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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.
4. Don’t get bogged down on words.
As we communicate with family and friends, most often we think of relying on words. Yet, we often neglect to consider the many others ways that we portray our inner world. The tone of our voice, our facial expressions, our posture, our movements, and even our scents scents, can all communicate our thoughts, emotions, and intentions. They're often more reliable than the words we choose.
5. Take time to rest.
In the hurried pace of our daily routines, it’s easy to fill our days with a steady stream of activities—places to be, people to meet, tasks to accomplish. But, taking a cue from our dogs and cats, the lions at the zoo, a hawk perched in a tree overlooking the road that we glimpse from the car, we can take quiet moments to rest for a bit and give ourselves time to relax and reflect.
6. Remember to play.
Likewise, in the middle of our day, when we feel pressures from work or at home, a well-deserved break—even just a few moments—from the task at hand can lighten our load and help ease our concerns. From Labradors to Bengals and timber wolves to leopards, the creatures around us routinely play to invent, discover, and bring joy to their day.
7. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Whether rolling in catnip or pouncing on strings, our cats are fully absorbed in their game without worries about how they may appear to others watching them. Likewise, when our dogs chase a ball, sniff at lampposts, or gnaw a bone, they relish their pastimes without concern for how they may look to passersby. Letting go of our inner critic and the judgments of others, we can more fully embrace those times we enjoy.
8. Let go of attachment to being right or wrong.
Evolution favors those creatures who focus on what matters most: finding food, remaining healthy, resting, breeding, caring for young. When we defer to our sense of pride and self-importance, we risk losing the outcomes and results we want most. Letting go of our attachment to being right or wrong frees us align ourselves with what we value most.
9. Practice forgiveness.
While animals, certainly, suffer grief, misfortune, and misery, they move past them with greater poise than we, as humans, often do. The continuity of their lives takes precedence over reliving the past. When words and deeds come back to play in our minds, like the creatures around us, we can give as before with grace and equanimity.
10. Love unconditionally.
In the silent presence of the creatures around us—all alone on the sofa with our dog by our side or cat resting cozily curled in our lap—we sense their regard for our thoughts and feelings, and we respond in kind without reserve. If we choose, we can do so, as well, with each other.