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A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

JULY 2014: It's easy enough to see our pets are individuals with one precious life to live each. What makes wild animals different?

Animals Are People, Too
Learning to see wildlife with new eyes

We humans tend to see pets as individuals, but think of wild animals in much more generic terms.

Take me. The personality of my 20-year-old cat Leelee strikes me as not only endearing but unique. When friends meet him for the first time, I expound on his charms and often recount his life history—from his reaction to the sudden death of his brother Guido to the way he learned to meow for food from the kitten we adopted next.

Not so the robins and sparrows that frequent my garden. Sure, they compel my wonder and affection, but as representatives of their species, not as individuals.

And it is not because they are birds. When I once took a wild, and severely injured, pigeon into my home so my daughter could nurse it back to life under the guidance of a wildlife rehabilitator, the bird changed before my eyes from a "representative" creature to an individual one.

What enables us to appreciate the individuality of an animal? What helps us see that an animal is not just operating in some programmed species way, but living its one and only life?

In the past, my answer would probably have been "caring for the animal." Now, for reasons I'll explain in a moment, I feel different.

We appreciate an animal's individuality when we can recognize the animal and follow his or her actions over time—that is, when we see it has a life story.

I learned this lesson from Osprey's Journey, a satellite tracking project I've been involved with, which has followed first one, and then another, Osprey from its nesting site in New York City to its wintering grounds in South America and back. The Osprey being tracked now is C2, a six-year-old male who makes his summer home on Yellow Bar Hassock in Jamaica Bay, with his mate and current brood of two chicks, and winters in Venezuela, some 2,700 miles away.

But that's not what I mean by a life story. That's data—his vitals—material for a chart.

C2's story is that he lost his chicks last year—and this year almost lost his mate and nest. It's that he followed a risky flight path for his southward migration in September, which involved flying long distances over open water at night, and dilly dallied in South America in March instead of rushing back home to his mate.

This is the stuff individuality is made of—and to perceive it in a wild animal is thrilling. For it shows that, different as the animal may be in look, behavior, diet, mode of getting around, mating and parenting behaviors, et cetera, it is similar to you in one essential thing. It too must cope with life's challenges to make its way in an uncertain world.

To get this is to make contact across the species divide and to grasp that in a very real sense, they are us.

That's why I'm into Osprey's Journey in a big way—so much so that I'm running a crowdfunding campaign to keep it going for another year.

If you have found means of observing individual wild animals up close (while, of course, maintaining the physical distance necessary for the animal's wellbeing and your own), please share how you do it on my blog—whether it's satellite tracking, webcams or watching a birdfeeder in your own garden.

I firmly believe that our lives can be enriched by such contacts across the species divide, and conservation will benefit as a result.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

Animals are people, too

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C2 the Osprey photoshopped up as a pilot
AN OSPREY'S LIFE ISN'T EASY. The Jamaica Bay Osprey C2, for instance, lost his eggs last summer, probably because of his badly built nest. Then, due to a difficult and prolonged migration north in the spring, he almost lost his mate.

But C2 prevailed, winning his mate back with gifts of fish and aerial displays—and this summer has two healthy chicks.

C2 and Family - picture by Don Riepe
C2 and family in NYC.

Photo by Jamaica Bay Guardian Don Riepe.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Brooklyn, where—along with her family—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.