As we get closer to the publication of my new book, Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives, I’d like to share some of its principal ideas with you. An extra bonus? At the end of this post, I’ve shared a link to the first chapter, which I hope will get you thinking about Phoenix Zones in your community – and even creating one yourself!
In Phoenix Zones, I pull together concepts I have spent my lifetime considering. I’ve worked in places where life is extraordinarily difficult – for humans and animals – and I’ve had the great fortune to meet extraordinary women and men who, even in the worst of circumstances, choose to act on behalf of others in ways that give me great hope. Their inspiring stories, and the pattern I began to see in them, are why I wrote the book.
There is so much about the way the world is organized that we take for granted or think will never change. My perspective, formed by a diverse set of experiences with people and animals, challenges the predominant worldview that sees humans as above and separate from all other animals, a worldview that has led to suffering on a global scale. I realize that suggesting that we sweep away these illusory barriers could be seen as a radical notion. But I believe that only by fundamentally changing how we see the world, and allowing ourselves to see all beings for who they really are and then acting on what we see, can we find a way through so many of the problems to which a culture of indifference and violence has given rise.
In this post, I’d like to share the hope others have given me by introducing some of the ideas that are at the heart of Phoenix Zones. Here are a few responses to some of the questions people often ask me:
How have science and medicine opened the door to shifting our perspective on how members of other species experience life?
Over the past several decades especially, we’ve learned so much about the lives of other animals. Every day brings new discoveries about animals’ capacities. Both scientific findings and stories from people who live with and encounter animals in their daily lives shape how we view ourselves as humans. We’ve come a long way since the days of Descartes, who popularized the idea that animals were mere machines – free of thought, language, self-consciousness, or significant feeling.
We now know how nonhuman animals such as elephants, chimpanzees, pigs, dogs, and many others exhibit powers of deliberation, imagination, intelligence, empathy, love, and many other mental qualities that we as humans possess. But we haven’t done enough to apply what we’ve learned about other animals – or ourselves – to the way the world is organized. Though we’ve made incredible technical progress as humans, we still have a long way to go on moral progress.
Do humans and animals experience joy as well as severe trauma in similar ways?
Absolutely. In fact, we can learn a lot from how animals search for joy, regardless of their circumstances (much like many children do). They seek opportunities to play and spend time with their families and friends, and they express gratitude and delight when there’s reason to. Like us, many animals also reflect on their own lives – the good and the bad.
I remember the first time I saw chimpanzees released from a lifetime of imprisonment as laboratory subjects and entertainment props. It was the first time in decades they had the opportunity to be outside. As they left their indoor enclosure, they greeted the sun, grass, and each other with open arms, hugs, and jumps for joy. Seeing this, it would be hard for anyone to deny that they are just as capable of joy as we are. Joy is found across the animal kingdom. For example, the late scientist Jaak Panksepp, who was interested in the evolutionary origins of emotion, famously showed how rats laugh when tickled. Look elsewhere in the animal kingdom, and it’s easy to see how animals much seek joy in play and their relationships with others.
Can humans and animals help each other heal?
Yes! And the “Phoenix Zones” I write about in the book show how – in ways that I hope will resonate with and inspire everyone. For example, the Warriors and Wolves project, cofounded by combat veteran Matt Simmons and clinical psychologist Lorin Lindner, is available to Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine, and Navy veterans treated at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center. After returning from war, veterans have the opportunity to work and live at a refuge that is also home to rescued wolves and wolfdogs. Many of the veterans in the program are still recovering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and depression, and conventional medical and psychiatric treatments have largely failed them.
At the Warriors and Wolves project, the veterans discover a chance to rebuild trust, form important bonds with the wolves and other veterans, and become part of something greater than themselves. Some of the most vocal supporters of the sanctuary have overcome seclusion and homelessness. They have transformed physically and mentally, in part through bonding with the animals at the sanctuary. The veterans find solidarity and peace with the wolves, who also slowly recover from surgeries to remove chains embedded in their necks, limps associated with being chained and confined, and their own psychological wounds.
You are a human rights physician – when did you first link human rights with animal protection?
I started thinking about the connections between people and animals as a kid. I grew up on a small Oklahoma farm, where my parents also taught me about human rights violations around the world. My father’s extended family and friends were detained and tortured after he immigrated to the United States, where he met my mother, and both of my parents thought it was important for their children to understand the difficulties many people face around the world. It was then that I decided to be a doctor, to help prevent and alleviate the suffering in the world. But, as a child, I wondered why the same rules didn’t apply to people and animals. I saw how rich animals’ lives could be, and how they also suffer.
Now, as a human rights physician, I realize I was on the right track. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve learned how violence against people and animals is intricately linked. And, I’ve also come to understand how solutions to violence against people and animals are just as intricately linked. We need to move beyond shortsighted solutions that wrongly permit the suffering of one individual or group to promote the needs or desires of another. Instead, we must get to the root causes of violence and injustice.
Please stay tuned for more in my next post. And, as promised, you can download the first chapter of Phoenix Zones here. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of it.