The snow has finally gone, the days are noticeably longer, and spring is finally in the air. At this time of year, there’s an urge to organize and clean house. Maybe the snow melt has revealed a pile of unsightly garbage around the yard. Perhaps there’s a frenzied effort to remember where things were left last fall. Is it better to spruce the place up and fix that leaky roof, or is it worth pondering a move to a bigger or better place?
This is what I imagine as a day in the life of a squirrel, in spring, in Peterborough. I realize I am anthropomorphizing (attributing human characteristics to the non-human) with my speculation on what a squirrel to-do list might look like, but we humans have a greater connection with our non-human neighbours than we realize.
Humans evolved living in close proximity to other animals and, as a result, we appear to have developped a bond with other living things (E. O. Wilson refers to this innate connection with all life as biophilia). Regardless of whether our fascination is a remnant of evolution, animals play a significant role in our spiritual and cultural lives, in art and entertainment. In the U.S., more people visit zoos and aquariums each year than all major sporting events combined. Millions of people around the world participate in bird counts and birdwatching, observing or photographing animals, and half of all Canadian households have at least one pet. We use animal metaphors to describe ourselves and others (my students are smart as foxes, wise as owls and, right now, during exam time, busy as beavers). With so much interest in animals, we know surprisingly little about how their presence influences our health and well-being. Some of the human-animal bond research suggests that animals provide more than just a connection to the natural world around us.
The health research has focussed mostly on companion animals, and dogs, in particular. Our pets provide more than just companionship and comfort. Oxytocin, a hormone involved with human bonding and stress reduction, is released in both owners and their dogs, after an interaction. Several studies have shown improvements in blood pressure and heart rate for dog owners, as well as reduced loneliness. Animal-assisted therapy programs for military veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder employ specially trained dogs to help buffer the difficulties of adjusting to civilian life. Animal assisted therapy is used to help people coping with anxiety, stress, depression, and physical pain. Because companion animals provide a type of social support, it is difficult to identify the specific mechanisms responsible for these beneficial effects, but interest in the topic is growing. New studies are investigating how songbirds influence well-being and the positive mood effects of wildlife viewing.
The energy of Peterborough’s urban wildlife is palpable at this time of year. The hills really are alive with the sound of bird song and frog music. It seems like yesterday that we (and I mean both humans and squirrels) were frantically scurrying about to get ready for winter. Squirrels are on my mind these days because they are so much a part of our urban existence. Even in the busiest parts of our cities, if there are trees, there are squirrels. As Drew Monkman’s excellent November 13, 2014 column described, eastern grey squirrels are fascinating animals with incredible spatial memory capabilities. Researchers are still untangling the mysteries of their behaviour. I highly recommend CBC’s The Nature of Things episode “Nuts about squirrels” for the latest in squirrel science (spoiler alert: Motley the robo-squirrel helps researchers study the role of ‘tail flagging’ behaviour).
As I walk to work each day, I notice changes in nature nearby. Before the leaves fill in the tree canopy and forest understory, we are allowed a glimpse of the squirrel world. I imagine what it’s like to leap from tree to tree, to sway at the top of a high branch in a wind storm, and to brave spring’s erratic temperature changes. As the melting snow revealed more and more windblown litter and deliberately dumped garbage this year, I thought about what it’s like for the wildlife who might encounter, chew on, ingest, or be injured by this.
We may not always be able to channel our inner squirrel (or turtle, or heron), but taking on the perspective of other creatures can help us understand the health and vibrancy of our land, air, and water. You don’t have to be a squirrel to realize illegal dumping is nuts (pun intended), but seeing the world through animal eyes can strengthen our connection with nature and foster conservation behaviour. Research participants who did a perspective taking exercise with animal images (e.g., imagine you are that otter in the picture, covered in oil) felt more concern for all living things (not just humans), unlike participants who looked at the same images objectively. Maybe the next time someone is about to dump trash out the car window they’ll catch the scowl of a local squirrel, and think twice.
Animals connect us to the natural world, but also to each other. Not only do animals trigger our interest, fascination, and awe, but the presence of animals can invite social exchanges. Research on zoo visitors and dog walkers shows that animals facilitate human social interactions. People with a new puppy often have a hard time walking down the street due to strangers initiating conversation. Wildlife in our community seems to trigger a similar response. Around the Kawarthas, I hear people discussing recent turtle, loon, heron, and deer sightings, often with shared concern for the future of those animals. The wildlife in our region are a barometer for the health of our ecosystem (and that ecosystem includes us). There is growing evidence of nature’s health benefits and children’s connection with the natural world may be even more important than for adults. Nature contact is important for children’s cognitive development, for example. Children also learn empathy from watching animals and early life experiences shape attitudes and values about the natural environment.
Wildlife can enrich and enhance our lives in ways we are still learning about. It’s not unrealistic to think of future researchers uncovering a link between bird watching and lowered stress levels, for example, given all the immune system benefits of time spent in forests. In the meantime, let’s keep things in good shape, so future generations of humans can marvel at the industrious springtime squirrels and other wonderful wildlife.
A special thanks to Jessica Pasinetti, my graduate student, who provided some of the background research referred to above.