Animal Wisdom: Connecting People and Animals

A blog encouraging deeper relations between people and animals.

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Animal Relationships: Introduction

To know their animal teachers more fully, people should study how these animals relate to other animals. All animals live in ecological systems where they have a role. Some are keystone species such as the alligator, who makes “gator holes” that provides food and homes for the other animals. Other animals contribute positively to the places that they live in. Stag beetles eat dead trees to make soil. “Negative” animals such as leeches have a role, too. They kill their host and help to keep the animal population in balance.

Some animals ignore each other, while others compete for the same food. More importantly, many animals form special relationships. Some are allies, and still others are in predator-prey relationships. The wolf and coyote compete for beaver, while the ratel (honey badger) and honeyguide look for bees together. The plover picks off leeches from a crocodile’s gums. (The plover gets a meal, and the crocodile gets her gums cleaned.) The great white shark pursues the elephant seal but is prey to the orca. Animal relationships are indeed complex and varied.

To learn about a particular animal, you need to study where they live, how they live, and who are their allies, prey, and predators. The answers may surprise you. For example, study the sloth. Ponder how an animal as slow as a sloth could be spectacularly successful in Central and South America. In fact, sloth species account for at least one fourth of the total mammal biomass in these regions. In the tropical rainforests, sloths eat what very few other mammals want. In addition, most predators cannot easily detect a sloth, hanging upside down in a tree. (Sloths are vulnerable when they leave their home tree to defecate on the ground.) Usually, a sloth is left alone to eat his tree leaves. The sloth can teach you about how to be successful in your own life on your own terms.

Look more closely at a two-toed sloth’s fur. Notice how green it is. Why is that? The grooves in his hair encourage blue-green algae to grow on his body. Also living on the two-toed sloth’s fur are beetles and moths that eat the algae. These plants and animals help the two-toed sloth to hide in the rainforest canopy, since together they resemble a tangle of branches. To understand the teachings of the sloth, consider his relationship with the algae and moths living in his fur. See how they encourage healthy interdependence.

If need be, the two-toed sloth can use his sharp claws and considerable bite to defend himself. Could he survive outside of a tropical rainforest? No, because this animal has such little muscle mass that he cannot shiver. Therefore, he needs to sun himself to keep a constant body temperature. If the sloth is your animal teacher, consider his environment as well. Does the heat, dampness, or the rainforest have any effect on your life as well? Do you thrive in such a place?

Another example is the tree squirrel. These bushy-tailed rodents are famous for burying nuts in the earth for future food. The nuts, which they forget about, often sprout into tree homes for the squirrels. Study oak trees and other nut bearing trees to understand tree squirrels in a deeper way. The oak feeds the squirrel, and the squirrel returns the favor. This is an example of a plant-animal partnership. How does this apply in your life if the tree squirrel is your animal friend?

A system will become out of balance when people interfere. After the grey wolf, a keystone species, disappeared from the north woods of North America, elk proliferated and ate the cottonwood shoots that grew on stream banks. With nothing to hold back the soil, this contributed greatly to steam erosion. When the wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park, the balance was restored. Understanding the wolf’s role as a keystone species will give you insights in how to be well-balanced while a part of a community.

When learning about an animal, you need to learn what their function is in nature. Who are their allies, competitors, and enemies? Where does the animal live and how? When you explore these aspects of animal life, you will appreciate and understand your particular friends more.


Photo by Sergiodelgado (Own work)

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Virginia Carper, a Roman Polytheist, lives in the Washington D.C. area with her family. She navigates life with a traumatic brain injury which gives her a different view on life. An avid naturalist since childhood, she has a blog called “Nature’s Observations.” Having experienced the animals directly, she teaches on-line classes about the spiritual and natural aspect of animals. She has published articles on her brain injury, Roman polytheism, and working with extinct animals. In addition her writings on animals (including dragons and other mythic creatures) can be purchased her book site, Animal Teachers.  


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