SQUAWK. CONTEMPLATIONS ON ANIMAL PRESENCE IN ART THERAPY
BSc.Soc.Sci. (Joint hons. Phil. & Psych.), Dip. A.T., registered art therapist (UK), a long-term member of the Findhorn Foundation Community, currently in private practice
This essay by Beverley A'Court, describing therapeutic interactions with animals, is part of the continuing response to our invitation to share the experience of human – animal bonds. Interactions with local wildlife during author’s outdoor art therapy sessions over the past 25 years provided an opportunity to learn more about both the animals themselves and the role of field phenomena in art therapy. This essay is an informal exploration of the author’s observations of the impacts of animal encounters on clients. She identifies some theoretical and practical questions that arise when we include the spontaneous, active participation of animals and nature in the therapeutic process. She concludes that ecological therapies, with their holistic paradigm may develop ecological sensitivity and awareness in clients beyond their personal recovery from symptoms of trauma, for wider collective benefit.
Keywords: animals, art therapy, eco therapy, affinitive listening
Photo: Laura Makabrescu. ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ (inspired by the paintings of V. Hammershøj)
I had glimpsed a distant slash of light piercing dense woodland and was trying to recreate this in a painting outdoors, laying stripes of vivid colour to capture the dramatic swords of light tinting the Scots pine trees with coppers, crimson, deep indigo shadows among the birches and emerald-toned oaks. In my absorption I didn’t notice the cock pheasant ‘s silent approach, with his plumage of deep crimson-red, browny blue-black and amber, until he stepped directly in front of me and paced the entire perimeter of my painting, lifting and placing each twiggy foot with slow precision, his gaze fixed on the picture as if assessing the colour match with his feathers. Which they were. He leaned in and tested (tasted?) the colours with his beak tip then stepped back, as if respecting this space. When he finally looked up and walked away, I felt blessed, graced with a visit from a special guest.
Such visitations occurred increasingly when I took art therapy outdoors. The colour match between my woodland image and his plumage was obvious and something was ignited in me that has never dimmed.
Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment
and bow their heads.
Mary Oliver 
I want to begin by expressing my appreciation for Caroline Case’s book, ‘Imagining Animals: art, psychotherapy and primitive states of mind’  which first helped me to articulate and explore my feelings about animals in art therapy, especially in work with children. It is still an inspiring and provocative read that blends academic with mythic and literary writing styles, and powerfully draws us in to consider the many ways in which animals turn up in our work and the power they bring, sensual, metaphorical, mythic, and invite or jolt us into seeing through different eyes, sensing through other skins. Caroline was my art therapy tutor and my supervisor for some years afterwards, and visits to her home took a whole day, the long journey rewarded by the chance to see her extraordinary paintings, which often included strange animals with unnervingly human presence. She also allowed more silence in her therapy groups than any other tutor which I found fascinating in how so much unfolded naturally in the spaciousness, and while much was left unspoken somehow I always left her groups feeling much had ben understood. There was more than a little resemblance to how we relate to animals in this style, which I liked. She later wrote eloquently about the importance of silence in art therapy and its gift to child clients desperate to find themselves.
Art-making, and the presence of humans, absorbed in creative activity, their predatory reflexes temporarily relaxed, seems to interest and attract many birds and animals that live in close proximity with us, and others too, to approach. As top predators, we may be associated with free food, the crumbs from our feast, but often we are associated with threat of attack, shooing away any creature not invited to the table regardless of what gifts they bring.
This paper is about some of my encounters and observations during art therapy, and the contemplations emerging from these.
Scotland: European herring gull (Larus Argentatus)
Sit outdoors and begin a grey-green sea painting or observe a client absorbed in making a tiny house for a broken heart or a twiggy structure about chaos and loss …. and a curious, cautious gull will approach and may decide to sit with you.
This is not the popular or media image of these birds as raucous, aggressive ‘vermin’ likely to dive bomb and steal food from your mouth, taking out an eye or or injuring a child’s hand in an attempt to snatch its ice cream.
