Late one November evening in my fourth year out of veterinary school, while tending to the first wave of patients who'd flocked to our clinic for emergency care, a single dog in an unconscious haze forever changed the course of my life as a vet.
Pongo, a two-year-old retriever struck by a pickup speeding by his front door, lay before me on a blanket no better for all that modern medicine and my training had offered him – his vital signs ebbing fatefully weaker than when he’d arrived several hours before.
Worn from the onslaught of all the night’s cases, I surrendered to a wave of growing frustration and sank exhausted to the floor, with little else left to offer Pongo except for my arm draped across his chest, a soft word spoken, a gentle touch. Yet, from this simple act of caring, in less than an hour, I watched him fully recover in body and spirit.
For the past twenty years since that night spent with Pongo, I’ve spent most of my working hours studying animals and the profound connections we share with them. As a specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine, I’ve delved into the inner lives of creatures – from whales, wolves, and leopards to mice, dogs, and cats – and immersed myself in the world from their perspective. My book, The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, reveals key truths I've learned through the years about animals and our relationships with them – basic traits we share in common, ways we differ, our likenesses, and how by perceiving the world as they do, we can enrich our own appreciation of life.
Inspired by animals I’ve come to know through the years as well as the people whose lives they touched, it offers an intimate journey into the lives of our fellow creatures and a thought-provoking promise of what we can learn from spending time with them.
Below are 10 lessons we can all learn from animals:
1. Savor the moment.
Animals live focused on the moment whereas we humans are far too often distracted by our thoughts about the past and future—a fight with a friend last night, the performance review tomorrow, our growing to-do list. By taking our cue from animals and noticing more of each moment, we can find more fully appreciate what is happening right now in our lives.
2. Heed your instincts.
Alert to each of their senses, animals respond to cues about the world around them by trusting their instincts and acting on them. When we rationalize what our instincts may tell us to take notice of—or ignore what our senses are conveying to us—we risk dismissing important signals about events, circumstances, and the people around us. As we attend to our senses and acknowledge our instincts, we open our selves to new choices and opportunities.
3. Keep focused on what’s most important.
On those days when it seems everything has gone wrong and we come home exhausted, our animal companions devotedly greet us with unfailing offers of love and affection. Even those times we may speak harshly toward them or ignore them completely as we walk in the door, they wait in the wings for the moment to come when we, at last, turn our attention to them. And in their patient devotion, they serve as reminders of how vital it is to connect with others and share our hearts.