By Andrea Wells
“Just because you have a dream animal doesn’t mean you can forget about the real animal.”
My fondness for turtles began early in life. I grew up on 20 acres in the Minnesota countryside, in a classic farmhouse that was once a parsonage with an old red barn. The creek behind our place had turtles along with frogs, crayfish and a few catfish, and on our family vacations to Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, I encountered snapping turtles, musk turtles and painted turtles all with personalities of their own. I even had a pet turtle, Sam.
At eighteen, I left home and came to California, where I began to dream of his distant cousins — deep sea creatures that can live for up to a hundred years: I am holding a baby sea turtle in my hand. I promise to protect it and take it to freedom.
As Delmore Schwartz once wrote, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” In a series of dreams, over many years, I discovered my calling to protect these creatures, and to explore the human-animal bond.
Why did these hard-backed reptiles have such a strong appeal? I was a shy young girl in love with nature, and spent my time riding horses and exploring the mysteries of the creek, always more at home with animals than people. In social situations, it felt safer not to stick my neck out. I had a natural affinity with the turtle with its retractable head and hidden self. As a child, I’d only known the backyard kind and those who swam in the bathtub of a Midwestern lake, but when I moved to the West Coast I encountered something with infinitely more potential — a creature that could grow to be up to 700 pounds, measure 7 meters long, and spend a hundred years beneath the sea.
As I began to think of all the turtles I had known, I had an unusual dream: The turtles are coming up from the depths of my body and trying to get out of my mouth. I know that I must relax my throat and let these turtles out.
This is how turtles became my totem animal. As an adult, I associated them with the process of finding my own voice — and becoming a passionate advocate for wildlife.
Whales were another story — they were my deep initiation into awe and wonder. A few years later, when I was studying psychology in Los Angeles, I went on a whale watching trip sponsored by Greenpeace. That day, we discovered a dead young whale with fishing line wrapped around its body. This was a sad and shocking experience. Our guides wanted to haul it in for an autopsy so they could make a case against the fishermen, and I began to understand that these amazing creatures were in need of our protection. On that same day, gray whales and humpbacks sidled up to the boat, eagerly showing off for us.
When I stepped off the boat, my whole body was quivering, and not long afterward one of these creature also came to me in a dream: My room is full of water, and a whale is swimming around in it. She likes it when I scoop up some water with my hands and pour it into her mouth. She has to go to back to the sea, and I worry that, in the transport, she’ll be rolled up in a net and treated roughly. Somehow we get her to the beach. I ask how I will recognize her when she comes back again. We both decide we would simply “know” each other.
Over the years, I learned how to dialogue with these dream animals—to actually sit and listen to what they had to say to me, using a technique called Active Imagination. I tried not to project my own feelings and emotions onto these extraordinary creatures, but to recognize the instincts and affinities we had in common. Animals and people share an evolutionary history and we have more in common than we think. If we take the time to understand their qualities and ways of life, we become richer, fuller human beings.
Through these conversations, I came to know the turtle part of me as a quiet, deep, wisdom, but my dialogue with the whales took more time to come into focus. Whales are the largest animals on the planet and the first world travelers. A gray whale can cover a jaw-dropping 13,988 miles—half way around the world from Russia to Mexico and back in 172 days. And the blue whale that looks like a steamship in the water, is one of the biggest explorers—logging 16,000 miles in a single migration. They seemed to be calling me to move beyond my comfort zone, to leave the confines of the consulting room and get a bigger life.
In Monterey Bay and Hawaii I watched groups of whales, jumping, breaching, and tail flapping, as they gathered for a family reunion. The more I learned about the challenges to their habitat—from fishing boats and shipping lines, from noise and water pollution, the more I wanted to help them flourish. I began supporting Sea Shepherds, an organization run by Paul Watson the former head of Greenpeace. Watson was action oriented. He got an old run down boat and started interfering with Japanese whaling ships who said they were doing research but were actually killing these animals. Watson was fearless – he got his boat between the whales and the Japanese processing ship and completely shut them down.
More recently, I applied to join a local rescue team that frees whales that get caught in ropes and nets off the California coast.
Other animals were calling to me, as well. On the beaches of Costa Rica, I sat with leatherback turtles while they were laying their eggs to protect them from nearby poachers and found that this kind of boots on the ground work made me feel more alive than ever.