If you resist the urge to reach out towards its temptingly deep, snowy white plumage or flap your arms to nervously shoo it way, and instead look up slowly, remaining still, at rest within yourself and if you speak politely, calmly, almost formally, as if greeting a respected visiting elder, what happens can be surprising. Move mindfully and the gull may pace a circle around you, its single black-dot-in-a-yellow-jewel eye pinning you to the moment with his/her stare. What you are doing may be closely watched. You’ll sense a needle-sharp presence and sky-wide intelligence scanning for a twitch or squirm or fallen sandwich.
The resident colony of herring gulls in my home area, as I have documented elsewhere  have been an inspiring, informative and instructive contribution to the development of my understanding and practice of ecological art therapy. Their intelligence, according to British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, is an under-researched phenomenon only just beginning to be appreciated. Their vocal range and loquaciousness seems to equal our own and their perfectly timed interventions in my outdoor therapy sessions have resulted in many significant somatic shifts and transformative psychological insights in my clients.
The discipline of ethology, which involves observing animals engaged in their lives in natural habitats formed only a minor part of my undergraduate degree but became a life-long interest. I was fortunate to meet Niko Tinbergen, a respected ethology pioneer, who described how he approached wild animals and his toddler grandson similarly, toning his body language to communicate. Ethology has informed my art therapy with young children as well as my own amateur gull studies. I consider it a rewarding practice for arts therapists, enlivening our own mirror neurones, vagus nerve system and more as we attune to the movements and communications of our animal kin.
Comparing what I learned about gulls, and human reactions to them, through close, daily contact to what is written about them in science journals convinces me that coming into our living presence and entering into relationships with other sentient beings is a vast and accurate source of information. When an animal’s electromagnetic ‘auric’ field mingles with our own, directly affecting our physiology, it may potentially be less likely to lead to anthropomorphic distortions than when that animal is observed through perspex in a laboratory where the entire environment, every surface, the very air and every task has been designed and controlled by a human mind reflecting the structure and content of human cognition.
What is happening when an animal enters the therapy field and enacts apparently intentional pertinent behaviour that triggers insight and associated somatic and cognitive shifts in the client?
The animate field of beings and affinitive listening
I would like to borrow the term ‘Affinitive Listening’ from the philosophical geographer Peter Adey  which he coined for his own research purposes and which was inspired by the affinities that exist between chemical compounds. In an ecological therapy context, this term, better than any other I have found, suggests the sensitive, mutable, subliminal sensing we can experience in nature, and between ourselves and wild animals and in fact with any material object, whose ‘body’ is ‘not so different from our own, with membranes and passages permeated by air’  and I would add, its own electromagnetic field.
‘Affinitive listening’ suggests the process by which we detect from sensory minutiae the finely-tuned and shifting ambience of an environment, as its co-creators live and breathe it into being and its past sends echoes through our bodies, and how the elements composing that reality in any moment shimmer around a being, the client in therapy, their art work or the therapeutic dyad. We listen with our entire bodily system, even to the presumed inert parts of our environment, with our electromagnetic field that, like the spider’s web, resembles an external nervous system, detecting and conveying subtle information to the core . When we relax deeply into states of communion with the whole, shifting from the small egoic self to the cosmic or ecological Self, we extend our senses to far beyond the body envelope and sense contact at significant distance. This has long been recognised in the practices of many Indigenous hunters and Scottish water diviners.
Honing our ‘affinitive listening’ [2, 3] seems, anecdotally, to be one of the subtle side effects of ecological art therapy outdoors: Clients report feeling increasingly attuned to their own body signals, alert to subtle shifts in light, moisture, shadows and the sense of presence of another animal. This confirms our place in the web of life, our own twitching, wild nervous system, our predator and prey potentials.
In this state, insights cascade;
‘I feel as if I am the whole space here, as if I can sense what is happening even behind those bushes and trees.’
A client was working outdoors on family dynamics, using natural objects found in the area and spontaneous movement when, just as she was about to speak about her mother, two elderly women slowly and quietly approached a bench on the periphery of our therapy area. The client said;
I knew someone was coming, and who they might be before I looked round. I knew it would be someone who somehow reminded me of my mother. I don’t know how I knew.
The rest of the therapy session unfolded powerfully and gracefully with the two women getting up and leaving exactly at the moment the client felt she had completed her process. She was surprised and impressed at the precision of this synchronous encounter, how closely one of the women resembled her mother including her posture.
Walking with a youth group into a tangled forest a dead mouse appeared on our path. One girl immediately picked it up and carried it gently cradled in her hands, saying it was part of our project because it was there right in our path and perhaps it needed our care or for us to bury it. This remark suggested her connection to an inner sense of the holism underlying ecological art therapy; the interconnected, interdependence of all phenomena and the synchronicities this generates.
During the exploration of our chosen forest area the mouse was ‘stored’ carefully in makeshift swaddling and a cloth-and-leaf hammock stung between tree twigs. During preparations for the final ritual of our session, there was intense conversation among the teenagers concerning how the mouse should be included and they agreed it should be integrated into the centrepiece. Some of the group had by then attributed personal meanings to its presence and its death, which contributed to their reflections on care (this was a therapeutic community for orphaned children) death, self-harm and depression which several of them suffered and ideas about rebirth. Mice are often not timid but brave, noticeably in how they show up during outdoor sessions. Mice have wandered into clients’ newly-made mini-installations and tiny houses, and taken up residence during the session, confirming for the client previously unrecognised aspects of their situation, their deep need for a safe base and their versatility, adaptability and ability to create this, for example.
When small birds and animals enter, explore and settle temporarily inside a client’s creation, this typically brings the session to silence. Clients pause to observe what the creature does in relation to their art work. In this silent time, painful emotions and themes of the therapy can become integrated with this gift of the other. This is an outdoor equivalent of the silent, spacious ‘looking together’ at the art work of conventional indoor art therapy, where therapist and client take time to witness, honour and fully receive what has been made, and allow its layers of significance to emerge.
A spider who landed between two branches a client had used to create a symbolic shelter began spinning a web, weaving distant parts together, mirroring for this client how she was exhausting herself in the effort to keep peace between conflicting members of her extended family. The trembling sensitivity of the web as the wind got up, resembled the anxious, easily triggered reactivity in the family. As we watched, the spider’s activities symbolised other aspects of the client’s life and demonstrated, as it spun, qualities the client could apply to her own self-regulation.
Deep archetypal resonances associated with these creatures are also often awoken in such moments, and here the client was able to face without shame or judgement some of her ‘grandmother spider’ tendencies to control and be the one holding all parts of family life together.
When I have stumbled on animals in the wild, I have also wondered, if their mirroring us provides new insight, what, if anything does an encounter with us do for them?
There are many dramatic and moving myths and traditional tales of such meetings with wildlife, and the profound change created in the human person. Some stories of multiple or prolonged encounters over time suggest that more than simplistic transformations of our basic instincts to run, hide, protect, attack etc. may occur for animals too, especially where wild animals initiate the contact and what follows.
We might regard pride as a human emotion not to be projected onto animals but passing a field of cows with their calves, seeing gulls with their chicks, or semi-feral farm cats with their kittens suggests other possibilities. Adult animals will spontaneously approach with their young as if to present them with pride and regularly elicit from humans, including unsentimental farmers, expressions of admiration and praise for the parents and delight in the young. Where animals are not afraid, or a bond has been established, there appears to be a reciprocal appreciative response. This was very visible in the case of our resident gulls after one year of residence. The usually more reticent females would escort their young precariously close to the roof-edge above where our family sat in the garden. This directly contradicted the conventional view that gulls will attack anyone who gets too close and they generally dislike and become a threat in proximity to humans. The female gull would stand while we praised the beauty of her growing chicks and her wonderful parenting. Only after some time would she escort them back up the roof. No food-seeking signalling accompanied these meetings. The gulls taught me that they too enjoy silent companionship in the garden, without harassment of any kind. Slowly, over two years, they began to join in my therapy sessions.
