By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT-FLE
Actually, I kissed many wolves throughout my career and yes, I did like it. The question is why? Why do we seek inter-species interactions and displays of affection? Some people risk their lives to touch an animal, while others purposefully buy illegal exotic animals off the black market only to realise how dangerous those animals are. Today, I’ll share my views, knowledge, and experiences with you to try answer the question.
Big Bad Wolf
Growing up in Goose Bay, Labrador, my childhood was undoubtedly atypical; however, I know the stories most kids were told led them to believe wolves were bad. Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Mr. Wolf and the Three Bear, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, and Little Wolf's Book of Badness, to name a few, all tell us how wolves can’t help themselves express undesirable behaviours (read eat, kill, injure, etc.). Thank goodness, our childhood stories couldn’t be further from the truth. Wolves can, and do, control their impulses.
In our disconnected urbanised life, we have come to cherish the stories of our youth. As such, the yearning to reconnect with nature is what motivates most people to seek inter-species connections. To satisfy their desires for social contact, proximity, monotony relief, non-judgmental encounters, or unconditional love, people go to great lengths. Some people even die in the process of fulfilling their needs.
The desire to interact is motivated by an intrinsic curiosity we share with all living creatures. The connection itself is reinforcing because it satisfies our need for closeness. When we associate with others, neurobiological processes are triggered. Mirror neurons instil empathy, which in turn, deepens the attachment through increased mirror neuron activity. When you touch a dog, a dolphin, a wolf, a whale, a cat, or whatever animal you happen to come by, your brain is firing like mad.
Your fight or flight defense system is also on high alert and releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) hormones. The joy of the interaction also contributes to the hormonal cocktail by releasing serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. In essence, your body experiences your emotions, and your emotions experience your body. One could say you become addicted to relationships, so to speak.
Another reason we love to interact with animals is the environment. Like animals, we both enjoy open spaces, fresh air, clean water, cool breezes, and wholesome foods. So, when we happen to cross paths with animals, we rejoice and often turn to our inner child for guidance. The young human ambassador in us takes center stage and starts an inter-species dialog. In the exchange, we share our secret message: I love you.
Of all the exchanges I’ve had with animals; of all the kisses I’ve given or received; each encounter shares the same components: trust and empathy. We believe, in that very short moment, we are connected to a power bigger than ourselves. In some cases, size is an actual component of the inter-species meeting, but what I’m referring to here is the figurative bigger power.
A shared moment with my fellow wolf is one of unity. For a brief second in life, I become one with an animal that trusts me so unconditionally, it’s ready to break the intra-species bond and create an inter-species relationship. At that very instant, I feel accepted for who I am. The infinitely small fraction of time creates a lifelong, unforgettable, experience based solely on trust and empathy.
When I interacted with my first exotic wild animal, a goose, I was probably four years old. Geese were everywhere, so it wasn’t hard to find and interact with them. If anything, geese would seek out people first. It was a strange encounter, but a memorable one. I also remember when, a few years later, I picked up a garter snake and played with it. All was wonderful, till I showed the snake to my grand-mother. She screamed; the snake disappeared.
I’ve always had a high attraction to animals and vice versa, but, I’ve never forced animals into interactions they didn’t desire. I approach all animals (yes that includes dogs and other domestic animals) with baby steps. On the final approach, I let the animal make the decisive move. They choose to interact, or not. I’m simply a passive observer.
To answer the question, we seek inter-species interactions and displays of affection because they make us feel good. Heck, an entire industry saw the light of day because humans desire connectedness and unity in a disconnected and divided world. If we didn’t love animals so much, we wouldn’t have zoological institutions or marine mammal parks.
Before I end, I’d like to add I’m not here to pick a battle with you on the pros and cons of captive animals. I’m simply here to share with you reasons why the human-animal bond is so powerful. Please keep that in mind when you comment or send nasty e-mails. On the other hand, if you had an experience with an animal that changed your life, please share it with us in the comments. As you know, we conduct animal-assisted therapy and would love to hear your human-animal encounter story.