A few years ago, I began to volunteer every summer, working with a wildlife conservation team in South Africa. One of our first projects was de-horning 90 rhinos on the reserve — a drastic but necessary measure to limit poaching and save the rhino from extinction. The horn is valued in Asian countries as a medicine and as a symbol of wealth and power. The poachers don’t care about the suffering or survival of the animal. They just hack away at the horn, after crippling it. So it was more “humane” to remove this part of their anatomy and ensure that these endangered creatures would be left alone. Before we began, I’d put my hand on a sensitive spot behind the rhino’s ear and whisper, “I’m sorry this is so distressing. We are doing this to help you.”
In the past four years, the team has freed hyenas and elephants from snares and “translocated” lions, cheetahs, and rhinos—moving the males to new preserves to promote a healthy diversification of blood lines. I think of this hard but rewarding work as the housekeeping we need to do to save the planet and preserve its richness and diversity.
It All Comes Down to Home
The number one threat to wildlife is their loss of home or habitat. While we can help endangered species to survive, there must be enough acreage to allow for their feeding, mating and migration. The conservation of wild animals in closed reserves is a complex science. Lion prides must have enough territory to roam or they will kill each other. Cheetahs need enough land to stay clear of lions. They key is giving each animal the space it needs.
If we encounter certain elephants on a bush road, we put the Jeep in reverse and back up hastily. Sometimes we’ll turn around and drive 40 minutes out of our way to accommodate an aggressive bull. The elephant gets the right of way, and that’s all there is to it.
We humans are so cut off from our surroundings that we tend to limit our territory to the outline of bodies. But early hunter-gathers had a much larger sense of their own personal space. They migrated thousands of miles when food sources were low, and on a daily basis, ran long distances to secure their prey.
Elephants are constantly on the move and roam even further than we thought. In one reserve, 75,000 acres support 110 of these majestic creatures.
The first thing you learn in the bush is to respect an animal’s migration route, water route, mating route. If you start to encroach, believe me — they’ll know. It’s impossible, for example, to sneak up on an elephant. Their feet have something similar to a whale’s sonar that alerts them to invaders. From vibrations in the ground, they can detect the motor of an approaching Jeep or tell what’s happening to a herd that’s miles away.
In Africa, you begin to rethink your definition of home. Elephants may walk all day long, covering the whole reserve. To find water and food, they can log at least 50 miles a day. Home, for them, is always on the move. That’s why they pace back and forth so poignantly when they’re locked up in a zoo.
We humans place so much value on putting down roots. For us, owning a home signifies that we have earned our place in the world. It’s a rite of passage that indicates we’ve reached a certain level of professional success. But like the elephants, my home is on the road. Over the years, I’ve found my place alongside the animals. They’ve become “my people” and their habitat, my terra firma.
There’s a deep connection between humans and wildlife — if you spend time in the bush, you will feel it in your soul. Over the centuries, we’ve poached endangered species, invaded habitats, and destroyed the wilderness. As a consequence, we’re disconnected from our own wild nature. When we are disconnected from our own instincts, we suffer emotionally, and spiritually. But there is some serious physical fallout, too.
Zoonotic diseases (illnesses passed from animals to humans) are on the rise because we’re invading animal territories. Lyme disease is now attributed to our encroachment on the forest habitat. The coronavirus appears to have come from wildlife poaching—a pangolin stolen from its home in Africa then sold in a Chinese wet market. Tourism in remote areas has brought us into contact with infection-carrying bats.
The question is, how much space will we take over, disturbing natural habitats with our drilling, shipping, trading, building, dumping, and endless power lines? When will we realize that Thoreau was right? “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Maybe we can take a clue from whales, the first global citizens. In Star Trek: The Voyage Home, whales are the centerpiece of civilization — the whole planet depends on the safety of these beings. In their travels, they weave an invisible shield around the planet. Their idea of home is a cosmic tapestry, an endless skein of thread that transcends countries and corporate identities. If we spend time with these gentle giants, they will help us craft a new cosmology, one in which all life forms are deeply entwined and interrelated.
We need to listen to the animals, get to know them intimately again. That’s why I urge people to get involved in conservation — to donate to their favorite organizations or volunteer in their local communities. When you are hands-on with animals, you realize that by serving them you’re healing something deep within yourself.
These are hard times, and it’s easy to feel daunted — to give up hope that we can save the animals and save a portion of this earth. When I need a jolt of encouragement I think back on my conversation with a whale. “Take more risks!” she said. “Quit beaching yourself! Come out of your comfort zone, and dare to do some big things in the world.”
Voyage of the Turtle by Carl Safina
Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina