Another long entry repost from my article for Plant Healer Magazine, sometime last year. I think many of my students will benefit.
The pitfalls and promises of working with animals.
Reversing the Flow
My last article for this magazine was all about how the way in which we manage domestic animal’s health impacts on not only them, but the entire ecosystem and of course, our own wellbeing. It was a lot to cram into 3000 words and I’m not a writer, by trade, but I pulled it off, I think. All very straightforward, practical, commonsensical and, you might say, obvious – at least to the regular readers of PHM.
I stand by every word – why use an endangered plant species when you can use an abundant one? Why use a steroid if a herbal formulation will help just as much without the side effects? Why import plants from across the world when your own local area offers so many?
That’s the article I felt would be acceptable, that would present my POV; why animal herbalists make an important contribution – and, for those who think other species aren’t really all that important – underscore that how we care for them greatly affects our own health and wellbeing.
In this article I want to go deeper and address some of the issues facing the herbalist who chooses to work with other species. To some extent, I believe the way of the animal herbalist is a way of pain, much like that of the rescuer, ethical veterinarian or activist. Because, no matter what small victories we might witness or contribute to, no matter how many lives we can affect (human and other) no matter how much joy there is in soulful connection to the so-called Other – there is always the reality of a huge wide world filled to the brink with grotesque, casual brutality – on a scale that boggles the mind and shatters the heart, when deeply confronted.
And, so many of us fall into depression or misplaced anger or even – worst of all – apathy. I started off writing about healing the heart of the Animal Herbalist – because I promise you, it is perpetually and repeatedly broken anew – but then I realized this; that makes it, yet again, all about us. And what it really is about – what I recognize in every animal rescuer, rehabber, writer, advocate, TToucher, positive reinforcement trainer, nutritionist, and dedicated herbalist is the need to take the emphasis off us, and reverse the flow. The need, to work towards a world that includes on a profound and sacred level, the value of the Other.
Which again, of course, heals us – but for me, I freely admit, at this point in my life it is no longer about ”us”, not as much anyway. It’s about them. It’s about atonement, penance even…although not a happy or popular concept, I feel it’s a valuable one. And I define penance as very different from self punishment or flagellation. I define it as doing all one can to the point of sacrifice, at times, on behalf of that which we have wronged. The paradox is that through this process of sacrifice, an opening for grace almost always appears. Not everyone can accept that grace or even see it, and that in itself is a sad and all too common occurrence. But I feel that it is always there; the hope, the possibility. This is one of many reasons I am able to stay strong in work that at times, has nearly paralyzed me with it’s enormity, and sense of futility. Because, through our insistence on love, grace (however you may define that) will emerge.
Put another way – I cannot save them all, nor will the kind of changes I seek ever occur in my lifetime..perhaps they never will at all. Never mind; I must make of myself a conduit for healing and love towards our hunted, beaten, abandoned, lab-tested, tortured, skinned alive and used- as- shark-bait brethren – and, most challengingly – to those humans who cannot see the problem with all of this cruelty. Strong words, and some images are too strong to stomach. I take great comfort in the fact that I am very far from alone in this fight. It is fought on many fronts, and with many perspectives often at war with one another. Should every one who loves animals become vegan and avoid so much as a drop of honey? Is vegetarianism healthy for everyone? Can there be such a thing as “humane” slaughter? How do we avoid every last product on earth that derived somewhere along the line from animal suffering? (answer: we can’t) Do our boycotts and our campaigns really help(I believe they do). Should humans have companion animals at all? So many questions, points of view and approaches. I cannot offer any definitive solutions or truths here, other than to say two things.
One) Humanity will not reach spiritual balance until the day comes we realize – and act upon that truth – that animals (plants, trees, water, other people) are not simply here for us to use and exploit at will. Whatever we take from them must be returned in some way; and must be taken as part of the sacred cycle, the mystical Whole.
Two) that working with animals as a herbalist and nutritionist, not to mention rescuer, has brought me, at times, unbearable pain, along with the unparalleled happiness of knowing I fulfill my destiny, that I made my life into a vessel for balance, in a world so wildly disconnected from that concept.
