Radical Relationality

Radical Relationality

How Science and Spiritual Practices Can Improve Life for Our Animal Neighbors


Animal chaplain Sarah Bowen follows up on the impact of the death of LA's mountain lion P-22, and shares about the power of Indigenous thought on ecology.

“He’s not here?” my seatmate inquired. “No, I think he’s in a freezer.” We sat among thousands of conservationists and animal activists gathered at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles to honor the passing of Hollywood’s famous mountain lion, P-22. The Celebration of Life event had sold out in just over an hour, and we were two lucky free ticket holders.

Over the next three hours, we watched wildlife advocates, government officials, celebrities, and elementary school students honor the famous cat who was euthanized due to a car strike that revealed long-term illnesses.

Throughout the memorial, wildlife biologists educated attendees on the challenges facing animals in urban spaces, including how highways fragment habitats by making travel dangerous and creating genetic issues.

Yet, our communal sorrow was buoyed by illustrations of a new wildlife bridge that will cross over ten lanes of highway, a substantial feat of engineering and fundraising.

While P-22’s image was everywhere, remarkably absent was his body or any overt reference to the debate between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (who wanted to use the mountain lion for scientific research), the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (who considered displaying his body as an educational endeavor), and the Indigenous peoples who pushed back on both organizations, citing concerns about the colonial-minded treatment of their animal relative.

Indigenous Perspectives on the Death of P-22

During the opening blessing, the perspective of Indigenous peoples was touchingly present. “We use the animals as teachers,” offered Alan Salazar, a tribal member of the Fernandeño Tataviam and Ventureño Chumash tribes. He went on to reflect that while mountain lions, in general, can teach humans lessons, P-22 was unique in that he was a leader. “We respect him for that. We connect with him because what has happened to the mountain lions in California … that same thing has happened to tribal people in California.”

Salazar then pointed to the 1849 California government initiative to exterminate native peoples, connecting it to ongoing policies of eliminating grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions. In contrast, he proclaimed, “Living in harmony with these animals, that’s a good policy.”

While describing animals as teachers in pressing environmental issues might be judged “unscientific” by some, a growing body of literature suggests conservation projects that include Indigenous worldviews can help improve conditions for animals.

These concepts challenge the prevailing North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which ascribes ownership of wildlife to the U.S. government on our collective behalf (“public trust”). The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has been widely critiqued for its colonial and capitalist underpinnings, in which animals are considered “resources” to be managed and viewed through a lens of “consumptive use” thanks to a historical intertwining of wild spaces with hunting and fishing.

One can’t help but notice a hint of Aristotelian and medieval Christian thought here―a systemized ordering of the entire earth community in a hierarchy with humans ranking above all other earthly forms of life in a “Great Chain of Being.” Animals are property to be owned by humans, whether by businesses (such as in farming, entertainment, education, and research), individuals (such as pets), or government organizations.

Indigenizing Wildlife Conservation

In contrast, some environmental justice advocates and tribal peoples recommend indigenizing conservation practices to emphasize kincentricity, viewing humans and animals as part of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry. Likewise, they recommend adopting an ethos of radical relationality by not only recognizing interdependency, but also recognizing the obligations we have to those we are related to—including those of other species.

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For example, in Northern California, the Yurok tribe is encouraging the prey-go-neesh (California condor) to return to their ancestral homelands by combining scientific and spiritual methods. First, tribal elders reintroduced ceremonies, songs, and prayers related to the condor. Tribal biologists then started a decade and a half of extensive fieldwork to create a healthy environment with suitable bird protection measures.

They built partnerships with conservation organizations and nearby zoos to meet potential veterinary support needs. They reeducated local hunters to avoid using toxic lead ammunition, which condors could ingest through carrion. And they started complex negotiations with government officials to meet stringent guidelines of the Endangered Species Act.

Along the way, the Yurok tribe benefited from their multi-faceted approach to caring for the earth physically and spiritually, a concept they refer to as hikelonah ue meygeytohl. Connecting to the cultural significance of the condor reunited them with sacred traditions lost to settler colonialism. As the Yurok mended their land for the condor, they likewise healed their community of humans, too.

Eventually, the Yurok’s ceremonies, prayers, and hard work paid off. In 2022, two condors nicknamed Poy’-we-son (“one who goes ahead”) and Nes-kwe-chokw’ (“he returns”) were officially reintroduced in the area after a 100-year absence, and more releases are likely to follow.

Admittedly, the commingling of science and spirituality in wildlife stewardship might ruffle the feathers of those mired in Scientism. Still, the approach might be precisely what is missing from the dominant North American Model of conservation and be crucial to sustaining biodiversity.

The Yurok condor and L.A. cougar examples suggest that physical and spiritual need not be relegated to separate corners when stakeholder tension appears. Instead, contrasting ways of knowing can address different pieces of conservation puzzles and perhaps lead humans to appreciate opposing viewpoints.

Peace for P-22

A month after the P-22 Celebration of Life, the humans who claimed his body reached a consensus. Excepting a few small bits retained for scientific use, his corpse was buried in the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains, where a few more mountain lions roam just beyond the cacophony of city life.

A small tribal ceremony was performed by members of four Native tribes, with a handful of special guests from the Park Service and the National Wildlife Federation. Unlike the festivities I attended, this momentous occasion was not live-streamed or recorded. The grave’s location remains known only to a few for fears that his body might be exhumed or the sacred site desecrated.

While I cannot physically visit his grave to pay my respects, I encourage us all to learn from his death by promoting radical relationality in the habitats in which we live. P-22’s death is a reminder of the tremendous losses Indigenous humans and their animal kin have suffered—and the ones they continue to face—worldwide. Further, it’s a powerful reflection of how spirituality can be akin to science.

Now read about decolonizing therapy!

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