploring the importance of developing relationships between humans and animals. The book, he tells me, is meant to be journalistic, not scientific, and includes touches of the mystical nature of animal-human bonds. Louv’s subjects examine their own encounters with animals and how these exchanges demonstrate the value of interspecies communication. The stories weave together a narrative that reminds us that humans were not the first living beings on Earth, and that we should respect our animal neighbors, who are just as deserving as we are.
Animals also play a critical role as a gauge for understanding changes in our natural environment, Louv says. For instance, he introduces an oceanographer, Paul Dayton. Dayton discovered that a group of undergraduate students at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography “haven’t a clue what the marine animals are called,” he told Louv. “They don’t know the names of animals; they’re not aware of them.” Yet these students want to be oceanographers or marine biologists.
“Dayton said, ‘If you don’t know these animals, how do you know when they’re gone?’ ” Louv recalls. If one doesn’t know whether the wildlife is there, whether their population is increasing or decreasing, one is losing critical information about one’s natural environment. “These animals are messengers,” Louv adds.
Though many people are used to living with domesticated animals, and some lean on pets for emotional support, Louv stresses the value of interacting with wild animals, which he sees as transformative. Louv, who is 70, grew up on the outskirts of the Kansas City suburbs, close to the woods and cornfields, and he believes his natural environment and ability to explore profoundly affected him. Exposure to nature, including wild animals, has the power to heal us, he insists. Studies have shown, for instance, that the greater the biodiversity one is surrounded by, the greater the positive impact on our mental health.
“I don’t think it’s any accident that we feel better when we are surrounded by other lives,” Louv tells me. “We are desperate as a species to not feel alone in the universe. And that really permeates our psychological health or spiritual health.”
Beyond having the power to heal, our relationships with animals are, Louv argues, a human right. He is the cofounder of the Children & Nature Network, which aims to educate children through exposure to natural environments. When he wrote Last Child in the Woods, the iPhone hadn’t yet become a virtual appendage on our bodies. And though he asserts that he is “not antitech,” he believes that nature is an antidote for the effects of screen time: spending time in nature. Additionally, he argues, we should be wary of bringing tech into the wild. If we record a bird’s call, for instance, and then replay it in that environment, it can be disorienting to the bird.
Our ancient ancestors, who held animals in high esteem, have a lot to teach us, Louv says. He would like to resurrect the tradition of telling stories about wildlife in front of the campfire. These kinds of stories, he adds, are the foundation for true learning. “The real cutting edge of education is not necessarily technology,” he says. “It’s actually learning in a natural environment.”
It’s a tough, but critical, time for this education. “Many [kids] are being raised under virtual protective house arrest because of the best intentions of their parents,” Louv says. “Parents are terrified of what’s outside, and it’s not right. It’s a fear of nature itself. I respect that fear, but it’s not entirely rational.”
Louv sees humans at the cusp of a change in how we perceive the ability of animals to feel and communicate. After centuries of denial about the existence of animal emotions, people are now radically rethinking the intelligence of animals, he says. Descartes said that animals are machines, and “we’ve been stuck there for a while,” he notes, but “we know that’s not true. We learn more and more every day how untrue that is.”
Important researchers such as Frans de Waal are demonstrating the complexity of animal emotions and language––including communication within and between species. The understanding of this complexity is essential for humans, Louv argues. It leads to a much greater chance of helping humans transition from our current, exploitative relationship with animals––“We take from other animals and, with the exception of our pets, give very little in return,” he writes––to one of empathizing with members of other species. And empathy is the first step in protecting these animals and the environments they live in.
When it comes to quantifying changes in our environment, “we are more likely to be empathetic to another fellow animal than we are to an equation that measures the inches of the ocean,” Louv says. “That does not mean we should not stop measuring the inches of the oceans. That means if we really want to touch people’s hearts and care about the future of nature, we have to have a deep empathy for it.”
Here is Louv’s proposal in Our Wild Callings: “For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal, plant, or person. For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.”
Now living in the San Diego mountains, Louv does not walk around at night because of the mountain lions. And wild animals, in particular, are entering into our cities and suburbs in never-before-seen numbers. But though he sees dangers in wild animals entering urban environments, he believes that some of the danger is “overstated.” Rather than keeping the two separate, Louv believes urban environments should focus on finding ways to incorporate wildlife.
“The fact is that most injuries to people [from animals] are not from wild animals,” Louv says; they are more likely to be from dogs or horses. Though we shouldn’t feed wild animals, “we can still appreciate them and learn from them by becoming more aware of them,” he adds.
“We feel increasingly lonely, but we’re not alone,” Louv tells me. “We have this larger family around us all the time.”
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Ky., who contributes to JSTOR Daily, Longreads, Undark, Vice, Vox, and other publications.