Number one I can do little about, on a large scale at any rate.
Number two, however -I want to make the focus of this article. Why Animal Herbalist? Why devote the main part of one’s work to other species? What does it entail? What can we expect to encounter, how do we train, and what are the pitfalls as well as the promises? How do we do this work without lapsing into despair and misanthropy? I’ll share a bit of what I have learned, and why I remain focused on other species, as the guiding light of my life’s work.
Part 1 – the Practical
Here are some of the questions I receive most often, from students, animal lovers and generally people who might want to work with other species as a herbalist.
1 )What kind of training do I need?
2) How can I set up practise?
3) Is working with animals more or less lucrative then working with humans? Can I make a living?
4) Is working with animals easier, less complicated than working with people?
So, let’s look at these one at a time.
What kind of training do you need? Well – on a practical level, you need the same as any other herbalist does. You need to study Actions, Energetics, Materia Medica, how to formulate, how to make medicine, you need to know and understand constituents, potential drug interactions – you need core knowledge, however you decide to acquire it.
And then, you need to know your species – if that’s more than one, then settle in for a long study. Companion animals such as dogs, cats and ferrets are carnivores, and therefore have different metabolisms, nutrient requirements and sensitivities than we humans do (and, somewhat at least, from one another). Horses, cows, goats and sheep are wholly and entirely unique, not to mention birds. My advice is to select an area you want to focus on for starters, and in addition to your core herbal studies, learn everything you can about the anatomy/physiology of that species. Strive to know your chosen species on every level. There are courses that supply this information, resources online, and you can volunteer with wildlife organizations, shelters, local veterinarians. Within each species you face the same bioindividuality as with humans. Life stage, breed, health conditions (yes, you have a whole bunch of those to learn and work with, too!) and many other factors all influence dietary, and herbal, strategies.
If you have a particular species you relate to, perhaps live with, that can be a huge help in the learning process. My own animal companions have influenced my own learning curve enormously. If you’re drawn to a particular species, care a passionately for its welfare – that can be a beautiful and powerful place to start. There is, I believe, room for animal herbalist who work with many species, and there is much need for specialists as well.
Setting up practise to work with animals is not much different from setting up to work with other humans. Again what comes into play is how you as an individual wish to work; you can simply put your name out there as a professional, you can associate with a natural petfood store, you can blog and write. If you decide to work with animals in another capacity (as suggested below) that can be a great starting place to get your name and services out to a larger group of people. Something I have long wanted to do is set up a free clinic, even once a month, for people who need help but can’t afford a fee. Local petfood stores or dog clubs and associations may be helpful in providing venues for such an endeavour. Be creative! You can expect veterinarians to run the gamut tom totally open and friendly to completely closed off and disinterested. Check for local holistic vets who may still not be interested – many practise their own form of (usually) Chinese herbalism for animals – but a few will be welcoming. It’s always worthwhile to take your cards, brochures and so on into a clinic, ask if you can set up a meeting, and chat with a vet. It was very slow going for me personally at first, but I now take referrals from clinics all over the country and several in the US. Be prepared to know your science, as well as professional boundaries very, very well.
As for how lucrative animal-herbalism is, it is often difficult make a living at purely consulting. My own core income is based on therapeutic nutrition for dogs, which may or may not involve a herbal component. In addition to consulting, I blog, run online courses and have in years past done some seminar and workshops locally. Generally speaking I see my colleagues also thinking about diversity; writing/publishing, running a supplement line, working in retail or some public situation (a veterinary clinic, groomer, zoo, pet supply store) can augment income and bring you into contact with people who may need your services. There are some good resources around with regard to building a herbalist practise and these apply to the animal herbalist as well; one woman who studies with me has set up a home-business making dog and cat cookies that incorporate herbs, are glutenfree, and is so far doing well locally. Through her sales she has reached a larger number of folks who may, at some point, require her help as a herbalist. Several have taken animal massage courses and so are able to offer clients a wider range of services. I strongly recommend looking into ways in which you can support yourself doing something animal-related at the same time you build your herbal business.
