Friday , August 7 2020

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Animals


Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Animals by Blair McKissock, MSEd, RYT

The more I think about this, the truer it becomes. When I was younger, I spent far more time with animals than I ever did with people.  My first experience was working at the zoo as a volunteer when I was around 12.  I learned the value of hard work cleaning up after and preparing food for the many animals in the zoo.  I learned how much love they can give a person in very unexpected ways.  It can be hard thinking of an animal in captivity and the circumstances that led up to their arrival, yet it taught me to ask the questions, to explore the why of certain decisions, and if nothing else it opened me up to a whole other level of exploration of man’s connection to the creatures that we share this earth with.   Every day, I still learn something new from the horses.  They are very good at reminding me that I don’t have all the answers.  These are some of the things that I have learned from the animals in my life:

How to wash my hands– Raccoons have very soft skin on their paws that is extremely sensitive to touch.  One organization I worked for had a blind raccoon that spent much of her time with her hands in the water.  She washed her hands in it, dipped her food in it, and even washed her face in it.  She would then lay her paw flat on the bars, and wait for me to place my hand against hers.  I loved to feel the softness of her paw, and I would like to think it was the contact she was asking for.   You know how clever they can be if you have ever tried to keep them out of something! I always appreciated the fact that she washed her hands before touching mine.

How to share– If you have ever watched the television series Meerkat Manor, you can get a sense of their evolved culture.  Not to mention they are just a riot to watch.  If you watch closely you will see how they share with each other.  Researchers have observed them in the wild and captivity sharing food with one another, and attending to the needs of younger members of their gang.  They also share the job of raising the young ones, reminding us of the value of sharing responsibility.

How to let go– Horses can in one moment set off in a flight response, evading a predator in the wild, or running from something scary in their domesticated home, and in the next minute shake it off and go back to grazing.  They have this amazing ability to shift from the “flight or fight” response and return back to normal by literally shaking it off and moving the energy through.  They can have a heated or high energy exchange with another member of the herd, and within minutes everything returns to normal.  No one holds a grudge in a herd; life just is what it is.  This ability to slide up and down the scale accessing energy to match what a situation calls for, then letting it go and returning to a more neutral state is a skill that we teach in equine-assisted learning.  Imagine how much better life would be if we could let go of the past and live in the moment? 

How to show compassion – I am an admitted YouTube watcher. There are multiple videos of hippos helping other animals in difficult situations.  I once watched a video of a hippo helping an impala cross a swift river, and one of a hippo helping a zebra fend off a crocodile attack.  Hippopotamus is Greek for “water horse” or “river horse,” and to me horses have always been a sort of gatekeeper or watcher.  Maybe hippos are the keepers of the rivers.  I have never worked with them, yet they seem to have the ability to demonstrate great compassion for other animals outside their species. Compassion is a human emotion, and it can be dangerous or anthropomorphic to talk about a human emotion in terms of an animal.  Those of us who try to understand what can’t be seen have a sense of something much greater than just behavior or instinct. 

How to be resilient– I have had the rare privilege to work with elephants, for only a short time, yet they made such an impression on me.  Not just their size, but something in their eyes shows such depth.  Some of their stories are so heartbreaking it can be difficult to hear.  Researchers have observed elephants in the wild exhibit what we would call “grief” behavior when a tragedy happens.  Yet even in the face of their struggles and loss, they have this ability to be resilient and persevere even as the hardship continues in their daily life. It is a trait we see in many animals that have experienced unspeakable abuse in their past, yet are able to come back and continue their life making connections with others of their species, and with humans.  Sometimes I feel that they have a better understanding of what being resilient means than we do.

How to play– During my course of study I worked at a research center studying dolphin-assisted therapy.  It was my first exposure to animals helping people in this way.  I loved the fact that the dolphins were given a choice in their participation in sessions, and that great pains were taken to keep their habitat as natural as possible with the pods intact.  It was an awesome sight to watch how they interacted with each other, and played for fun.  Their social interactions were so much like human-to-human interaction that it was hard not to think of them in that way.  It was almost as if I could share in their joy and their fun.  

How to forgive– In Frans de Waal’s work studying primates over the years, he researched the aggressive and competitive behaviors they displayed.  As he grew in his experience with them, he learned that they had the same capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness as they did for competition or aggression.  He observed two chimps coming back together after a fight, and other behaviors that would lead us to believe they could forgive one another, and have a continued relationship afterward.  This is seen not just in chimps, but also in other animals that live in communities.  Maybe they have learned that forgiveness is not just good for the one but is good for the whole.

How short life is– The one thing that I find hardest in being closer to nature and spending time in husbandry for other animals, is that their lifespans can be shorter than ours.  We have to watch them pass away far more frequently than our human counterparts. Sometimes those passings are not without trauma.  It has been a privilege to work with every single one of them, and even if I cannot express the impact they have had on my life, or all that I have learned, it has been an honor.  They remind me that our time here is short, and that it is a waste to spend time and energy in anger or resentment.  They remind me to live in the present moment, bearing witness to the amazing cogs and wheels of the mechanism of nature working in harmony.  They remind me that there are things that I can’t explain or that I can’t see, yet it doesn’t mean they aren’t real.  I can’t see the threads that connect us all together, yet I can feel that we are all one. I can have a sense of how we are not just on this earth, yet that we are OF the earth.  That is the greatest lesson.  

Blair McKissock, MSEd is a recreational therapist specializing in nature-based learning.  She is an author, mother, speaker, yogi, and experiential geek.  To learn more about upcoming workshops and clinics, visit her at


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