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Steve Karlin: When Animals Are Our Teachers

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Steve Karlin: When Animals Are Teachers

As a very young child Steve Karlin was always testing the world. He knew that there was something out there that wasn't being shown to him and believed that there was some sort of secret lingering around the corners of reality. When he went to department stores with his parents, he would wait to exit before quickly running back inside as fast as he could, hoping to catch everyone inside frozen.

I thought it was so weird that we lived on a planet where all you do is either sell something or buy something. That couldn't be real; something had to be tricking me. I thought if I ran back in the store, I would see people frozen or nobody would be there because it didn't seem to be the reality of existence to me as a five or six year old kid.”

Steve never caught them but he also never said that he was wrong, just that he wasn't fast enough. At some point he stopped running back into department stores because he started looking at other places for the bits of reality that he knew he was missing. Those places happened to be with wildlife.

Behind his home, when he was growing up, the backyard was an open lot that became Steve’s wilderness area. Even though it was in the middle of the suburbs and it was probably only 60 by 40 feet, Steve knew every insect, every plant, every bird that flew by, every raccoon and every possum that came over at night time. He cataloged all of them in his head and they all became his friends. Later, on Steve’s wildlife sanctuary, his greatest teacher of the mystery of life has been a 300-pound black bear named Susie.

It was a precious gift to be in the presence of Steve Karlin on Saturday’s Global Awakin Call. In this conversation moderated by his dear friend, Anne Veh, we were spellbound as we listened to Steve share the incredible lessons that he and so many other students have learned about life through their relationships and interactions with wild life.

Lessons in Stillness and Presence from Critters and a Wolf named Cheyenne
The 120-acre wildlife sanctuary, where Steve lives and works with more than 50 non-releasable wild animals that could not survive in the wild, is a part of Wildlife Associates in Half Moon Bay, California. Steve described how these animals have a very different way of seeing the world around them.

“When they look out of their eyes they don't see what we see. Some of them see ultraviolet light, some of them can see very clearly for hundreds of yards, some of them can't see further than a foot away from their heads, some of them see color, some of them don't see color. When they listen with their ears, what they hear is not the same as what we hear. When they taste, their taste buds are different than ours. When they smell, some of them smell hundreds of times better than we can, some of them can't smell at all. But we as human beings have the ability to reach out to them and they have the ability to reach out to us and when those two things touch, when the being of that wild animal and the being inside of you is yearning for a relationship and it touches, that's the magic.”

Steve explained that to have a relationship with a wild creature, first you have to have a relationship with yourself. You have to know who you are and go through the process of working inside and clearing out as much as you can because these animals are not going to automatically trust anything.

A beautiful illustration of this is when Steve was up in Yosemite Park hiking in the trails. At one point he walked off the trail about 20 feet and sat on this log and went into a meditative zero space. All of a sudden what he thought was just a landscape started becoming full of all these critters. Steve described how all these little critters started coming out to eat the leaves and the birds started coming out to eat the insects. There was this multitude of incredible activity going on around him that wasn't happening until he settled himself into that zero state. After fifteen minutes he heard what sounded like a father and his son walking down a trail and talking. As soon as their voices were heard, all the critters scattered away and camouflaged with the environment as if they didn't exist. The father and son walked over and saw Steve with his eyes open looking very intently and they asked, "What are you looking at?" Steve looked at them and said, "Nothing." As soon as they walked away and it was quiet again, the critters came back out.

“Most of the time we stop ourselves from seeing what's really going on outside of us. Or we use the filters that we put in place and what we see is only a projection of what we want to see out in nature. What we need to do is sit down and just go to that zero point, that place of quietness inside where we can have relationships and understand what is going on around us. I think that some sort of contemplative, meditative practice is extremely important for us as human beings, no matter what it is. It's an incredible way to clear yourself out so you can be there in a present state in a relationship.”

At one point on the sanctuary, Steve lived with a wolf named Cheyenne, who really helped him to cultivate a meditative, mindful practice. Whenever Steve was in this wolf's enclosure and he started to think about something else, immediately within seconds the wolf knew that Steve was not one hundred percent with her. In response, she would lift up her lip and start growling at him, telling Steve,

"You are here with me now. You be here. Don't think about other things. Don't be outside this thing. Be with the magic that is taking place between me and you at this moment." And that lesson has carried Steve over because with her, she was physically telling him, "Meditate, be still."

When Steve goes out into a field and sits there, he goes to that zero point because then he can see that these animals are less worried about who he is. He explained that meditation is not always with your eyes closed, being remote from humans, and remote from everything.

“A lot of it has to do with what happens when you're eyes are open and you're walking around in this world. Who are you? Are you out for yourself? Are you becoming a martyr? Who are you? Are you judging everything by standards that you're not even sure of? Maybe you can just be who you are and not have to worry and change that self-narrative because we all have a self-narrative about who we are but like any story we can change it. We have the power of the pen, which is our consciousness. We have the power of rewriting our own story, which is inner work. And that's just as important as outer work. It really helps clear you out and when you're cleared out inside, these animals tend to want to look at you and they're attracted to you.”

