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Rewilding Literature

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from my essay, “Rewilding Literature: Catalyzing Compassion for Wild Predators through Creative Nonfiction,”  which was originally published in Writing for Animals (Ashland Creek Press, 2018.) The essay explores how writers can use their craft to cultivate empathy for wild predators and promote compassion on their behalf. More specifically, I examine how several notable authors employ literary devices to make scientific knowledge about predators more palatable and persuasive to readers. I’ve included a link to the entire essay at the bottom of the page.

We live in a time replete with information about biodiversity loss, climate change, and other environmental catastrophes. Scientists warn that half of the species existing today may be gone by the end of this century. Large mammalian predators are especially vulnerable to extinction because of their inherently low population densities, slow rates of reproduction, and susceptibility to persecution by people. We’re also faced with overwhelming evidence that our own species is to blame for what has now been deemed the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, putting us right up there with asteroids and volcanic eruptions in our capacity for global devastation.

A view of the entire round Earth from space
Humans are to blame for what has now been deemed the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, putting us right up there with asteroids and volcanic eruptions in our capacity for global devastation. Photo: NASA

Still, we continue to operate as though this potentially apocalyptic scenario pertains to a planet whose fate is not our own. Information overload no doubt plays a significant role in our lack of collective action; most of us can only take so much gloom and doom before turning to red wine and chocolate or Monday Night Football. Not long ago, I walked with hundreds of women, men, and children in downtown Seattle as part of a climate change march that rallied citizens worldwide. At the same time, more than 68,000 Seattle Seahawks fans set an attendance record at CenturyLink Field. Final score? Seahawks 1, Climate Change 0.

As we chanted past bustling restaurants and curious apartment dwellers peering down from their balconies, I reflected on what it would take to empty the football stands and fill the streets with people cheering for polar bears, wolverines, and the millions of human beings whose survival is threatened by our warming climate. More numbers? Bleaker projections? I know that good science is critical to gauging our ecological predicament and planning for the future, but after two-plus decades working in conservation, I’ve come to embrace that inundating people with data does not in itself enhance wisdom or transform behavior. In Rewilding Our Hearts, animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff writes:

When we make decisions that damage the environment or harm animals, it is rarely because of a lack of knowledge and concrete data. Rather, losses to biodiversity, inadequate animal protections, and other negative impacts are typically due to problems of human psychology and social and cultural factors. Science alone doesn’t hold the answers to the current crisis nor does it get people to feel compassion or to act differently.

Bekoff encourages his readers to deeply imagine the world from the perspective of wild beings and to act accordingly—to “rewild” their hearts and minds. He borrows rewilding from the field of conservation biology, which broadly defines the term as landscape-scale conservation aimed at maintaining core wilderness areas, reconnecting them via corridors of habitat, and restoring apex predators.

Man with long gray hair and ponytail sits smiling next to a large black and gray dog with brown eyes and a red flowered collar
Animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff encourages people to deeply imagine the world from the perspective of wild beings and to act accordingly. Photo:Tom Gordon

Applying this concept to humans, Bekoff sees the process of rewilding as “a personal journey and transformative exploration that centers on bringing other animals and their homes, all ecosystems, back into our heart.” Intuitively, rewilding counteracts unwilding, “the process by which we become alienated from nature and non-human animals.” This distancing, Bekoff argues—a hazard of modern life—erodes our innate connection with wild nature and thus our willingness to defend it.

Few scientists outwardly share Bekoff’s passion or sensibilities when it comes to animal welfare and its relationship to conservation. Among conservation biologists, however, he is hardly alone in emphasizing the role of human values in protecting wild predators. Carnivore ecologist Cristina Eisenberg expresses sentiments similar to Bekoff’s in her book The Carnivore Way: “Science and environmental law can help us learn to share landscapes with fierce creatures, but ultimately, coexistence has to do with our human hearts.” Peer-reviewed papers on this topic abound in the scientific literature, and the value-based challenges of coexisting with predators are frequently discussed at wildlife conferences and meetings.

Although predator conservation is widely recognized as a people problem, the goal of increasing human tolerance for wolves and other top-level carnivores is not easily accomplished. In some cases, financial incentives have been an effective tool for promoting nonlethal predator management and reducing poaching, though a scientific review conducted by Adrian Treves and Jeremy Bruskotter suggests that money doesn’t buy tolerance in people who are heavily influenced by social factors fueling anti-predator values (e.g., peer group norms, government-sanctioned killing of predators).

To truly care about the well-being of others—whether they travel on two legs or four, slither through muck or soar through the sky—requires imaginative empathy and an open heart.

