Environment & Diversity Blog

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Telling Wild Animal Stories

A couple of years ago I had the honour of working with an indigenous community that lives in the Amazon jungle. The forest and rivers surrounding their community was an enchanting place that deserved being protected. You could feel the place was special by walking into the jungle and immersing yourself in the multitude of sounds, smells, and sights. The stories that the elders of the community told us at night accentuated the magic of the place. In getting to know people there, I got the sense that the stories held deep significance upon their lives and their relationship to their environment.

Electronic media has probably made a significant contributing factor to the demise of oral storytelling in society, but nonetheless I have heard storytellers among different cultural and religious groups through-out Toronto. Humans are storytelling creatures. We love to hear stories and tell stories. So when I was given the challenge to engage diverse communities in the Greater Toronto Area in wildlife conservation, I thought of using storytelling as way to invoke wild animals in the imagination of diverse communities.

Some of the most prominent conservationists, such as Grey Owl, have used storytelling as their medium for educating the public. In the 1930s, Grey Owl raised awareness about the importance of protecting wilderness in Canada. He captivated his readers and audiences through storytelling, where he would recount animal tales or tell stories about his experience living in the wild, which provided an accessible and engaging medium for teaching a conservation ethic.

The focus of my diversity outreach in working with Wildlands League will begin with the South Asian community, which in itself consists of a diversity of cultural and religious communities. In reaching out to the Muslim-South Asian community I am preparing a contemporary retelling of the 10th Century Islamic tale The Animals’ Complaint Against Humanity. In the original version of the story, a group of humans become shipwrecked upon an island uninhabited by humans. The humans make a settlement upon the island and quickly begin to oppress and abuse the animals. The animals make a complaint against the humans to the King of the Spirits. What follows is a fascinating story about the meaning of being human and our responsibility towards nature. In my retelling, the story is relocated to Ontario’s Boreal Forest to help us reflect how this medieval story can inform perspectives on wildlife conservation in this region.

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