By Mark Vander Vennen
This summer I experienced a different form of connection, and I would like to share it with you. Every summer my wife and I go camping in a remote area of Algonquin Park in Ontario. This year we went later in the summer than we usually do, which meant we were able to participate in an evening wolf howl. The idea of the wolf howl is to go near to where wolves might be and howl like a wolf. If all goes well, the wolves howl back.
We were led by an experienced naturalist. After dark, we drove to an area where he suspected the wolves might be. He and we began to howl. Instantly, clear as a bell, wolves howled back. They were so close and their howling was so clear that at first I thought it was someone else in our party who was howling back. But it wasn’t. It was wolves. We heard twigs snapping less than 20 feet away, behind a row of trees. We happened to be exactly where the wolves were!
The feeling was sheer exhilaration. We gasped. It took our breath away.
It turned out that the animals we came upon were wolf pups. We happened upon a “rendezvous site.” The parents were away hunting while the pups waited for them. The parents would be bringing dinner back for them at this spot.
But then suddenly our mood shifted. It became clear that we were confusing and distressing the pups. Of course, they would have thought that the howling they were hearing came from their parents. We did not want to disorient or harm the pups.
We left quickly, drove further down the road, and tried to connect with the adult wolves (no success). Then we drove back slowly. Sure enough, a spectacularly beautiful wolf pup crossed the road right in front of our car. The pup was confused and in danger of being hit by a car. If drivers were not careful, the wolf would have been struck.
That left us with a sickening feeling. How quickly the mood had changed from exhilaration to alarm! A flood of questions arose in our minds. What had we done? Who are we to mess with these majestic animals in such a way as to possibly cause them harm? What kind of arrogance is behind that? What need within ourselves were we trying to meet by doing this?
We had not considered these questions before we embarked. We had experienced the mystery and power of connection, but it was a power which had led to unintended negative consequences. I gained a new respect for how, in relationship, we can cause inadvertent harm if we have not first examined ourselves, our motivations, and our own capacity for the potential effects of our power.
More questions came up for me. What is the unending, enduring mystery that captivates all of us around communication or connection between us and animals? The family therapy literature contains ample research about the power of pets in a family system. I have worked with families in which there is a propensity towards violence; in my view their threatening and dangerous dogs acted as a proxy or mouthpiece for their anger. Often a child’s first experience with grief comes as a result of the death of a beloved pet.
Every day we are fascinated by communication between us and our pet dogs, cats and other creatures. How much do they know? What do they actually understand about us? Sometimes their understanding and their healing effects can even seem deeper than what we experience with people. What mystery lurks here!
In the world of mental health and psychotherapy we talk a lot about connection, about the power of relationships to bring healing, including healing from the traumas we have experienced. The most exciting and effective forms of psychotherapy, such as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, owe their success to the power of close relationships to literally sculpt our brains differently. And we know now that chronic isolation and loneliness—the lack of close relationship—is a greater predictor of early death than obesity and smoking.
The interaction with the wolf pups has prompted me to remember that the power of connection in our lives extends beyond human beings. It extends to animals, even to the whole of creation. We are blessed by that connection and the unending mystery that lies at the centre of it. And now I have learned that I need to better at examining myself and my motivation in participating in that mystery, lest I cause some harm.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Shalem’s Executive Director