Learning to Respect All Life from a Bear Named Susie
Susie Bear and Steve came into each other’s lives after Susie left her career as a Hollywood superstar in Los Angeles, California. She was born in the wild and after poachers were chasing Susie and her mother, they shot and killed her mother and Susie kept running until she ran off a cliff and hit the ground. Because of the kindness of a backpacker that saw the cub writhing in pain, Susie was carried to a nearby wildlife center where she was treated. Afterwards, she was given to a lady who worked with wild animals for the motion picture industry and Susie Bear became a famous movie star, appearing in "Wilderness Family", "Grizzly Adams" and dozens of other movies. One day when the lady could no longer keep Susie, Steve flew down to Los Angeles to meet her.

“Immediately she challenged me. She stood up on her hind legs and she started walking towards me and making a bear noise that wasn't that friendly. It was an aggressive noise, which means she was saying, “I'm going to break you.” I started walking toward her yelling, "No, no, no," and she kept making her noises and at the last moment I yelled at her and she put her face right up to my face and yelled at me and then she sat down and leaned against me.”

Steve realized what Susie was doing was seeing if he really wanted to be in relationship with her, a bear. Steve explained that bears are very territorial about the ground they're standing on and if they're going to share it with you, there has to be some sort of deep bond and relationship. Susie Bear saw that Steve was going to stand his own with her and if they had arguments he wasn't going to leave or back down. He was going to be there and be present in this relationship and she respected that. From that moment on, the relationship between Steve and Susie Bear started becoming deeper.

They would go for daily walks in the woods and when Steve would sit down, Susie Bear would sit next to him and put her arm around him and lean her head on his shoulders and kiss his cheek.

“She was such a beautiful, loving being and that relationship grew and grew and there were so many lessons she taught me about being human. She raised me up and I lived with her for 13 years and everyday was a sense of mystery and excitement and joy.”

Susie Bear not only traveled around to schools for educational programs, but she was also invited to the state capitol in Sacramento, California in order to meet with the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife. They were trying to stop hounds hunting of bear in California, which is where someone can sit at home and pay humans to unleash their dogs on bears that will have no where left to hide except on the top of trees. The poachers will drive up to these trees and shoot and kill the bear.

As Steve listened to some of the bear hunters express that when they hunt and shoot the bear, the bear doesn't feel pain, he realized at that point that they had to believe this because if they really came to the realization of how much pain and suffering they're causing that animal, he doesn't think they could live with themselves.

“The bear hunters have this false story they keep telling themselves. I explained to the State Senate Committee that I stepped on Susie Bear's foot once by accident and she knocked me down on my butt because she felt it. If she could feel that, she could definitely feel a stick with a steel tip on it going into her body and puncturing her lungs. She would feel as much if not more pain and fear and anxiety than we would if she is being hunted down and shot.”

The way that Steve and his staff introduce an animal into the sanctuary also reflects this deep respect for their life. He expressed how important it is that we honor and respect these creatures that for no fault of their own have been injured and damaged or born in captivity. Even though they can’t understand our words, they do understand intent and what you're paying attention to. Each time a new animal arrives, Steve has a little ritual that he practices. With latest arrival, a North American porcupine, Steve sat down in front of him and said,

"Welcome to the Wildlife Sanctuary. I'm Steve and I'm going to be your friend and all these humans here are going to love you and care for you and feed you as much as we can and whenever you need medical treatment we will do whatever we can to make you healthy and give you a long and happy life and all I ask is that you help us in teaching the human beings to be better human beings so that we can protect the Earth and protect and honor all of the creatures in the wild and all I need from you is to please don't hurt us. Be kind to us."

The promise that everyone at the sanctuary says is that they're there to honor, respect, and enrich the lives of these animals, whatever that takes.

Little Thunder, a Horse that Helps a Young Man to Heal
Through various educational programs, for more than 40 years Steve has introduced hundreds of thousands of children and adults to the wonders of science and nature. His work has brought him into school assembly programs where animals travel as teachers and he has also led hands on programs at the Wild Life Sanctuary, where he brings in at-risk children and young adults to learn to trust and to heal through the presence of the animals. Steve has witness the transformation of so many individuals through their interactions with wild animals.

One story that came to mind was a middle school group of about 12 kids. These were kids that were on the edge of being kicked out of school and some of them had actually been drawn into the probation system. At this point in their lives they could either make a right decision or wrong decision and that wrong decision would spell a disastrous way of living for them.

Steve noticed one kid that was six foot two inches tall and for eighth graders that's a pretty big kid. None of the other kids were getting within six feet of him and if they came near him, they would just move around him as if were parting of the seas. Steve walked over to one of the teachers and asked,

"What's the story with the tall boy over here?" She responded, "He's been so abused by his father and mother who almost on a daily basis will beat him up and tell him he's worthless. His father would tell him that until he went to jai, he wasn't a man."

Steve had a feeling that his horse Little Thunder could help.

“He's a beautiful creature and I noticed that his talent was to find one of the most hurt and damaged kids in the groups and then he would know what to do because he's a healer.”

