Sally Wiggin: A positive relationship with animals can lead to natural balance | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Sally Wiggin: A positive relationship with animals can lead to natural balance

I came to appreciate the greater connection between wildlife and humans during my first trip to Africa

click to enlarge Sally Wiggin and Noris - PHOTO COURTESY OF SALLY WIGGIN
Photo courtesy of Sally Wiggin
Sally Wiggin and Noris

I cannot remember a time that I didn’t love animals. I remember, at 3 years old, my parents gave me a plastic Lone Ranger doll along with his horse, Silver. I tossed the Lone Ranger and kept Silver; my love affair with horses began and continues to this day.

At age 10, I memorized all the dog breeds that were a part of the American Kennel Club at the time. At 11, I tried to do the same with an encyclopedic volume, Mammals of the World. As a child, I had a dachshund, turtles, a parakeet (whom my dog ate, setting off a minor childhood trauma) and a snake.

Since then, I have lived with and loved eight dogs, three horses and two cats.

Yes, I wanted to be a zoologist or a veterinarian, right up until my freshman year of college. But, like so many young women at that time, I was terrified of math, a requirement in animal sciences. So, I tabled my obsession with animals as an academic pursuit, for degrees in Asian studies. It was another love, sports, that landed me in broadcast journalism, but that’s a story for another time.

Finally, in 1989, I came to appreciate the greater connection between wildlife and humans during my first trip to Africa. It was a horseback safari in Kenya, and the thrill of galloping alongside giraffes and eland (the largest species of antelope) was transformative.

But then you touch an elephant, and love turns to advocacy. It was 1994, and I had gone to do a television interview with the great elephant expert, British zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. He was lecturing at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and was standing in the elephant yard with Willie Theison, himself now regarded as one of the nation’s top elephant managers. They invited me to touch the elephant, Tasha. It rocked my world, like it does so many others who are activists trying to save these animals from the slaughter that is threatening them with extinction.

Recently Theison told me, “Elephants have great energy.” He watches that energy calm people, relax them. But he hopes it teaches, too. Teaches people to “keep everything in balance. To understand life, rather than be the dominant entity over animals.” He said, with urgency, “Animals, they have a place. We have to keep a place.”

Yet, a statistic two years ago showed that of all of the world’s philanthropy, only 1 percent goes to wildlife conservation. Assailed by climate change, habitat loss and poaching, our planet’s biodiversity is gravely threatened.

But there is hope. I heard the “Father of Biodiversity,” E.O. Wilson, speak in Pittsburgh several years ago. He pointed out that there are enough financial resources to fix this. To set aside spaces to enhance the planet. We just have to have the will.

I have been blessed to see what that will can produce, from Antarctica, where I walked with penguins, to Rwanda, where I have sat with gorillas. I have seen the conservation work in India, where rangers protect rhinos and tigers.

But there is also great will and heart in domestic animal shelters which work to reduce overpopulation and animal cruelty. Humane Animal Rescue CEO Dan Rossi says, “Watch shelter workers and see the calming effect the people have on the canines in our care.”

Karen Winter, featured with her Scottish deerhounds in our WTAE Chronicle, “Dog Stories,” adds, “I’d like to think I am a better human, because I have lived with animals.”

Which brings me to this personal revelation. I always wanted children, the husband and the role of working at home. But my marriage and successive relationships didn’t work out. I say this to emphasize that a connection to animals doesn’t exclude connections to people. And as I continue to grieve my brave and precious German shepherd, Noris, I can only emphasize life is about balance — balance with the natural world. Without it, we are doomed.

Sally Wiggin has been a broadcaster for WTAE, Channel 4 since 1980. She is currently the host of the station’s topical news-magazine show, Chronicle, and has worked as both a reporter and anchor. She is also on the board of directors of several local animal-oriented organizations, including the Humane Rescue League and the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

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