A couple of years ago, lonely and lost, I took a walk on a secluded beach in Nantucket, before the throngs arrived for the season. It was rainy and gray, a miasma of weather that paralleled my mood. I had the sliver moon of sand to myself; there was nobody else about as far as my eyes could see. Solitary, small, miserable, I felt like the last person on earth, my streaming tears consumed by the rain. Hopeless, I concentrated only on moving forward.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t alone. As I walked, something walked with me. Not in the sand—but to my right, in the water, just beyond the breaking of the waves. It was a sea lion. She’d popped from the water, turned her head, and caught my gaze, compelling me to stop walking and stare back. Her animated eyes bored into me, filling my soul with a rush of golden warmth. Then, she’d submerge and meet up with me again a few steps later. Soon, she brought along some babies, and they, too, accompanied my trudge. This went on for nearly two hours. I can’t explain what happened next, but I realized I was smiling, my heart opened—a zest for living flowed in. When my walk ended, the sea lion offered me one last, long gaze. I’ll never forget the love in her face. She wasn’t going to leave me unless she knew—so I nodded, and she turned and swam away.
Our connection with animals dates back at least a hundred thousand years, and it is said that at one time all humans could communicate with beasts—that this talent was not reserved only for the gifted, but something we all had the capability to do. Perhaps, today, we’ve forgotten how to listen. But now at least, we can prove that our interactions with animals benefit our health (medical studies have noted lower blood pressure and the release of healing oxytocin in pet owners), lighten our moods, and fortifiy our soul. Animals teach us to love unconditionally, to live in the moment, and to be loyal and true. They teach us compassion and curiosity. Primal, awake, and essentially uncomplicated, infinitely free from hubris, they instruct us in our quest for meaning in our lives.
While pets at home may offer the best medicine, you may feel drawn to interact with other species in their own environment. As a caterpillar turns to a butterfly, I have been transformed by my interactions with animals during my travels. Here are some places to connect with some special creatures, and be forever enriched.
Hike with a Llama
First of all: When llamas feel happy, they hum. Join Colorado’s Paragon Guides at Arrowhead Ski Area, near Vail, for their four-hour “Take a Llama to Lunch” hike, which begins with llama lessons amid the pine-flanked mountainside. During the hike, you’ll lead your gentle llama along the trail, through meadows of wildflowers, and traipse through the woods. You’ll finish with a picnic, having fallen in love. Longer treks, including multiday, hut-to-hut, llama trekking can be arranged. paragonguides.com/llama-trekking/
Walk with Mountain Gorillas
They’re like Zen poets. Discover the endangered mountain gorilla in Rwanda at Volcanoes National Park with Volcanoes Safaris. Like Dian Fossey before you, you’ll follow a ranger into the thickly wooded bamboo forest, tracking these astounding apes. Serene giants who live in family groups, helmed by a gargantuan Silverback, they wander the mountains in search of food. Find a brood, then pass a joyous hour in their presence, monitoring and photographing their merry antics in this natural habitat. When the day ends, return to Virunga Lodge to toast your day with a sundowner, and enjoy local entertainment and riveting views. volcanoessafaris.com
Harmony with Horses
Astride the steeds at Half Moon, a Rock Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, you’ll ply the waves as a mermaid should. It’s like riding a seahorse. Scheduled training sessions and morning rides bond riders with their mounts. The rescued horses revel in taking their riders down the beach and into the cosseting splash of the waves. Highly recommended, a Positive Empowerment exercise teaches riders to use body language and intuition to communicate with the horses. Unmounted, riders connect with the horses and hone mutual respect without the use of restrictive equipment. Halfmoon.com
Woof with Wolf Dogs
