INTRO: Welcome back to Mind Full of Everything, after a month’s break due to my educational commitments. I’m your host Agrita Dandriyal and I’m very excited to be back to produce content addressing environmental and social issues that, when answered, aid us to continue on our journeys for ecological and community healing. In today’s episode, I had a very inspiring conversation with Dr Linda Bender, an animal advocate, educator and author of the wonderful book Animal Wisdom: Learning from the Spiritual Lives of Animals. Being exposed to the compassion and wonders of animals from a very young age, Linda has gone on to spend her professional and personal life supporting and initiating programs aimed at promoting the symbiosis of human and non-human animals. This episode discusses a lot of areas regarding animal rights protection, however, Linda strongly believes that reconnecting to the natural world requires a re-connection to our spiritual selves in order to unlearn teachings of human dominion over nature, and relearn Indigenous teachings of spiritual connections with every entity on this planet.
Agrita: Let’s start off by asking you what really inspired you to embark on this beautiful journey of advocacy for non-human animal rights.
Linda: Thank you for that question. I can honestly tell you that I’ve been asked many times, when did this start for me? When did this begin? And I’ve thought about it a lot, but really there was no time, before I came into this life with a very intimate connection with the natural world. And that began when I was a very, very young girl, when I would go out and play in nature. And, you know, we had a dog, but it was particularly out in my parents backyard when I connected with animals and I just knew that they were not other than humans. They were their own beautiful lifeforms, but we were equal, and we were connected, and I thought everyone felt that way. I soon learned that that wasn’t true. I thought, well, this is a special relationship that I have with animals. I then learned later on that my path was not just between me and the animals; it expanded to include humans and we can go into that story if you wish, but so, I’ve always had that ability and that sensing of the oneness of all life.
Agrita: So where do you think this commodification of animals really started from? And why did it start? Why has it continued on to modern society? And also, this perception of humans being the dominant species and non-human animals being the subordinate species. So, where do you think this really has started from and how can we kind of get out of this mindset?
Linda: Right, well, that’s a really important and a big question, write a book on that one. Let’s get to the basics. You know, if you, and I have spent time with Indigenous cultures who never experienced that separation, you know.
Agrita: Yeah, definitely.
Linda: One can see that some cultures have never lost that connection, but what’s happened to us in Western cultures? Well, it’s multifactorial. You know, we once believed in animism. That was sort of the way of our culture and meaning, you know, all life has soul. But then we started with Darwin, you know, Darwin is an example, with evolution, and frankly, I never understood why evolution means that we aren’t, you know, a spiritual [being], on a spiritual path, so that doesn’t work for me. And then of course the Industrial Revolution where we started to focus on materialism, and then religions, the traditional religions, that really stated, I mean in the Bible you can see where it says we are dominant and the Earth is here for us to use and “abuse”. So, you know, we claimed dominion over everything else on the planet. And so, all these things, everywhere people turned, this was what was being taught. And then we have the materialist science who, you know, are saying that everything is machine, nothing is alive, nothing real, it’s all meaningless, and science is the only thing, material science is the only thing we can believe in. And for some odd unknown reason, human beings have a consciousness. Now, we have made progress, but still, mainstream science is pretty skeptical.
Agrita: So, you have worked with Indigenous communities and you just mentioned how Indigenous communities have never really seen humans and animals as separate, even their environment. You know, we’re all part and parcel of the environment, and that’s something that Indigenous communities continue on to advocate for. So, do you think that they helped you in understanding this connection between humans and non-humans? Or do you think you’ve found that connection way before your work with these communities?
Linda: Well, I’ve always had that connection, but I actually, I had a dear friend, he’s passed over now, Bob Randall, who was an Aboriginal elder, and I spent a lot of time with him and his work in Aboriginal beliefs. And I also specifically, before I wrote my book, ’cause I had been working in Africa and I wanted to spend time with people who are living in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. And what I learned from them was about deepening that connection even more than I already had. I also worked with Credo Mutwa, who also has crossed over. Now it’s an expansion. In other words, I believe these connections. We’re all intuitive. We’re all psychic. We’re all able to connect with other levels of consciousness, but it’s like a muscle. If you don’t use it [spirituality], you lose it. So, most people are walking around completely, almost in a coma. (laughs) But when you start with those filters come off, wow, everything changes and so, there’s no end. It continues and continues and I remember one quick point about being with the San people and I thought, you know, I’m pretty good with animals and all.
