Expert Voices

From Animals, We Can Learn Generosity and Forgiveness (Op-Ed)

bears, animals, animal behavior, Jasper
Jasper playing at Animals Asia. (Image credit: Animals Asia.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world'spioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Through research and social experiences with non-human animals, people have learned from them many valuable lessons about forgiveness, generosity, dignity, peace, trust and love. If we listen to those lessons carefully, there is much we can incorporate into our own lives.

Stories abound about how dogs, our "best friends," overcome adversity, elephants are also known to recover from extreme trauma, and I've seen wild coyotes do the same. Animals often show resilience that baffles researchers, non-researchers and care-givers alike and we can learn a lot from them.

Jasper is another example of an animal surviving unspeakable treatment and recovering to become an ambassador for forgiveness and hope. Jasper is an asiatic black bear, or moon bear, and I try to practice what he teaches. He arrived at the Moon Bear Rescue Centre outside of Chengdu, China in 2000. Jill Robinson (founder of Animals Asia) and the wonderful humans who work with her receive bears from bear farms where the animals are kept to have their bile extracted. After the bears are no longer useful to the farmers, bears usually arrive in horrible condition, suffering from serious physical and psychological trauma. Each bear is given a complete physical and a psychological evaluation. Many need surgery because of their physical condition (missing paws, worn down teeth and liver cancer are common). After they've acclimated to the center, some bears have to be kept alone, whereas others can be introduced to other bears. (For more on bear farming and bear rescue see this article).

Here's why Jasper is inspiring — he's a true survivor. He and his friends remind me of the dogs, cats and other animals to whom people in the United States give care. For fifteen years, Jasper's home was on a bear farm in China in a tiny, filthy "crush cage" in which he couldn't move. Those who owned him would continually squash him to the bottom of his filthy cage to squeeze out his bile. Imagine being pinned in a phone booth for even fifteen minutes and all you could do was turn your head to drink water and eat. As if this wasn't enough, Jasper also had a rusty metal catheter inserted into his gall bladder so that his bile could be collected (people in China use the bile to treat various ailments in the spurious name of traditional Chinese medicine). Despite it all, Jasper survived and that story must be told and shared widely.

Jethro and Jasper: Exemplars of compassion and empathy

Jethro was my long-time companion dog, and I also try to incorporate his lessons about compassion and love into my life. I met Jethro in June 1989 at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. When I first met Jasper he immediately reminded me of Jethro — kind and gentle with big brown eyes that stared right into my heart. Each had a tan stripe across his chest; for Jasper the tan crescent is the reason he's called a moon bear. I'm sure it was Jasper's and Jethro's optimistic spirit and trust that's allowed them to thrive.

At the humane society Jethro had the reputation for liking all the other animals, including the ducks, geese and goats he occasionally met in the outdoor run. Jethro came home with me, kept me happy and healthy, rescued injured birds and bunnies around my mountain home, and taught me many important life lessons. Jasper's and Jethro's spiritual path is as an inspirational lesson for how we can all be healthy, alive and connected, and recover from untold and unimaginable trauma. Each of these individuals also displayed unbounded empathy for others.

When I first met Jasper I could feel his gentle kindness. The same for Jethro. Their omniscient eyes say, "All's well, the past is past, let go and move on." Jasper's gait was slow and smooth as he approached me as I fed him peaches out of a bucket. I then gave him peanut butter and his long and wiry tongue glided out of his mouth and he gently lapped the tasty treat from my fingers. Jill Robinson best describes Jasper's softness, his kind disposition: "Touching the back of his paw one day I saw his head turn towards me, soft brown eyes blinking with trust and I knew that Jasper was going to be a special friend."

Jasper knew that things were going to get better and that he would recover. Through his mannerisms, Jasper tells people and other bears "All will be okay, trust me." Likewise, when I was having a bad day, Jethro's demeanor also reminded me to look on the bright side of things.

When Jasper was finally released from his recovery cage at the rescue centre, he was delighted to be free. Jill watched him approach a bear on the other side of the bars separating them and reach out as if to shake paws with the stranger who was to become his best friend. The other bear, Delaney, aka Aussie, sniffed Jasper's paw and then put his paws through the bars so that Jasper could return the favor.

Jasper and Aussie remain close friends and I've had the pleasure — I might say a delightful treat and honor — of watching them play and rest peacefully together. They feel safe and secure in one another's company.

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Many of the bears love to play, and this is an indication that they've substantially recovered from their trauma. When I visited the Moon Bear Rescue center in October 2008, I saw Aussie and another bear, Frank, frolicking on a hammock. They were having a great time and it was incredibly inspiring to see these bears enjoying life. Jill and I shared their joy as we laughed at their silly antics. When Aussie saw Jasper ambling over, he jumped off the hammock, approached Jasper and they began roughhousing — caressing one another, biting one another's scruff and ears and falling to the ground embracing and rolling around. After a while, Jasper went over to a water hole and invited Aussie in but Aussie decided to stay on the shore and watch Jasper play in the water. Tears came to my eyes. Not only were these bears telling one another that the day was going just fine but they were also telling Jill and me that all was okay. Much of the deep trauma that they'd experienced was in the past and whatever lingered wasn't stopping them from enjoying themselves and spreading joy to other bears. Traumatized animals don't play and surely aren't as outgoing as these awesome bears.

