Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.
I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.
But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.
What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.
In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.
Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.
Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?
How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.
The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat .Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.
We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm . A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own . People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina .
Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between Species, Kalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.
What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?
- Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
- Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
- Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
- Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!
I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.
I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.