There was this one beautiful man, he had me lie down on the on the stair red dirt soil and pressed my ear to the ground and he said, now listen to the ants below. You couldn’t see anything!
Linda: You couldn’t listen to the creatures below! He was stretching [my spiritual connection to Nature] even more.
Agrita: That is so beautiful! It’s like we have so much to learn from these communities, but it’s sort of ironic because we were those communities before, we just kind of lost our connection overtime.
Agrita: So, I think it is really important to go into these communities and listen to the members to see the interconnectivity between, like you said, the material world and the spiritual world. A major reason why actually reached out to you Linda is because of your work in spiritualism and conservation as well. Spiritualism is a massive part of my life but I do understand there are skeptics of it, you know, especially those that believe in conventional science systems, they don’t want to kind of see the connection between materialism and spiritualism. So how do you go about explaining this concept of connecting all beings and non-beings/non-living world are connected, how do you kind of explain that to people that just don’t want to understand it?
Linda: Right, well they, you just said something very important. There are people who don’t want to understand, and you’re not going to change that.
Linda: A friend of mine, Rupert Sheldrake, he’s in Britain, talks about pseudo-skeptics, because the people who refuse to listen are actually pseudo-skeptics, because skeptics want to learn, you know, skepticism is good. I’m a skeptic, but it makes me want to learn more, dig in more. It keeps my mind open and I’ve always been that way in a combination of science and spirituality.
Linda: It’s a yearning. What’s next? What’s next? So, pseudo skeptics are not real skeptics. They think they know all the answers already. They’re not interested in learning, they’re interesting in the dogma, because science, real science is not a dogma. It’s a way of learning. Science is a path to learning. It’s not a dogma. So, the people who refuse to learn well, they are what they are. But even skeptics and atheists, now I understand they have atheist meditation groups going on (laughs), so I don’t know what they’re meditating to, the right brain to the left brain, I’m not sure. It can be a tough road but I have found over the years that the best way to teach people, because I do teach, but I teach people who sign up and want to open [their minds] and want to learn. And what I have found is the best way to open people, and it’s not learning new stuff, it’s about forgetting. It’s about letting go of garbage that’s been in the brain for so long, and it’s allowing yourself to enter into experience. So, what I do, and it’s brilliant because people then experience for themselves, it’s like love right? I could explain to you or you could explain to me forever what love means, but until you experience it, you know nothing and so, yeah. You know, we can read the books, we can be taught, we can learn, but it’s really through personal experience. That’s where I get a tremendous joy of helping people open to those things that are already there. It’s a reawakening.
Agrita: Do you think that people that, like you said are atheist, they don’t exactly believe in a religion, do you think it’s harder for them to understand the concept of spirituality? Because I do believe that spirituality goes well beyond religion itself, it is a massive realm that I can’t personally explain. Of course there will be the skeptics, but there will be people that are not too sure about it, but they do want to learn about it.
Agrita: So, do you help people understand that regardless of their religious backgrounds and their beliefs?
Linda: Yeah I do, and I think that’s part of the reason there’s so much skepticism. We’ll call them skeptics about spirituality when they don’t, they’ve not experienced spirituality. They’re not mystical, meaning they’ve not had the personal experiences to understand spirituality. So, they base their criticism a lot on some of the aspects of organised religion that are really kind of goofy, they’re easy to put down or disbelieve, and that’s true. I think organised religions have just, it’s not what my spiritual journey is about. So, it’s kind of a dodge and weave around those issues that you know we really don’t have to argue with, some of the concepts of organised religion that are just based on controlling the masses, right? I help people understand it [spirituality] is a mystical journey, it’s a personal journey that you don’t need anything else. There is nothing else you need to do to connect and go along on your spiritual journey. It’s you and your soul and your spirit and you connecting with all life and that for me is a way to teach people it’s in Nature; it’s connecting with animals because they are the conduit. The average person, once they’ve had a loving relationship with an animal, they’re not questioning whether that animal can think or feel. So, it’s how we just carry on in that journey, and being out in Nature, seeing it’s a tree, it’s a flower or it’s an animal, that’s the doorway through that mystical personal interconnection that we can all experience.
Agrita: Definitely. I feel like most people are nervous about spirituality because it doesn’t have a set structure.
Linda: Oh yeah.
Agrita: Like you said, it’s an experience-led belief system, if you want to put it that way. The fact that there’s no structure, because we’re so used to structure in modern society, I think that is what stops people from exploring it further. But if people just understand that it’s just about your experiences and how you connect with other beings in the world, then it just puts a little less pressure on those people that are kind of entering that phase.
Linda: Yeah, and I think people tend to think, people have said this to me, oh well you have this special thing I don’t have.
Linda: You know, other people, they’re different. That’s not true at all and so what is so beautiful is when people realise that. Not because I tell them, but because they go out in Nature or they meditate, you know, there are different things one can do, but the most powerful and simple is sitting with a tree. Krishnamurti, the great philosopher, used to say sit with the tree, look at a tree, but don’t see the tree with the name. See this as another living thing. Connect to it. Forget what you know, get it out of your mind, and just connect with this being through presence. It happens every time. And then it’s so wonderful when people think “oh my God so crazy, wow”, you know, and then they go from there and it’s beautiful and they’re never the same. You’re never the same.
Agrita: Kind of going back to my question on the whole commodification of animals. So, like you mentioned, your work has extended to Asia and Africa and these two regions have had extensive histories, and it’s continuing now, of poaching and wildlife trafficking. How do you help local communities that have engaged in these practices for so long to kind of step out of that and understand that not only is this having a negative ecological impact on their ecosystems and on the animals themselves, but also it is an unethical practice. I understand that lots of communities will be kind of closed off, especially when Western researchers and scientists come into their regions and tell them that you know this isn’t exactly right from a scientific perspective, spiritual perspective, ethical perspective. So how do you help those communities to understand that this isn’t sustainable?
Linda: Right. That’s absolutely true. The problem is if you tell someone who kills an animal, whether it’s the low man on the totem pole of the poaching, the wildlife trafficking trade, who just needs to make a tiny bit of money to feed his family.
Linda: Or if you say to them this is really not right, it’s unethical, or these animals, you shouldn’t be killing them, well, that doesn’t go too far because they’re trying to feed their families. They’re trying to save their children from starving.
Linda: So to end these problems, and many good people are working on this South Africa, East Africa, know you have to work with the people, you have to work with the communities to provide other ways. For example, one reason for these rage killings is there’s shared permit and if an elephant is competing with space and say a lion kills a goat or whatever happens, you’ve got to deal with that situation. For example the bees, they put fences with stations [bee hives] where elephants are terrified of being near to. So, you work with the community, set that up so you don’t have to kill the animals. We can work together to solve these issues so they [animals] don’t come and destroy your area and we don’t have to kill them. So, we come up with creative ways to deal with these situations but the problem is habitats are being destroyed, they have nowhere to go so it’s multifactorial. But when you teach people there are ways to live together, it does work because they don’t really want to kill the animals, they want to live together. They understand tourism and the needs, so it’s education and working together with the animals and the local people. You can’t do it without the local people.
Agrita: Yeah. So, from your experience, are these countries actively investing in making sure that their wildlife is protected? Are there any community projects being invested in on a large scale?
Linda: Oh sure, sure, everywhere, but funding is an issue. First thing you have to do to is prevent poaching. You have to have boots on the ground, right? You have to have the guards, the people protecting the animals and you have to work at the borders. You have to have controls, government controls, but you have to stop the money, you have to stop the market. A big stride was made in China, elephants were killed and people would say things like “wow, I didn’t know elephants were killed for this task, I thought they just shed the task”. So, education [is needed] and to shut down the market for imports.
Linda: So yeah, it’s the drug trade, the human trafficking trade and the animal trafficking trade, these are the three big horrors that we have to deal with. But wonderful people are working and doing great things, and we’re tracking animals, so there’s a lot going on. But we’ve got to stop the market for it and stop the corruption.
Agrita: Like you said, it’s multilayered, there’s so many layers to these issues.
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But like you said, there are people already working at each layer, so you need to keep on going at it and hopefully in the process people do learn.
