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Connectivity, Recovery, Separation, and Inspiration: Finding a path to coexistence

Posted by: Peter Zahler, Vice President of Conservation Initiatives

The last time I wrote, I discussed the importance of connectivity to conservation, both right here in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. I wanted to write more because of something that was said during a recent meeting I attended with a range of stakeholders from around the region. The meeting’s focus was on helping to co-design an upcoming zoo exhibit about our own Living Northwest.

Washington's wolf populations are still recovering—coming back from extinction in the state. of  Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

We were discussing the strategic framework for our Living Northwest Program’s field work, where we have multiple projects aimed at recovery of species such as wolves and wolverines (as they return to Washington after decades of having been driven to extinction in the state), and also aimed at improving coexistence between people and wildlife once the wildlife has recovered (or as people expand into wilderness habitat).

Our Tribal partner representative, Matt Echohawk-Hayashi, from the Headwater Group, took those ideas—“recovery” and “coexistence”—and then rephrased them into “recovery from separation.”

His statement, incredibly simple yet deeply profound, literally stopped me as if I’d run into a wall.

As a wildlife conservationist, I’ve been taught that bringing wildlife back (recovery) and helping people live with wildlife (coexistence) were basic axioms of how to achieve conservation anywhere in the world.

Wildlife recovery is about more than just coexisting. We must find our way back to our proper place within nature. N. American river otter photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

But “recovery from separation” went further, and it went deeper. Those three simple words, spoken quietly by Matt, felt like a shout—an exclamation of loss and pain, a call to arms, and a calm, measured conviction, all at once—for finding our way back to our proper place within nature.

Those three words said so much. They said we had lost our way. And that we must discover a path not just to living alongside wild animals, as coexistence implies, but something more meaningful and richer—to living as an integrated part of the natural system.

This is our natural system, the one that provides us with life—oxygen, and clean water, and food, and shelter. We are, of course, a part of it, and depend on it for our very survival, whether we admit that fact or not.

Mountain goats at the zoo's Northern Trail. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Matt’s statement—recovery from separation—was about more than just admitting we live in the natural world. It was about embracing the reality of our place in the natural world.

Woodland Park Zoo is passionate about our growing initiatives to help bring back and recover Washington’s iconic wildlife species. We’re excited about connecting our wild places and green spaces to help sustain Washington’s incredible natural wealth. We’re eager to help people learn to live with wildlife, showing the rest of the world how we can coexist.

And we are committed to inspire our greater Washington community to make conservation a priority in their lives. Our first step might be to recognize our self-imposed, artificial separation from our natural world. Perhaps then can we begin to find ways to recover from that separation.