Lastly, the question “Is working with animals easier than working with people?”
Emphatically, no, it is not.
And I say this as someone who has and does work with humans, although nowhere near the extent I work with dogs and cats.
Animal herbalism poses different challenges. Every single skill a human herbalist requires is also necessary for those of us who work with other species. As mentioned above, we may need to understand multiple systems and tendencies if we work with multiple species. We face the reality that our patient cannot speak to us verbally. We have to deal with often challenging humans, in terms of the owner/guardian of the animal, and that means we need to work with a belief system that is often antithetical to our own. The scope of those challenges is too broad for this article, but there are many. My own feeling is, working with animals is most effective if you are called to it, and the feeling you bring to each consultation is one of deep respect for the creature, trust in your knowledge and instincts, and a balance between developed intuition and science. If you feel that working with animals is something that you can sort of tack onto a human practise, maybe help a little here and there, possibly augment income – I truly believe you will not be as successful, effective and fulfilled as those of us who work with animals as calling, as vocation. I believe that we as animal herbalists have to develop deep intuition for the animals; empathy of course but balanced by the capacity to be neutral in assessment; compassion for both owner and creature, sensitivity to how overwhelmed and often alienated the human feels, as well as the aforementioned knowledge of species, health conditions, metabolisms and sensitivities..we need a very large toolkit indeed.
This is the harder aspect, at least I my mind it is. What kind of inner, even spiritual preparation and skills does one need to cultivate to work with non-humans?
1) What are some of the obstacles and pitfalls?
2) What are some of the rewards, aside from the desire to help other species?
3) Burnout and depression is an obvious aspect of many types of animal-related work. How can we avoid it?
In a world where the creatures we treat and love and work to help are regarded widely as food, as entertainment, as disposable and worse – how do we keep our joy? This is something I have struggled with greatly – as have my many friends and colleagues in rescue, animal advocacy, natural health and other spheres of practise. I have often voiced my deep internal dissonance with my work; I handle cases every day which involve people who will spend any amount of money, often into the thousands, on veterinary care, specialized nutrition, anything at all to help their one animal; meanwhile, the massive, mind-numbing suffering of other animals goes blithely uncared about. Witness the celebrity who totes a pampered little dog about while wearing snakeskin and fur and raving about the veal chops at some high end restaurant. Yes, oh yes it not only *can* get to you, I promise that it will. So, the obstacles and pitfalls of working as an animal herbalist include, top of the list, the emotional issues associated with this powerful conundrum; one animal is dinner – another is someone’s well-loved surrogate child. One is an overpriced trendy coat or handbag – another is undergoing 1500$ a month chemotherapy and dining on venison and rabbit.
Of course – similar discrepancies do exist in the human world; one client can afford anything at all for herself, while other folks who need help as much or more cannot pay a basic herbalist’s fee. I’m not for a moment suggesting that life is fair outside of the animal herbalists world. It’s just, that from my perspective anyway, the gap is even greater. It’s my feeling that anyone sensitive enough to help animals is also going to be sensitive enough to feel this on a deep level. I certainly do. It can be challenging, painful and even force us to distance from the work that we feel called to do.
So. Obstacles and pitfalls would start with the pain and helplessness anyone feels who works with and for other species. It’s important to be balanced, able to switch the empathy off at times, to be able to prioritize your own health and sanity, to pace yourself, not take on more than you can manage. It’s important too, to recognize that not everyone will see your work as meaningful, or as important, as working with humans. You need a strong and powerful internal sense of calling. You need specific skills, as mentioned above, but you need more than anything, a clear intention. I believe that “I want to help animals” is only a starting place. As the Animal Herbalist grows, things get finessed; the original, sweeping motivation becomes “I want to help companion animals, who were created for our benefit and now suffer so greatly with our behaviours and attitudes”…or it becomes ”I want to work with zoo animals of all species” or “I wish to address the unique needs of captive birds and reptiles” and so on. What’s difficult is that for every dog whose guardian called me to help with balancing a diet, or for herbal support, there are – how many, a thousand? More? dogs at shelters, unwanted, afraid, or in homes where they are uncared for, peripheral, neglected…again, the sensitivity that brings us to animal healing also tunes us into these realities.
