The kindness of strangers
Friendly Back Yards



I have written so much about animal suffering that it feels right to relate the many stories of human kindness. I believe people are basically good and if they only knew what goes on behind the scenes then most would choose compassion over cruelty. That is why I write these short essays.

Millions of everyday people, driving to work or home, go out of their way to do kind things. Here is an inspiring video about people rescuing animals from dangerous situations, often at risk to themselves.

restore your faith in humanity in four minutes

I have often asked myself what I would do in this situation. Would I dive into freezing water to rescue a trapped dog, or climb down a steep cliff to clamber up, hand over hand, with a lamb under my arm?  None of us know the answer until such a situation arises, but I hope so. We often underestimate our capacity for kindness, so let's offer ourselves to compassion. First there is recognition and then commitment. There is no need to remain untouched.

Another inspiring (and ongoing) story concerns Esther, the Wonder Pig, and the two kind souls who rescued and love her. I have written about Esther before but for those of you who haven't heard about her, this video will make you laugh. Esther is one loved and happy pig!

Esther the Wonder Pig - a loving tribute video

There are so many stories of animal sanctuaries, of people who gave up their jobs as waitresses, taxi drivers, mechanics and athletes to create sanctuaries where animals can live in happy, natural conditions. Some of the sanctuaries are for exotic animals and others are created to shelter farm animals.

exotic animals - Pat Derby: Celebrating a Remarkable Life

farm animals - Farm Sanctuary

Animal welfare and animal rights organizations that do good work are always fighting an uphill battle against better funded industry groups. For example, the Animal Legal Defense Fund trains and supports attorneys who will fight to create better conditions for animals. Many SPCAs operate on a shoestring and the people who work there are often underpaid. They are doing this because they love animals so let's honor them.

Animal Legal Defense Fund - Wikipedia

SPCA Volunteers - You Tube

Most important of all is what we do as individuals. To the millions of hard-working people who have day jobs but volunteer at a shelter on weekends and to you who do everyday acts of kindness, slowing down when there are animals near the road or stepping over a snail rather than stepping on it, you are my heroes.


Ecotourism refers to travel that is consciously planned to support ecosystems and local cultures. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) states that ecotourism is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people"Ě. This intent distinguishes it from most tourism because it emphasizes small scale, non-intrusive values and discourages the construction of hotels, resorts and highways which would be destructive to the wildlife, land and local cultures in the long run. Simply being out in nature or in a remote area of the world does not, by itself, constitute environmentalism.

Ecotourism began as a concept in the 1970s and during its first two decades most participants were citizens of Western Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. This, however, is rapidly changing and an increasing number of participants are from Asia, South America and Africa as these regions gain prosperity.

The first ecotourism destinations were in Africa and involved photographic expeditions. Observation and experience, not luxury or the purchase of trinkets, were promoted. Since the nineties, ecotourism has become a thriving
business and governments have an increasing awareness of its importance to their economies. Belize, Nepal, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dubai, Canada, Ecuador and Kenya all have booming ecotourism sectors. There are good companies that go to all of these locations.

However, it is important to be aware of the environmental impact of air travel. It leaves an enormous carbon footprint so consider other, more local, options. Travel by public transportation if possible. Journeying by bicycle, camping or stopping at hostels along the way, is a fun and environmental way to travel. Hostels tend to be more environmentally conscious than hotels or motels and there is a spirit of sharing and community that is inspirational. Friendships are formed in hostels that last a lifetime.

Ecotourism in the United States is on the rise. Lengthy mountain ranges, dramatic coastlines, and an enormous diversity of wildlife species present opportunities for sustainable tourism, education and adventure. The United States has a number of different ecosystems, from tropical to arctic and the fact that it is closer to home is also a draw. Alaska, with its vast animal populations and spectacular terrain is currently the most active state in promoting environmentally conscious tourism.


In any discussion of ecotourism the dangers of "greenwashing"Ě must be explored. Greenwashing is the use of misleading advertisements to suggest that an activity is good for the environment when objectively it is not. Wildlife theme parks, underwater hotels and motorized tours into fragile ecosystems strive to portray themselves as environmentally positive (or neutral) but they are not. True ecotourism builds environmental awareness while emphasizing human rights and local control over resources and development. It is not solely about animals but also about the humans who live there, and have lived there in the past, often for thousands of years.

If you are considering an environmentally responsible trip you need to be aware of this greenwashing phenomenon. There are usually reviews online that will help you discern the intent of the individuals promoting the trip. Are they genuinely respectful toward indigenous cultures and the environment? Does a portion of the proceeds go to protect habitat? Ask questions. If they are just about the money, honey, then don't go.