Steve described to us how he went to Little Thunder to put on his lead and then he walked him over to this boy. He didn't want the boy to say no so Steve said, "Hold this quick, I have to tie my shoes. Hold this quick." Out of an immediate reaction, the boy just held Little Thunder’s lead and after Steve went down and pretended that he was tying his shoes (even though he was wearing boots!) and then stood back up, the boy asked Steve,

"Why is the horse looking at me?"

"The horse likes you."

"No he doesn't."

"Start walking and see what happens."

"Why is the horse following me."

"Stop and see what happens."

"Why did the horse stop?"

This went on and on as Steve, the boy, and Little Thunder walked three quarters of the way around the education center, which was the size of a football field. Then this tall, fierce looking young man turned to Steve. Tears had started coming down his eyes and he said, "I think I'm going to cry." Steve asked him why. Then Little Thunder buried his head in the kid's chest and he gave Little Thunder a big hug and he started crying. He looked at Steve and said, "I've never been loved before."

“How did Little Thunder do that? Because that's what he loves to do. He loves to break down those boundaries and create bonds with people. Thunder really found his place here at the Wildlife Sanctuary. We don't know what happened to that boy, he ended up moving to the Pacific Northwest but on that day something very powerful happened because of one of our wild teachers. It affected me too and it changed me.”

A Coyote Named Mingo Teaches about Selflessness and Giving
When someone on the Awakin Call asked Steve how relationships with animals have affected his relationships with other human beings, the first thing that came to his mind was Mingo the Coyote. Mingo passed away about 15 years ago and he was like Steve’s son. He was very old and because he could hardly walk around without a lot of pain, Steve knew it was time for him to be released back to where he came from.

After calling a veterinarian, Steve had a dream that he walked Mingo to a certain place in the sanctuary where he laid down and that's where he wanted to leave his body. Before the veterinarian arrived, Steve leashed up Mingo and Mingo pulled Steve literally to that exact same spot in Steve’s dream. He laid there in the exact same way that he did in the dream. Steve really honored this and began to pet him and told him how much he loved him and how so many people had been changed by interacting with him in the schools. Steve prayed that wherever that being passed on to, it will be the highest realm possible because he deserved being there for the kindness he showed Steve and the hundreds and thousands of kids that he taught about wild animals and why humans should protect these creatures on our planet.

After the veterinarian came and they gave Mingo the shot to put him to sleep, Steve saw a heat wave on top of the animal. Perceiving it as maybe the life force leaving the body, he said, "Mingo, don't worry about me, I'm ok, you just go where you're supposed to go. I'll be fine." It was the first time Steve ever said that and he meant it in a very selfless way. "You go, you be wherever you're supposed to be and be whoever you are. I'll be fine here. Yes I'll miss you but I'll be fine. You've done what you needed to do on this planet so thank you." All of a sudden Steve’s body started shaking and he felt these words in his head that said, "You are the coyote."

“I realized what I had been told in the past is that when you're selfless, you're empty. But it's not true. When you become selfless and do a selfless act, you are filled with grace and joy and essence. That voice that said, "You are now a coyote," I felt that to mean that now that I've done my first act of selflessness, the coyote came into me and I became closer to him than ever before in ways that I never imagined. Every person in every situation I've been in has been affected from that because I've realized the more I give in relationship, whether it's human or animal or tree or grass or the breath I take, the more I experience from that and the more I can see the beauty of life. So being selfless is not being empty, it's the opposite, it is the ultimate of joy, the ultimate of experiencing who you are as a human being and I owe that to Mingo the coyote. I owe that to those two robins that set me on my path. I owe that all to my ancestors who brought me to the place where I am today.”

Honoring and Supporting Steve’s Journey

Steve knows that he was put on this planet to teach. When we asked him how we as a community could support his work and his journey, he shared the following:

“Here I am, I just turned 60, and I have Parkinson's. There is no way of telling how much longer I can teach and teaching is what I'm here to do on this planet. I need to share all these lessons that have been given to me by these animals. If everyone on this call and all the people that you meet can send me an email on what they think they would like to learn. What type of class or weekend seminar would they like to take, then I can get an idea of what's needed out there and I can teach as many people as possible.”

Now with Wildlife Associates, Steve is collaborating with the California education system to help it meet its new science standards through a different kind of curriculum. They reach 300 schools a year in Northern California and they're getting a jumpstart on a new next generation science standard. Wildlife Associates has developed a new vocabulary and new programs to teach the kids science in a way that they're excited about. However, Steve explained that science in itself is not the answer to our problems and that focusing on empathy is also necessary. If we have science without empathy, there will be more damage to the planet.

We need real human beings doing real science and understanding all of the implications of their actions, caring about all living things and having empathy for all forms of life. It's that whole big circle that we're bringing into existence in the schools because at a young age if this is integrated into who you are as a young person, it goes into the long-term memory and becomes who you are as an adult. So we're working toward helping the society come more science literate and empathetic at the same time.”

To fulfill Steve’s wish, our moderator Anne Veh has graciously offered to collate response to assist Steve in meeting your needs and interests.

If you have a topic of interest you would like to learn more about around nature, wildlife, or animals, please send and email to: Anne Veh- Also keep Steve copied on your email at: Steve Karlin-


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