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Listening to Animals with Dr. Carl Safina

The conservationist and writer visits The Assemblage to discuss how we can perform as allies to our fellow species

by Paula Gilovich

January 30, 2019


“You have to deeply deny the evidence to conclude that
humans alone are conscious, feeling beings.”

– Dr. Carl Safina

All of this is so duh for Dr. Carl Safina. Duh, animals have feelings. Duh, they experience empathy. Duh, they’re emotional beings. Haven’t you ever heard a dog whimper with love and attachment while he is curled in your lap? And double duh, animal capabilities sometimes outstrip human capabilities — a dog can hear better than you. She can smell better than you. And so, what does she know that you do not know?

Hubris is humanity’s downfall, if you ask Dr. Safina —the perception that we are not a part of nature, but somehow superimposed on earth. It is the basis of our cruelty. And so his work as a conservationist and writer is dedicated to putting us back in the picture, taking away our God status, and being with animals in community. Animals have answers we do not have, and Dr. Safina believes he can prove it. But we, humans, are an animal known for blindness, worry and stubbornness. Of not looking at the truth.

In every way, Dr. Safina is trying to get us to listen to animals for our own dignity. He believes that nature and human dignity are interdependent. Anywhere the environment is blighted, where animals have been destroyed, so has the human spirit.

In person, Dr. Safina is a no-nonsense scientific presence. Not easily pleased, not a casual smiler. (Every time I got him to smile, I felt I’d won something; it happened three times during his visit to The Assemblage.) But in contrast to his irritation with human beings—to being human, even—and with the bleakness of where we stand as a country and our environmentalism, he sees hope. He is actually unabashedly positive. He is interested in presenting solutions, in pulling ourselves out of dire thinking, and finding the successes we’ve had. This strikes a fresh cord.

“When I was a kid, you couldn’t see a whale in New York. Now there are a lot of whales! We’ve brought them back”

The truth is humans forget our wins when it comes to the environment. “A few people did this. Just a few people organized and made it happen.” Again, hopeful. It only takes a few of us. The picture is a global one, and it’s bleak, but many people have been working for nearly fifty years at this point in pursuit of protecting the environment to repair wild areas, and many species have come back. The wild rewilded. Earth, regrown.

We will have to do this in the wake of this administration. He recognizes that our work will be cut out for us post-Trump.

For The Oceans

The ocean is our greatest mystery. Literally, metaphorically, the deep, blue hidden darkness that wraps around life. That is life.

If you find yourself in a Whole Foods, you can sometimes see that a fish at the fish counter has been deemed a certain level of sustainability by The Safina Center. The Safina Center was created by Dr. Safina to integrate various approaches to environmental issues, including art, writing, sustainability certifications, residencies and science. No mediums is dismissed as an approach to protecting the beauty of our world.

Dr. Safina spent his childhood fishing, and his adulthood protecting the ocean. These two things come together in the fish ratings, which let consumers know more about what they’re about to buy. A green rating means that a species is relatively abundant, and fishing methods cause little damage to habitat and other wildlife Of course, a red rating means the opposite.

The Safina Center is dedicated to both the ideas and the practice. Safina Center Fellows, best-selling authors, Emmy-winning filmmakers, photographers, artists, and scientists who have been hand-picked by the organization, have worked to secure albatross nesting areas against feral animals in Kauai; trained manta-ray hunters to become tour guides in Indonesia; stemmed the shark fin trade in China; studied the effect of warming on Arctic wildlife in Canada, and even helped disrupt human trafficking in Asian fisheries. As Dr. Safina explains, the Center “generates light” through its books, talks, engagement and creative work which touches the lives of those of us who do not know how to train manta-ray hunters. If something works, they will do it. Our own species depends on throwing it all at the wall.

Dr. Safina points out that humans introduce their young to the animal world practically from birth, through stuffed animals, books, cartoons, etc.

“What drives my work is a devotion to free-living things and wild places. And what drives that devotion is my deep love and wonder for the living world.”

Dr. Safina delivered a version of his wildly popular TED talk at The Assemblage. “It’s a talk that I return to whenever I’m feeling defeated. How can we rebuild the world? Will we?”

He affirms that if we perform as allies to our fellow species, whether that means being vegetarian or vegan, or by supporting organizations that rewild our landscape and oceans and bring species back from brinks, or whether we create new technologies that clean our oceans, then there’s hope.

Here’s the thing: humans are good at coming up with ideas.

May we have a million ideas for the diversity of the planet and our own survival.