There is no international organization which reviews and rates the true environmental impact of ecotourism companies and their promotions. However, there are quite a few national or regional organizations that undertake this task. Costa Rica, for example, runs the Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST) program which focuses on a company's interaction with natural and cultural resources, the impact of its operations upon quality of life within local communities, and its economic contribution to other programs of national development. It utilizes a 0 to 5 grading system that rates a company upon the sustainability of its operations.

If you are interested in this subject as a career, then your best resource is The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) which offers an ecotourism master class and awards a certificate in sustainable tourism management.


Ecotourism - Wikipedia

The International Ecotourism Society - Wikipedia

Ecotourism by David Weaver (book)

Impacts of Eco-Tourism: Alaska Native Science Commission

Greenloons Ecotourism Blog


baby chicks go down the chute
of the grinder at the slaughterhouse
on and on as i sit at this computer
how can we do this
to our fellow beings?
how can we sleep?

it has been suggested more than once
that I stand trial with my clients.
if i have to, i will
for i too am guilty of eternal treblinka
i bought their bodies at Safeway and ate them
and now i sit here
with the news ends of factory farms
spread upon my desk

were it not for Buddhism
i would have turned inward long ago
with an anger that is cancer
to me and all around me

peace in all forms
light in all beings


Because so much of Americaís wild lands have been lost to urbanization, there is a crisis of habitat for the wildlife that used to live in those areas. Where are they to go and what are they to eat and drink?

Even if our yards are small, we can each help to alleviate this problem by making them wildlife friendly. For example, we can furnish a part of our yards with saucers of drinking water during the dry summer months. The insects, birds and small mammals will use this as a precious life-saving resource.

Every day in summer I fill the four birdbaths in our front and back yards with fresh water, which the birds visit in droves. I have seen eight birds at a time drinking and bathing in a single 18 inch planter!

So many backyards in our neighborhood are covered with grass and non-native plants that are  unfriendly to wildlife. Animals can only utilize certain plants as food and some are unusable or even poisonous. Grass is an environmental disaster. It requires a prodigious amount of water, which in drought regions is irreplaceable.  Pesticides are generally used that poison the ecosystem and drain off into our rivers and oceans. People then mow it and put the clippings in plastic bags which are hauled away (using fossil fuels) to the landfill. What a tragedy!

The best alternative is mulching. Mulch is an easy way to create a healthy ecosystem and you donít ever have to mow. Tip: if you decide to mulch donít begin by laying plastic sheets beneath your mulching material. Plastic biodegrades at a glacial rate and will still be here in the year 2525. Plus, these sheets donít allow anything to grow or breathe underneath and kill off all the little insects that are essential to a thriving ecosystem. Put flat sheets of cardboard beneath the mulch. These will quickly biodegrade, providing nourishment for the plants and leading to a living ecosystem.

I can attest to this from my own experience. Janet and I live in Denver and we have created a garden that is friendly to wildlife. The mulch in our yard provides a place where insects live, providing food for larger animals. We have also planted natives such as mahonia and manzanita that provide forage for small wildlife.

We have learned so much from this process and we have the joy of watching animals visit our yard. We have chosen to do this rather than have companion animals. We love cats and dogs, but it is the small wild creatures, lacking their former habitat, who are most in need of protection.

After seeing the most basic of environmental protections under fire, it is easy to become cynical and ask ďwhatís the use?Ē  But if we each create a little bit of habitat for birds and other creatures, we will make it possible for wildlife to live side by side with us in urban and suburban areas.  Even if you have an apartment balcony, you can leave a dish of fresh water outside and plant in a way that is ecologically harmonious. Connect with local environmental groups or nurseries and find out what plants are most beneficial for all forms of wildlife in your region.

Although we love dogs and cats, one essential of a wildlife garden is to provide safety from predators.  Dogs and cats must be kept away from this habitat or the wildlife will not come.  We have planted a thicket composed of twigs and branches, trimmed from trees and bushes, and we weave them into a fence that is now five feet high. Small birds like to take shelter there. Almost all of the materials I have mentioned cost zero money and make use of whatever is at hand in the backyard or the alleys. We get cuttings of native plants from our friends and give cuttings to anyone who wants them. Tree services are often glad to deliver free mulch. Itís easy. It just takes an open heart, a willing hand, and the rewards are beyond description. 

Resources about ecofriendly urban gardens:

My Suburban Front Yard Wildlife Garden (You Tube Video)

Garden Designs for Wildlife Gardens

Call of the Wild: Design Your Own Wildlife Garden



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