Navigating the complexities between our connection with animals and reciprocity

reciprocity humans and animals

Reciprocity is an integral part of ecotherapy and nature connection approaches and it is the subject of oftentimes heated discussions.

I am currently a student of a fantastic Ecotherapy training and last week’s lecture revolved around animal-facilitated approaches. I have personally had involvement in this area on and off for most of my life.” For many years I volunteered with “Riding for the Disabled” (I am sure it has a more appropriate name at this stage), our beautiful dog Harry was my trusted companion in my work with children with autism and the topic of my Masters Dissertation was “The effects of equine assisted learning on communication in young children with autism”.  

In our last peer discussion relating to the previous lecture, the important topic of reciprocity came up. We had an interesting conversation and of course, views and opinions vary greatly, particularly when it comes to our relationship with animals. What became clear very quickly was that there are no clear boundaries and things can’t be viewed in black and white. There is a wide spectrum of opinions depending on our own experience, upbringing, life circumstances and personal beliefs. Especially in the eco-therapeutic context there are no clearcut definitions of reciprocity.

Following on from the peer session I was talking to a couple of friends/colleagues about this topic. One of them in particular had very differing views from my own, which is always great for a thought-provoking and diverse conversation, which I really appreciated. 

Ever since this chat, I have been drawn back to thoughts about what reciprocity and the human relationship with animals mean for me personally. The above-mentioned friend for example strongly disagrees with any form of “animal oppression”, as she called it, including keeping any pets or using animals in any form for therapies benefiting humans. (We didn’t even touch on the role of animals as a source of food and clothing.) In her opinion, all animals should be given free choice of whether they want to engage or not, where they want to physically move to, what they eat, how they socialise etc.

As someone who loves Nature and who has been close to animals, both wild and “domesticated”, for all my life, I must say that this view is beautiful, if a little naïve. This theory doesn’t have much to do with the way Nature and societies operate. Do I agree with whales or dolphins being kept in captivity to benefit humans? Absolutely not! Would I “buy” a hamster, guinea pig or canary for my children (which they asked for 100 times over when they were younger) to spend their lives predominantly in a cage? No, I most certainly wouldn’t as it is not species-appropriate, nor is it kind or considerate.

On the other hand, I don’t think the Lioness asked the Antilope if she would like to be eaten on that beautiful sunny day. Even though Nature is beautiful, we can misguidedly look at things with rose-tinted glasses and deny the realities.

rabbit in cage

Do I feel that all dogs, cats and other pets live oppressed lives… well you might want to discuss this with our Golden Retriever Henry who is currently taking a nap on the couch after roaming outside in the garden and having a lunch of organic dog food. Of course, too many animals are mistreated and taken as a commodity by humans which is indisputably wrong. 

Does that mean though that we should give up reciprocal (for both parties) respectful and loving relationships with animals?

I personally don’t believe so. Anyone who lives in a society has to adhere to certain guidelines, morals and a general framework. Without these supports societies would collapse. We wouldn’t let our children run off onto a busy road, we would hold their hand or explain what the safe procedure is. Taking a dog on a lead temporarily for example (in “normal” circumstances) is an act of care rather than of oppression in my view.

As I see it, humans are part of Nature and an “animal” species themselves. I most certainly believe that as a species, we have grossly overstepped our rights and have inflicted terrible suffering on our planet Earth and living beings, including ourselves. At the same time, we too have a right to benefit from and interact with the other Nature elements around us in a loving and respectful manner. We all have to eat, drink, breathe, and socialise with the living beings in our environment, human and non-human.

For many of us, this includes a close and intimate relationship between animals and humans. This comes in so many different shapes and forms:

  • Animals and humans as part of the same family.

  • Vital support for people with life-altering illnesses and disabilities.

  • .Companionship for elderly citizens who would be lost and so lonely without their beloved pets.

  • Therapeutic interventions that are loving, supportive and respectful for both parties.
  • Respectful and interactive encounters and interactions with both wild and domesticated animals.
  • Conservation and protection of endangered species in appropriate environments.
We often assume that it is always humans who want this contact, yet there are uncountable examples of animals wanting to be close to us too. Two months ago this little baby robin arrived in our garden. From the start, she came unusually close to us and obviously wanted to interact. “Pip” has been visiting on a daily basis “demanding” her blueberry or other offerings, which she eats out of my two girls’ hands at this stage.

For me, reciprocity in relation to animals doesn’t mean for humans not to interfere or commune in any way with our animal kin, it means meeting them with love, care, kindness and respect and honouring their needs without disregarding our own.

I absolutely appreciate that we all have different opinions on the subject of reciprocity. At the same time, I believe as long as we honour and appreciate each other’s needs and well-being with kindness and compassion, we can’t go too wrong.

If you would like to learn more about ecotherapy and nature connection approaches and how we can apply them in our private and professional lives:

My fully accredited Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy Training has gone evergreen for a six-month trial period for a reduced training fee. This means you can register and get started anytime that suits your circumstances.

You can sign up here today, or send me an email to alex@rootsandwings.ie if you have any questions.

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