Sunday, September 11, 2005

Gaviotas - A real village

Ordinary exists! Or something very like it, and in the most inhospitable of places--Colombia.

Thirty-some years ago, Paolo Lugari, a native Colombian and son of an Italian immigrant, founded Gaviotas in the broad, inhospitable savannah of Colombia where soil is too full of iron to support food crops and the water table so deep that native populations were forced to drink fetid water much of the year.

At that time, water-borne bacteria killed more people in the savannah than the military, narctoics trafficers, and guerillas combined.

Gaviotas soon became a model experimental community of sustainability, cooperation, and ingenious inventions, including deep wells pumped by children riding teeter-totters, that are being used throughout the world to better the quality of life and lessen the impact of encroaching populations on surrounding environments.

More, Gaviotas has existed for more than three decades without locks, with no police force, with no mayor or city government, and without weapons in a no-man's land surrounded by shoot-to-kill army, guerillas, and paramilitary drug trafficers whose identical guns and camaflouge gear make them all but impossible to distinguish from one another.

More remarkable still, Gaviotas has accomplished the unexpected: they have regenerated rain forest where it had not stood for perhaps a thousand years.

But do not take my word for it. Read a transcript of reporter-author Alan Weisman's 1994 All Things Considered" National Public Radio story following his visit to the remote village. Better yet, read his book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. It reads like a novel and is difficult to set aside.

If you are keen about sustainability, expect to be inspired and amazed.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Something wrong with this picture

A few weeks ago, a high school senior did what graduating students in her town do every year. She posed for her senior picture with a caged tiger. The tiger did what it had not done to seniors in years past. It attacked and killed her.

I grieve for this young woman, for her lost potential, for her family who loved her dearly.

To some it may seem inconceivable, but I grieve, too, for the tiger. The tiger did what wild, predatory animals do. So we killed it.

More and more frequently, we see images of caged animals, brought out for our entertainment, turning on someone and killing or maiming them. Or an animal escapes from its zoo or circus and, cornered and frightened, lashes out against its captors.

A few years ago, a circus elephant, said to be rampaging through the streets of the city in which it escaped, was killed as a preventive measure.

The runaway elephant, surrounded by traffic, shouting humans, and unfamiliar territory, was frightened and unpredictable. So we killed it.

We are fascinated by tigers, elephants, gorillas and roaring lions because they are wild. Why are we offended when they behave wildly. If we put ourselves in harms way, why do we punish the creature who behaved as we knew it might?

We kill them because we can no longer trust them not to kill or maim us.

We think of animals as less than humans, their lives more readily expendable than ours. Often we exploit them for their flesh, for their hide, for a gland we find useful medicinally.

We dare not think of them as sentient beings, capable of creativity and intelligence.

What about intelligence? Just how smart are the wild animals? We know that whales mourn their young and that dolphins use sponges as tools. (See Wanda Tucker's August 20 post, "Non-Human Emotional Intelligence" about a mother whale mourning her calf, and her July 10 post, "Take care of what you love," about dolphins who protect their delicate noses with sponges when rooting fish from the sand.)

From Jane Goodall's work, we have known for years that chipmanzees use tools as well.

John C. Lilly's work with bottlenose dolphins in the late Sixties and early Seventies pioneered the study of dolphins' ability to learn and communicate with language. (If you can get your hands on them, see his books The Mind of the Dolphin: A Non-Human Intelligence , and Communication Between Man andDolphin: The Possibilities of Talking With Other Species.

Still controversial, Lily's theories nevertheless spawned the Navy's use of dolphins as weapons, which is still occurring today.

Then there is Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language and communicates with her friends and handlers, celebrates birthdays and holidays, nurtures pet kittens, and participated in the first interspecies web-chat, the transcript for which suggests many questions about the relationship between a captive animal and the scientists who study them.

When we choose to interact with wild animals, animals whose bodies are built to tear, to dismember, to kill creatures as large as ourselves, we risk our very lives. Must we blame the animal when it behaves as it was made to behave?

I pray for peace and strength in the hearts of the family who miss their beloved daughter, sister, niece, grandchild. I pray they have memories of their darling to last a lifetime, and that through the miracle of grace and healing, their suffering is eased. They will feel this tragedy for the rest of their lives. I pray succor comes to them when they need it most, and again and again.

I pray we humans learn ever deeper respect for the creatures with whom we share this beautiful planet, and that we find it in our hearts to deepen our understanding of their lives and purpose here.

To all the individuals who devote their lives to the well-being of species not human, I give deepest gratitude.