Let me speak a moment about the rewards of working with other species, as I am starting to fear I’ve emphasized the negative too much. The rewards – the rewards are enormous.
What greater joy is there in following the call of one’s heart, however great the challenges? I hope, one day, to write a book about the beautiful, powerful, transformative experiences I’ve been gifted with from other species. The multiple-health-challenged dog who brought me to this work. The many clients who came to me after “trying everything else” and could simply not believe the simplicity and power of a personalized diet and herbal strategy. The humans who discovered plant medicine for their own use, through the process of working with me on their dog or cat’s cancer, liver disease, food allergy. I would say the rewards of working as an Animal Herbalist or not so different from what my fellow plant-healers who work with people would express. We follow the inner voice, we do what we feel is most important.
Humanity’s bond with the other beings of this plant is ancient,sacred, yet so violently betrayed by our greed-and-profit driven, materially focused society. Animals can teach us the most astonishing things; in their simplicity and vulnerabilty they hold up a mirror that reveals our best and worst elements. For as long as we have been here, other animals have provided food, shelter, clothing, protection, medicine, and so very much more; to me, living am authentic and meaningful life includes reverence for their many gifts, as well as reverence for the green world. Reverence and gratitude entails changing our behaviours, even in small and incremental ways. Reverence in this world of exploitation means reversing the flow, and working with animals as a herbalist is one powerful way of doing that.
Lastly; how to avoid the burnout and depression, even misanthropy that can arise from a life based on helping other species?
I cannot tell anyone how best they might cope with this, only predict that it is likely to affect you at some point in your career and you do need a strategy for dealing with it. Many of us fall into periods of misanthropy and anger; many stop the work altogether. And what a loss that is! The pitfall is anger, sorrow, futility. And as far as I have seen, the antidotes are discipline and love, in equal measure.
Some simple strategies I’ve employed include:
– Taking time away from the work and doing things that remind you of the goodness that resides in the world
– avoidance of all internet pages, sites and resources that depict the worst types of animal cruelty. While it is important to understand how severe the problems are, I becomes self-flagellation if it starts to impact on your ability to help, to be at peace. I avoid them now at all times. Sometimes one image can ruin my day and haunt me for weeks or more. Take care of your heart.
– Keep a journal or other record of the success stories you’ve encountered, whether your own or others, as long as revisiting your notes makes you feel empowered and purposeful when you need it
– Don’t over-identify with a species, situation or cause. Easier said than done, but there is a line between empathy and obsession; I for one have crossed it, to my detriment on many occasions. There is a place for mystical identification with the world, I believe anyway, and there is a time to stay clear in boundaries. Over-identification can be the precursor to burnout; be very careful with it. Go that place of Oneness, it is our Source, but come back out, watch a movie and go back to work.
– Find friends who are on the same wavelength, and are also very grounded. Surrounding oneself with those who belittle our work is destructive of course, but so too is immersion in a community that is angry and just cycling in helplessness.
– Choose your battles! We can only do what we can do, and the plight of animal welfare is staggering. Almost everyone who loves animals enough to become a herbalist devoted to there are will need, on a soul-level, to work in some form of activism, to contribute to their wellbeing collectively as well as on a one-to-one basis.. Make it something you can benefit from as well as contribute to, and avoid global-thinking all the time. Find ways to meet other people where they are, gently educate them and heal the bridge that exists between those of us who empathize with animals and those who do not. It never helps if, in our zeal for change, we end up perpetuating anger. And above all, don’t let your enthusiasm and zeal for the work take too much time away from your own animal family. I for one have sometimes been guilty of that; no matter how much there is to do out there in the world at large, our immediate family has to come first.
And let’s heal this world, one creature at a time.
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Plant Healer Magazine http://planthealermagazine.com/