‘Til death do us part’

We must seize this opportunity to treat wildlife, trees as partners

It has been just over a year since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Darien, Connecticut, where Friends of Animals is headquartered and where I currently live.

That day I instinctively fled to the nearest land trust property to watch the waterfowl in the lagoon, feel the wind on my face and chat with Mother Nature and say I was on her side, that I work for an organization that puts wildlife and critical habitat protection at the core of our mission.

It felt like the right thing to do knowing that the virus originated in wildlife farms in China that were supplying vendors at a wet market in Wuhan, according to the World Health Organization. Many of those farms are in or around Yunnan, where virologists found a bat virus that is genetically 96% like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And the farms breed animals known to carry coronaviruses, such as civet cats and pangolins.

Throughout the year researchers have been saying the pandemic must be taken as a deadly warning. “That means thinking of animals as partners whose health and habitats should be protected to stave off the next global outbreak,” writes Washington Post writer Karin Brulliard, adding that humans are making it easier and easier for zoonotic diseases to jump from wildlife to us.

We all need to heed that warning and seize this opportunity to make a radical shift in the way we think about nature. A new UN report reveals we are already paying a bitter price for not being better stewards of the environment—extreme weather, and diseases that emerge from increasing proximity to wildlife and exposure to our own toxic waste.

Luckily, I am already a part of the critical conservation work Friends of Animals does in the U.S. and abroad. But that little voice was also telling me to “think globally, act locally.”

So, I recently became a member of the Darien Land Trust, which protects nearly 220 acres of open space forever right in my own backyard.

Land trusts recognize we share both the burden and benefit of what we do to our environment. Protecting the land saves trees and animals, and the natural scenes we love, but it also saves us. We benefit from clean air and water and from the tranquility of these places.

Speaking of clean air, Stefano Mancuso’s new book, The Nation of Plants, makes a compelling argument that to combat the 40 percent increase in global carbon dioxide emissions that have occurred since 1998, we need to cover with plants and trees any surface on the planet that is able to host them.

But we first need to stop any further deforestation. “We have to understand this immediately and start defending the few residual large forests on the planet with all the available means and to the best of our ability. Deforestation should be considered a crime against humanity,” he writes.

Adds Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, “We have to take a stand for trees and keep them standing.”

For me, the silver lining of the pandemic is my deeper appreciation for Connecticut’s forests and open spaces that are interwoven with a rich tapestry of biological diversity.

Since the pandemic brought my social life to a standstill, I needed to have something to look forward to on the weekends, so I decided to visit a different local land trust each Saturday. (The icing on the cake is that it also thrilled Lila, the bulldog I was fostering and who I recently adopted.)

In addition to some gems in Darien, I also explored some New Canaan Land Trust properties, where scenic trails meander around wetlands and through hardwood forests that change in composition and structure with the topography. Some of the largest naturally growing trees in New Canaan can be found on one of my favorite properties, with the largest tulip poplars having diameters of more than four feet.

A lot of the properties are also prime areas for birding, and that inspired me to participate in the National Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count back in February. Not only did I learn the identities of gadwall ducks, northern pintails and hooded mergansers, and the difference between red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers, I became a citizen scientist for a few days , helping researchers better understand how the birds we love are faring under a changing climate. And that was rewarding.

One day I met a mother and daughter walking their dog at Still Pond Preserve in New Canaan and we stopped to talk about how much we appreciated the natural beauty of the preserve with its hardwood forest, wetlands and meadows. They admitted they lived in the neighborhood 15 years and had not visited the preserve until the pandemic. Last summer, they said they also discovered NCLT’s Firefly Sanctuary where a trail winds through woodlands as it climbs to a meadow at the top of the ridge. They witnessed a spectacular display as thousands of fireflies lit up the night sky between June and July.

A visit there this summer is already on my calendar.

It gives me hope knowing I was certainly not alone in finding a deeper connection and appreciation for nature during the pandemic and an increased desire to safeguard it.

The Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which covers conservation areas across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania experienced three to four times the number of visitors normally seen, and the surge continues to hold, according to an NBC News report.

Refuge manager Michael Horne sees the increased interest as a valued opportunity. To him, people were unaware of what wildlife refuges were and what they had to offer. This opened the door to a new appreciation for nature sanctuaries.

Likewise, Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, saw an upward trend in hiking.

“This is the future for us,” she said. “There’s a huge opportunity to build a whole new generation of land stewards.”

I could not agree more.