A scientific cure for intolerance has yet to be discovered, but Bekoff’s approach is more holistic than prescriptive. His overarching message is this: To truly care about the well-being of others—whether they travel on two legs or four, slither through muck or soar through the sky—requires imaginative empathy and an open heart. What would it be like to be a mother wolf being chased by a helicopter, or a hungry polar bear with no ice in sight? For that matter, how might it feel to be a third-generation rancher losing sheep to wolves, or a grief-stricken activist impassioned to speak for creatures with no voice?

Biologists are reluctant to anthropomorphize wildlife, citing the myriad mysteries comprising animal minds. Nonetheless, the line separating human and non-human behavior, once considered solid, has become fuzzier in recent times. Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy described grief in elephants, for instance, and Jane Goodall documented intercommunity aggression in chimpanzees not unlike that exemplified by human warfare. Despite such valuable revelations, it is beyond the reach of science to fully comprehend the emotional lives and motivations of other species. But as Bekoff points out, this limitation in no way justifies our mistreatment of non-human animals.

A close-up of an elephant's face.
Scientists have documented that elephants mourn for their dead and empathize with other elephants in distress. Photo: Katy Schaffer

“As a scientist,” Bekoff writes, “I know that it’s never enough to simply imagine another animal’s perspective. But as a person, I know that it’s never enough to accept unclarity or uncertainty about animal minds as a reason not to care for them, or as an excuse for inaction or willful harm.” Bekoff further posits that our attitude about the otherness of animals is linked to our behavior toward fellow humans; indeed, human rights atrocities across the globe are a sobering reminder of what happens when perceived differences between “us” and “them” become grounds for abuse. Sociological research published by Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson demonstrates that devaluing animals because they are different from us actually predicts prejudice toward human outgroups (e.g., immigrants, other races).

It’s Story Time

One of the great gifts of literature is that it allows us to inhabit the stories of others and acquire new insights. Literary scholar Suzanne Keen contends that reading promotes narrative empathy—vicarious feelings and perspective induced by narratives about another. During times of crisis, insights derived from narrative empathy might even help nudge us toward pivotal change.

In her essay “Creative Responses to Worlds Unraveling: The Artist in the 21st Century,” author Ann Pancake—whose political novel, Strange As this Weather has Been, unearthed the ecological and social evils of mountaintop removal in Appalachia—explores how writers can help kindle compassion in readers who have become desensitized to global trauma and cataclysmic forecasts:

I believe literature is one of the most powerful antidotes we have to ‘psychic numbing.’ It’s not easy to actually feel, with our hearts, with our guts, overwhelming abstract problems that don’t directly affect us, especially now, with so many catastrophes unfolding around us, and it’s tough to sustain compassion for the nameless souls struggling with those catastrophes. But we do have great capacity to empathize with the personal stories of individuals.

Pancake suggests that, unlike journalism—and, I would add, science writing—creative writing tends to reveal the interior lives of its characters. “If the writer can evoke these interior lives with complexity and compassion,” Pancake continues, “the reader’s understanding of social injustice and environmental disaster is dramatically broadened and deepened.” This task obviously becomes all the more challenging when crafting stories about non-human animals, whose interior lives are available to us only through projection and speculation. Such stories are thus prone to sentimentality on one end of the spectrum and emotional detachment on the other.

In this closeup shot, a red wolf stares straight at the camera, his ears alert and snout pointed downward.
This black and white photo shows two men kneeling in front of several wolf hides, hung from the ceiling.

To rewild our hearts, we must imagine our actions through the eyes of other animals. Photos: Photo: Arizona Historical Society (L), Becky Bartell, USFWS

Many works of fiction, especially children’s fiction, evoke empathy for animals by telling the story from their imagined point of view. Popular examples range from classics like E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Jack London’s Call of the Wild to Garth Stein’s more contemporary The Art of Racing in the Rain and Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone. But how does one convey the perspective of spiders or dogs or elephants in nonfiction in a way that is moving, believable, and true? To further up the ante, how can nonfiction literature help tame the lions, tigers, and bears of our imagination and rouse compassion for wildlife generally presumed to be dangerous to humans?

Natural history and other scientific background is key to demystifying wild predators and debunking myths about the risk they pose to people; my shelves overflow with technical books whose well-researched content has the potential to defuse most anti-predator rhetoric—if only facts possessed such persuasive powers. But the societal shift needed to cultivate a more peaceful coexistence with predators and to rescue them from the dark corners of our subconscious demands that we both learn about and become awakened to the many forms of life with which we share the Earth.

For too long, storytelling has exploited human fear and misunderstanding of wild predators at their ultimate expense.

For too long, storytelling has exploited human fear and misunderstanding of wild predators at their ultimate expense—a legacy perpetuated in today’s popular media. Global threats to large carnivores call for a new body of literature that encourages respect for these animals versus vilification and widespread persecution. As Jack Turner puts it in The Abstract Wild: “The necessary work of science produces information, but what we need are stories, stories that produce love.”

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