Linda: Yeah. The other thing we have to remember is with this environment. Luckily, we’re in our new administration, heartbreaking what was happening before, but I think we’re trying to move in the correct direction again, but we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of the people that I work with, and have worked with in the past, are people like me or like you who are thinking there’s nothing I could do, I’m not powerful enough. I tell people you got to be a rebel with a cause and when you have a cause, you got to work for it and you got to learn. Make your gifts your strengths. I teach people to make their gifts their strengths and not a weakness, and we need everybody we can get in the field. You know, everybody has their gift and everybody has some things that they can share and I hope, I try to help people empower themselves and to transform their negativity, the criticism that they receive, into creative ways.
Agrita: I have seen from your website that you’ve also worked with children; do you think that children are more accessible, when it comes to changing people’s mindsets?
Linda: Totally and everywhere in the world. For example, in Africa, it’s the children, educating the children to this loving relationship and opening your heart to the value of the animals and living together, honoring all life, they get it. They totally get it there. Here too you know, I think in our culture, it’s the kids who get it. I mean, I remember once, well more than once, but this one particular girl, she was seven years old and she came to one of my lectures in Cincinnati, and afterward I had a book signing, this little girl waited, ’cause everybody was in line, and she waited and waited and I could see her and she came over with her dad and she just told me how she was going to take care of the animals and cats, the wildcats. She was amazing, the most astonishing young woman. She had no doubts, you know, they don’t have the doubts. So, what we need to do is affirm that.
Linda: It’s just amazing there. I love working with kids.
Agrita: I am very interested in hearing about your opinions on zoos. I’ve personally been very conflicted with the concept of zoos and I have seen quite negative examples of them. You know, animals being confined in a space, being left alone. There have been so many accounts of animals being depressed as well, so what is your take on zoos? Can we make them more ethical and support mechanisms for animals?
Linda: Yes, everything you just said about zoos is correct. Horrible situations with depression, with animals being put alone. Elephants, giraffes, it’s just wrong and there are so many zoos that need to go away. On the other hand, there are some zoos that I’ve personally worked with, the Bronx Zoo for example does amazing work all around the world like funding programs, they have programs all over the world, research teams, really helping animals. Another example in the Cincinnati Zoo. I moved there once to work in the zoo and I realised that I didn’t want to be there, as you bet, because we were low man on the totem pole and it could be very political to the animals, so that’s not great. However, they have a research team there, I’ll just give you an example, they did the first artificial insemination of a Sumatran rhino, and I mean that’s a big deal, so as far as the researching and funding, that aspect of the zoos, that’s a good thing. But the average zoo? I’m sorry, you know animals should not be confined and if they do have to be, then let’s do it right. Going to zoos? I’ll tell you a quick story about that one. I was a very little girl, I grew up in New Jersey and my father was so much on board with me and my connection to animals and he was so excited. He said I’m going to take you to see the animals. I’m going to take you to the zoo. My father was holding my hand, and the closer we got to this what looked like an enormous truck sized cage, which was probably maybe 20×10, and I was getting closer and closer to this astonishingly beautiful black panther that was caged in this thing and it was pacing back and forth back and forth, and as an empath, the closer I got to this animal, everything that animal was feeling was in me, and I started screaming to my father “Daddy, Daddy, get him out of there, he wants to leave.” It was horrible, it was a horrible experience for me. My father actually had to leave because I was hysterical.
Linda: We’re [getting] better, but we’re not there yet.
Agrita: Yeah, I mean that was another question that I wanted to ask because lots of people say, well, not everyone has an access to a safari or, you know, something like that, and zoos do provide that sort of contact point between children and animals. So that is like a major argument that people give that zoos are giving that sort of interaction, but like you said, it was so traumatising for you, and I’m pretty sure that it’ll be traumatising for so many other children as well, that are a bit more mature in that sense and more sensitive.
Linda: Also, on that same argument, taking a child to see an animal confined like that, is that saying that’s okay? Is that saying that’s normal? No, I’m sorry I don’t agree with that.
Agrita: Yeah, no same.
Linda: Let’s go out to the sanctuaries. Let’s go out in the wild. Let’s go look at the birds in the trees. Let’s go, you know, look around at Nature, living as it’s meant to live. I don’t think an animal should be caged for the pleasure of anybody, any human being.
