Early humans knew that animals have emotions and cognitive abilities; today, most people just don’t see it, says award-winning ecologist Carl Safina. The Stony Brook University professor is the author of the New York Times best-seller Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel and the host of the public television series “Saving the Ocean.”
“The question isn’t when did science begin to understand these things, but when did humans forget?” says Safina. “We started out with this reverence … and somewhere along the way, we lost that connection.”
Safina will bring that compelling perspective to Asheville in a Wednesday, Feb. 17 lecture presented by the WaterRock Institute, a local nonprofit that also offers pastoral counseling and executive coaching. After his talk, he’ll sign copies of his book.
Heidi Campbell-Robinson, the institute’s founder and director, says the spiritual aspect of Safina’s work is what inspired her to bring him to Asheville. “I wanted to create a forum for engaged learning via workshops and talks; I wanted to offer life enrichment.”
Safina’s interest in such matters started early. At age 7, he persuaded his father to let him raise homing pigeons on the roof of their Brooklyn apartment building; he soon began to notice similarities between the animal and human worlds.
The birds lived in stacked peach crates; they left during the day and returned at night; they cared for their young. “It reminded me of all of the families living stacked in these apartment buildings, leaving to go about their business during the day, coming home at night, raising their families,” he says.
When his family moved out to Long Island, Safina witnessed the destruction of natural spaces to make way for more roads, more suburban homes and more shopping centers. Years later, he asked a group of award-winning environmentalists what had motivated them to follow that career path.
“Each one had childhood memories of a natural place — a marsh, a patch of forest, a meadow where they could just disappear,” he recalls. “Too many children don’t have access to that anymore. There just isn’t enough nature for people to sit in and just be.”
Even in places like Western North Carolina, says Safina, people are too busy to take advantage of the thousands of square miles of parklands and national forest and connect with wildlife.
Yet our very lives depend on the health of the environment, Safina maintains. His TV series explores solutions to the pollution and overfishing that are endangering the planet’s oceans. The nonprofit Safina Center’s sustainable seafood program helps those of us who aren’t marine biologists understand the connections between a healthy ocean, fishing, seafood and human health.
Human beings sit at the top of the food chain, and from that lofty perch, we’re reluctant to consider the emotional and cognitive abilities of the animals we’re exploiting, Safina asserts. In addition, he continues, people tend to misunderstand the biblical “dominion” humans were given over the animal world.
“If you’re given dominion over a beautiful home and gardens, you don’t torch the place: You care for it,” he points out, adding, “We have a responsibility toward animals and the planet.”
From the horse’s mouth
Carl Safina will speak on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at Lenoir-Rhyne University 36 Montford Ave. Reception starts at 5:30 p.m.; lecture begins at 6 p.m. Tickets ($20, $10 students with college ID) are available online at waterrockinstitute.org. To learn more about the author, visit safinacenter.org.