Extinction and Hope

A southern white rhinoceros with her calf at San Diego Zoo, May 2017. © San Diego Zoo Safari Park/creativecommons.org

 

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. —1 Corinthians 13:13

 

One million. That’s the number of species at risk of extinction, according to a recent United Nations-sponsored assessment. How do we, as Quakers, find hope when 75 percent of the planet’s land area has been significantly altered by human activity? Where do we find hope when half a million species lack enough habitat for long-term survival? Where is hope when one in eight species are threatened with extinction?

Can an endangered species recover, with human help? And how can we, as Quakers, participate in such an endeavor?

“Rescuing a rhino species from extinction is unprecedented, and we are here to reflect hopefully on that possibility,” said Oliver Ryder, director of conservation genetics at the San Diego Zoo Global’s Institute for Conservation Research. A seasoned member of La Jolla (Calif.) Meeting, Oliver invited me to attend a unique workshop and conference at the zoo’s Safari Park in October 2019. My role was to be a worshipful presence and to hold contemplative stillness as notable thinkers discussed the social and ethical issues involved in rescuing the northern white rhinoceros from imminent extinction. Oliver guided proceedings using gentle, clear Quaker processes.

It was my rare privilege, as an elder, to sit quietly in the Light as the scholars and scientists deliberated, to, in the words of George Fox, “be still and cool . . . from [my] own thoughts . . . and be stayed in the principle of God” on behalf of everyone present. Thomas R. Kellyʼs phrase “continuously renewed immediacy” kept me centered throughout the proceedings in a state of attentiveness, “where the breath and stillness of Eternity are heavy upon us and we are wholly yielded to [the Divine Presence].”

I understood more bioscience than I had expected, and was emotionally moved by each speaker’s heartfelt dedication. Most significantly, I became animated by hope as I held participants in Light and love as they raised questions, explored risks and benefits, and expressed emerging views and values.

“We are hopeful,” said Oliver, “because two northern white rhinos are still alive, and we are caring for a sizable herd of southern white rhinos here at Safari Park. We have a healthy baby on the ground; he weighs 510 pounds at ten weeks of age, born to a surrogate mother through assisted reproductive technology. We also have the Frozen Zoo, in which we have been banking living cells for 40 years. We were able to return the Pacific pocket mouse to its native habitat, and to hear the whoosh of California condors flying free at last, so yes, we are hopeful about protecting the northern white rhinoceros.”

It was awesome to meet these charismatic creatures up close, introduced by lead keeper Jonnie Caprio and the zoo crew. Four-thousand-pound Victoria came when called, baby Edward gamboling close behind. Victoria nibbled apple chunks from Jonnie’s hand and gazed at us contentedly, while Edward romped nearby. He thrives on mother’s milk and tries to eat hay as she does, but his teeth have not yet come in. Conceived through assisted reproduction by artificial insemination using frozen semen from another southern white rhinoceros, he was born—after a 16-month pregnancy—on July 29, 2019. Named for a major donor, Edward weighed 148 pounds at birth and is well on his way to reaching the two-ton-plus size of his elders.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park roadside sign. © commons.wikimedia.org

When humans see wild megafauna (large or giant animals) as dots in the distance, we can form only remote relationships with them, but rhinos are very relational up close. They thrive on affection and attention, just as we do. Jonnie trains them to step on the scale when asked, defecate before rectal exams, stand still during medical procedures, and keep their mouths open during dental exams. Two of the female rhinos at San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park are not interested in becoming surrogate mothers, so they roam free of invasive procedures. The others willingly take part in the Northern White Rhino Genetic Rescue Initiative, which involves new reproductive methodologies for rhinoceros species. Everyone working on the project is very careful. Above all: they care. And all are part of a growing body of hope.

Ancient rhinos roamed free for eons, until they were murdered by humans for their horns. Sudan, the last male of his kind, died in 2018. The October 2019 National Geographic featured Ami Vitale’s photo of Sudan on the cover. His daughter and granddaughter survive, but with no hope of reproducing. They are closely related to southern white rhinos, some of whom also live at the zoo’s Safari Park.

After admiring Victoria and Edward, I found myself contemplating Amani, munching hay in her enclosure. She is a healthy 5,000-pound rhino, and was pregnant at the time, nearing her due date (she delivered a healthy female calf named Future on November 21, 2019). Contemplation is a kind of seeing that is more than mere looking, because it includes recognizing—and thus appreciating—what we gaze upon. The contemplative mind does not tell us what to see—it teaches us how to see, and I was close enough to behold the hopeful look in Amani’s eye as she awaited motherhood.

Gazing contemplatively at humans dedicated to the mission of San Diego Zoo Global, I saw their hopefulness as more than subjective optimism. Among committed cellular and molecular researchers, ethicists, lawyers, synthetic biologists, sociologists, veterinarians, animal caregivers, donors, and journalists, hope is first and foremost a life-giving energy. Together, I see these visionaries comprising a “body of hope.” Some Quakers would call it “the body of Christ.” Whether we use sacred or secular language to describe it, embodied hope became a visceral truth for me during the two-day symposium hosted by the Institute for Conservation Research. I glimpsed hope in every face and heard it in every voice, magnified by widespread compassion and commitment to bring a beguiling beast back from the abyss of extinction. The body of hope does far more than preserve a lovable endangered species: it also provides a forceful energy to direct the course of spiritual evolution among humankind. The body of Christ shapes the course of things to come.

As a Quaker elder, I was privileged to be included in this ground-breaking conference. I loved being able to sit silently in Christ Light and hold all beings in contemplative prayer. It gave me a wondrous taste of hope, and I want more. Being part of the vibrant body of Christ is not only inspirational, it is aspirational.

Quiet worship among Friends opens our eyes to glimpse the truth of life in its wholeness. Gazing upon humans and animals with loving eyes equips us to venture out into broader, open-ended horizons where we find ourselves led to contribute even more wholeheartedly to an emerging body of hope in an era of great planetary losses.

Judith Favor

Judith Favor is a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting. She taught at Claremont School of Theology, facilitated Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in California prisons, serves monthly and quarterly meetings, and is a spiritual director, retreat leader, author, and reviewer. Her latest novel is The Beacons of Larkin Street.

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