Agrita: I feel like schools have a massive role to play in this, especially because I’ve been to zoos just because of my school, they will take us there. So yes, schools really need to play this role in helping children understand that it’s, it might be sad you can’t see a lion in person, but so long as that lion is not being caged and confined in a space and being abused, that is better. That way children won’t feel kind of inquisitive to go to a zoo and see a confined animal.
Linda: Sure. Let’s learn about an animal out in the wild. Read the book. See the videos. I mean with technology, the way it is today, there are programs that are trying to be put in schools. I know there’s an underwater program, you don’t have to go to see a dolphin stuck in a tank somewhere they can’t. There’s a program where the divers will go and they’re filming and they’re teaching. You don’t have to have a creature confined, there’s so many more creative ways to do it. And you know what? If you don’t see, if a child doesn’t see a lion in captivity is that? Is that a problem, no? Is that going to affect the development? No.
Linda: Teach the child about the beauty of preserving the animal in its natural habitat and then we can show the films in the school. So much better, so much better. I get excited just thinking about it because I know people are working hard to do these things.
Linda: So, you’re teaching the connection of all right? You’re teaching on a spiritual level that interconnectedness, that caring and compassion. And you’re teaching about science and you’re teaching about environmentalism. Boom, there you go.
Agrita: You’ve also started your own pet therapy program. Could you explain how that goes and does the therapy extend to the pet owners as well? You know, kind of helping them to understand their animal companions on a spiritual level?
Linda: Yes, yes. I remember back in the day I started one of the first pet programs and there was no name. It was just me and a girl-friend and we took a Motley crew of animals down too an inner city home for people who had a history of mental illness and they couldn’t make it on their own and otherwise would be homeless. It was a residential situation and I remember there was a big door and we arrived there and knocked on the door. Someone had told them that people were coming and so this big man opened the door and said “The Pet Club” is here and we said that’s the name! So, I just went in with my friend and the animals, only equipped with what I knew to be true about the love and the connection between humans and animals. It was the most extraordinary experience. There were people there, one man in particular, I’ll never forget him, I brought my cat Pumpernickel and I put Pumpernickel on his lap, he was a very gentle soul, but he was in his own world and when that cat was on his lap, it was like a light bulb was turned on. He started talking about an animal he had as a child and it brought tears to my eyes.
Linda: Because it was instant healing and instant connection there. This happened time and time and time again and I remember when I started that program, people kind of looked at me like what? Well okay Linda, you go have fun and do your thing. I was on a mental health board but it’s continued through the years to be the most popular program. And as we know, there’s so many program like this now going to hospitals going all over. I’m not directly involved with that anymore because I’m now doing all these other things, writing, speaking and teaching.
Agrita: Do you think that animal therapy should be in as many PTSD programs and trauma healing programs? Do you think animals should really play a major role in therapy?
Linda: Yes I do. I do. There are programs here with vets, military vets, and their lives are often saved because they have an animal. I know several people who have those programs, and they tell the stories of how these vets who come back from war, they’re so traumatised. I’ve also seen in the US after some of these mass shootings in the schools, little kids are still traumatized. There have been examples of only a dog could pull a child back into speaking again.
Linda: I just think dogs should be allowed in schools anyway (laughs).
Agrita: Yeah, definitely. I think in all spaces, like work spaces, wherever possible!
Linda: Yeah! Let’s face it. There have been studies done that have shown that in offices, where animals are allowed to be part of the crew, they’re more productive. They’re happier. The people get along better, so it’s all good.
Agrita: Yeah, definitely. I mean, now my mom’s working from home, but her boss always brought in their pet whenever they would be super stressed. It was a Golden retriever, she would kind of walk past and then, you know, their [staff] attention would just kind of divert for a bit. They’ll pet her, they’ll feed her something. It’s so beautiful. I don’t think words can describe how important animals are.
Linda: Yeah, yeah, I know. Even in just everyday life, like my dog, I have an 11 pound poodle mix. She is just a laser-focus love missile! I mean people go crazy and when I would be carrying her in an airport, you know, random strangers, you know how people are in airports? They’re all very busy and they have these serious looks on there.