In Canada, near Banff’s dramatic, mountain-laden national park, join Discover Banff Tours for an illuminating visit with wolves and wolf dogs at Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary. An interactive adventure meant to dispel the myths surrounding wolves and wolfdogs, the tour gets participants up close and personal with the majestic creatures. You’ll learn about their behaviors and challenges, then have the chance to feed and photograph them. You may even consider adopting one from this ethical, nonprofit organization, inspired by its stellar cause. yamnuskawolfdogsanctuary.com, banfftours.com
Paddle with Pigs
Oink your way to shore amid a flotilla of pigs. Nobody knows how they found their remote island home or learned to swim, but a pack of adorable pigs eagerly awaits your arrival from Pig Beach on Big Major Cay’s southernmost crescent of sand where they live freely, basking in the sun and plunging into the waves at intervals. They’ll swim to you, and invite you to join their workout. Among them you’ll grunt with glee. While many outfitters organize pig-swimming tours, consider basing your stay at Grand Isle Resort & Spa, which conducts frequent outings. grandisleresort.com
Elation with Elephants
Their eyelashes will turn you green with envy. Be smitten at Four Seasons Golden Triangle, a 15-suite, lodge-style hotel in far northern Thailand—just across the river from Burma. There, in association with the Golden Triangle Elephant Association, program guests can take mahout-training courses, working to better the lives of rescued, once-abused elephants. Bathing, feeding, and exercising the immense pachyderms, guests form deep relationships among the backdrop of banyan trees and a bamboo jungle. Fourseasons.com/goldentriangle
Be Walked by a Mastiff
They call it the original Shangri La. The Ringha Valley, high in the Himalayas of China’s Yunnan region, holds some of the most fairy-tale terrain on earth. Let Lanka, a furry, two-year-old Tibetan mastiff, escort you across the grasslands and river-pierced valleys near your hotel, Banyan Tree Ringha, in this remote, frontier destination. You’ll feel the consummate connection between human and dog as you take the trails and awaken your spirit. Accompanied, too, by hotel manager Mario Piazza, you’ll discover a Buddhist-informed landscape awash in temples, prayer flags, colorful traditional costumes, and yak butter tea. banyantree.com/en/cn-china-ringha
Do Asanas with Goats
They’ll help you with “downward dog” by tickling you with their beards. The goats on Lainey Morse’s No Regrets Farm in Albany, Oregon, don’t look like run-of-the mill yogis. But they are—they have the principles of this ancient practice down; they know it’s all about love, breathing, and not taking yourself too seriously. Outdoors, gamboling amid the rows of yoga mats, Morse’s loving goats share their prana—and love—with scores of yoga lovers who practice here. A practice that Morse began as curative to herself after suffering a divorce, the prodigious classes will make you feel like a kid again. laineymorse.com
Be a Turtle’s Ninja
The predators abound. Only one in 1,000 baby sea turtles makes it to adulthood. Thankfully, humans around the globe are taking note. Join the crusaders and help more babies grow up. Many hotels and seaside regions around the world take part in turtle-nest conservation. At Velas Vallarta, an all-inclusive family resort along Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, guests can participate in biologist-led turtle hatchling release rituals. After a training course, guests are given a sea turtle hatchling at sunset, then accompany the scientist to the beach. There, under supervision, they release their baby turtle, cheering it along its way. In addition, guests can take part in turtle nesting patrol, a morning program that often involves mother turtle nesting encounters. velasvallarta.com
Swim with the Sea Lions
Sea lions look like mischievous golden retrievers—but they’re even more fun. Frolic with them in the waves in a number of locales around the world, from the Galapagos to Atlantis, the Bahamas’ über- resort. For an authentic swim, book with guide David Doudle of Goin’ Off Safaris on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. His tour includes a foray aboard a 22-foot trimaran, accompanied by naturalists from Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience, who transport you to gadabout with a hoard of protected, inquisitive, playful sea lions in their own backyard—the churning sea. goinoffsafaris.com.au
Becca Hensley is a spiritual adventurer and a widely published poet and writer, specializing in travel and spas. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Toronto Star, and Austin Monthly.