Jasper remains the peacemaker. He makes other bears feel at ease and that's how I felt when I first met him. Perhaps Jasper knows what the other bears have experienced and wants to reassure them that everything will be okay now that they've been rescued.

Jasper truly opens up his heart to everyone he meets. And, I think Jasper knows the effect he has on others. Jill told me that at a social function to celebrate their recent book "Freedom Moon" Jasper stole the show. He always does — and he knows it. But there's no arrogance at all — just trust and confidence that all is well and will continue to be so.

If one didn't know what Jasper had experienced they'd never guess, for it isn't apparent from his behavior and spirit. Are Jasper and a few others special, and if so, why? Why did they recover and others didn't? Bears, like dogs and other animals, display different personalities. Big Aussie still runs back into his den when he hears a strange noise or even when he sees a caterpillar in the grass. As an ethologist, I always want to learn more about each being as an individual, what they feel and how they travel through life.

I often wonder what Jasper, Aussie, and other moon bears carry in their head — what remnants of unspeakable abuse and trauma remain. Many of the bears have been able to get over a lot of what they experienced, at least overtly, and depend on the trust, loyalty and love that they've developed over time with the same mammalian species — human beings — who couldn't care less about their well-being.

Jasper is the spokes-bear for forgiveness, peace, trust and hope. I can't thank Jasper enough for sharing his journey and his dreams. Jasper, like the dogs and cats who also need us, make us more humane and thus more human. The true spirit of humans, our inborn nature, is to help rather than to harm.

Expanding our compassion footprint

How Jasper and other moon bears recover from their unspeakable trauma is a lesson to all people for expanding our compassion footprint and for spreading compassion throughout the world. Jasper, Jethro and other animals are constantly telling us their stories in moon bear, dog, cat, elephant, chimpanzee, mouse and other species-sorts of ways.

It behooves us to be mindful and to listen to their tales very carefully for we will learn a lot about them and also a lot about ourselves. The gifts that Jasper, Jethro and many other animals have shared with me are priceless. I can't put in words how indebted I am to Jasper and Jethro for letting me into their lives. I like to think I'm a better human being for gaining their generosity and trust. I also thank Jill Robinson and all the fine people at Animals Asia for their tireless commitment to rescue and rehabilitate abused moon bears and occasional dogs and cats. Thousands of bears still await rescue.

Henry, Stevie, Lobster, Matilde and Butch

Another aspect of my last trip to China is worth sharing. I accompanied the moon bear team to the Qiming Animal Rescue Centre outside of Chengdu, China, where I met dogs and cats who were rescued after the terrible earthquake that devastated large parts of the Sichuan Province in May 2008. I had already met two awesome dogs aptly named Richter and Tremor (aka Rambo because as a small dog Tremor carried himself with the confidence of Sylvester Stallone) who had somehow survived the earthquake and were living at the rescue center. At Qiming there were many dogs who needed care and Heather Bacon, the chief veterinarian at the moon bear centre, performed some minor surgeries and gave shots and medications when needed.

The team brought five dogs back to the bear centre for further care, as if the fine people working with the bears needed more work. I was asked to name the dogs so I did: Henry, Stevie, Lobster, Matilde and Butch. I was especially attracted to Henry because he reminded me of Jethro, minus about 70 pounds. Henry had been caught stealing meat from a butcher and in turn had his most of his right front leg lopped off by the butcher. Somehow Henry survived and wound up at Qiming. Stevie was blind and had to have his eyes removed because they were terribly infected, Lobster also had a broken leg that healed and looked like a lobster claw, and Matilde weighed in at about ten pounds and should have weighed around forty. Butch had lost an eye in a fight with another dog and needed to have it removed.

When I last inquired all were doing well and I was told that Matilde now weighs about 40 pounds and that Henry was jumping around like a kangaroo on his remaining legs.

There is no doubt that these dogs and the moon bears are incredibly lucky for having the attention of all the fine people at the rescue centre. The animals who I met and the people who help them selflessly are amazing beings. We can all be inspired by them and know that we must always keep our hopes and dreams alive. The good, the bad, the ugly and our commitment to help those in need make us better humans. Compassion begets compassion. Through pain comes hope.

You can read more about Jasper's journey in a children's book that Jill Robinson and I wrote called "Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears" (Sleeping Bear Press, 2013) and more about Moon Bear Rescue here.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Do Elephants Weep as an Emotional Response?." This article was adapted from "Animals Can Be Ambassadors For Forgiveness, Generosity, Peace, Trust, and Hope" in Psychology Today. More of the author's essays are available in "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.