Linda: But one look at my dog Luna and it’s suddenly “aww!”
Linda: Total strangers smiling.
Linda: So yeah. We need more of this in the world.
Agrita: I mean whenever I go to the park to get a breath of fresh air and I see the animals and the dogs, It just feels so much better.
Agrita: I feel like that’s the main reason why I go to the park these days, because I know people be walking their dogs and you’ll see the birds and it’s absolutely beautiful. Since you touched on airports,
I’ve always been confused how people can take pets on. So, lots of people say it’s actually really unethical how some animals, I think bigger dogs, are put into like another space. I have no idea because I don’t have a pet but what’s your take on that, is that right?
Linda: I don’t advocate for anyone to travel with an animal that gets put under. They [airlines] say it’s okay, but you don’t hear about a lot of animals that die by being transported underneath as cargo. They have ventilation but often there’s some fatalities. If you absolutely have to travel with your animal checked in like that, don’t do it in the extremes of weather.
Linda: When they take the animal off the plane, they can die of heat exposure and/or cold. So, if you have to do it, don’t do it in extreme weather, too many horrible stories with traveling with your pets underneath. I mean, I like the idea that small animals can come on the plane, but
they’d cut back on that. Now I know they just did in the US, certain animals are allowed. There aren’t many people flying right now with animals, but I used to fly with my little dog all the time, I’m not sure what the regulations are going to be now but definitely don’t recommend putting an animal underneath as cargo for travelling. If you have to, choose the shortest route and fly in a more mild climate/time of the year if possible.
Agrita: It would be lovely if we could wrap up the episode to talk about the importance of animal spirituality and exploring it a bit more. We have touched on it throughout the whole episode, but you have an amazing book that I am going to read as soon as I get free, it’s on the top of my list of books to read. I’m really sure that you’ve discussed so many important points of animal spirituality, their wisdom, the book is called Animal Wisdom Learning From The Spiritual Lives of Animals, but if you were to pick out a main point, the main thing that you’ve learned about animal spirituality, what would that be?
Linda: Well, I have a very simple answer for that, because there’s so much that animals have to teach us, and when we live with them and we get to know them, they all have this joy of aliveness, and this specialness as all species do. I really think that if I was going to die in two minutes and I had one thing to say it would be that we as humans, we are the only species that has seceded from the natural world, and what animals would like us to know is that we think we have so many problems, and we do, but our main problem is that we think we are not part of the rest of the functioning, loving, interconnected world. That’s our biggest problem, and that’s what we need to deal with. Animals want us to know that we are really all alive and all one and we must function in that way if any of us are to survive.
Agrita: Thank you so much Linda for coming on the show and giving so much of your wisdom about spirituality, the importance of seeing ourselves as biotic components of the environment for sure, but also this network of species and the non-living world, so thank you so much for coming on and giving us so much information and insight into this wonderful area.
Linda: Thank you and it’s been a pleasure. May I just close with a quote from Rumi? One of the things that animals teach us so much about is how we deal with death and dying.
Agrita: Yes, sure please do!
Linda: How that’s affected me, I tell stories about that [death] in my book actually, but I there’s a quote by Rumi that I think will sum up so much, and he says “goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes, because for those who love with their hearts and soul, there is no such thing as separation”. When we deal with animal grief and animal connection, I think this sums it up. If we can all live with love in our hearts and see beyond the physical, what a wonderful world this would be.
OUTRO: Spirituality is a topic I’ve been wanting to discuss on this podcast, but I understand that it’s a very difficult topic to address. To have started to discuss it this episode with Linda, and that too the interconnection of physical sciences and spiritualism, has become an essential part of this podcasting journey. I hope you have been coping well amid everything that is going on. The COVID situation is worsening in other parts of the world, particularly being an Indian it’s heartbreaking to witness my people suffering along with everyone else, especially those in developing regions. Please remember to give yourself space to heal before re-engaging in these difficult areas and as difficult as it sounds, please maintain your hope because hope is what is needed to drive actions that can have long lasting positive impacts. Remember to subscribe to Mind Full of Everything on your podcast app of choice. Follow the podcast on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and do visit mindfullofeverything.com for additional resources and episodes. I hope to see you here again in the next episode.