Social media are brimming with videos of similar animal encounters and relationships and the powerful emotional impact on the humans. Similarly, traditional story books and contemporary films abound with child-wild animal friendships, special bonds that often help both to survive loss or danger and grow to maturity. There is usually a sorrowful parting at some point, when being kin is not enough, and each must find their own natural life with others of their kind.
The usually barefoot dancer Dana Reitz makes compelling performances, sculpted with light and silence. After one of her spellbinding, silent dances where she entered the space like a huge-winged crane stepping on delicate feet she recommended artists and others involved in body-based practices, to dedicate time to simply watching animals and shared her own love of visiting zoos to watch animals closely and experience, via the felt sense, how energy runs through the inner layers and channels of the body and how forms arise on the ‘outside’.
At the time I was employed to use approaches from art therapy to introduce women in rural villages to the liberating potential of expressive art-making; to restore lost confidence, support transferable creative and intuitive skills and foster psychological and group empowerment. Inviting them, for example, to feel into the experience of a dog wagging its tail and to wag their own ‘tails’ was an early playful way to shift body-tensions and release muscular constriction that was inhibiting art making and other forms of expression. The exercises I created in experimentation and collaboration with these groups* became foundational for the deeply meditative gestural drawing practices that followed. The vast array of somatic and sensory-motor, breathing modalities developed in recent decades testify to our professions waking up to the importance of including our bodies and our animal characteristics in how we think about, and practice, the healing arts.
Scottish performance poet Sarah Wilder observes in her poem ‘The holy happening’ a waitress giving especially tender attention to two lovers in a cafe as having recognised that ‘something holy was happening here,’ and ends with,
I wish more waitresses would bid farewell like that
for when is something holy not happening? Wilder, S. 
Therapy exists in this dynamic between the Holy and the Earthy, often working to reconcile the splits we make and the conflicts we generate. Our encounters with animals often seem to offer respite from the struggle, we become playful, feel accepted and loved unconditionally by loyal animal companions who welcome us tirelessly by, day after day, while their ‘owners’ thrive on the purposeful role and daily care regime animals require. Encounters with animals in the wild, including encounters during outdoor therapy, have a numinous quality. There is almost always a sense, in the synchronicity that is so often part of the experience, of something holy happening. A message comes in the language of nature to the client who is also animal, also nature. People say they feel blessed by such encounters, seen by nature, fully confirmed in their existence, in their place and right to be here, ‘touched by an angel’ as more than one client has said. The author David Abram is a master of contemporary nature writers who chart such moments with our animal kin.
Some questions for self-reflection and supervision:
What can we learn about ourselves and our lives with animals, that might inform human healing and art therapy?
- What is your earliest animal memory, your first meeting with an animal?
- How did you feel in this encounter? What did you sense in your own body and in the atmosphere around you?
- What did you notice about how the animal responded to your presence?
- What was the overall quality of this experience?
- What did you learn from it, did any attitude or belief form in that moment?
- Did something from this experience carry forward and contribute to your core values, beliefs about humans and other animals and your personality as an adult?
- Is there some attitude or belief from this time that informs your art therapy practice?
- How does it show up in your practice and in your own art work?
- How does this contribute to benefit for your clients?
The talking ape
Our predatory dominance of global species and ecosystems is often attributed primarily to one distinctive faculty, language, our ability to communicate our needs and intentions in word-symbols and to persuade and manipulate others to cooperate with our wishes. However, professionally trained animal communicators are frequently called to assist with disturbed and disturbing, potentially dangerous, animals in many captive and wild contexts. They listen to the animals’ own communications and ‘translate’ them into human language, a faculty traditionally recorded as a gift of mystics, saints, shamans and sages.
In outdoor art therapy, as in fairy tales, clients often express the subjective sense of being able to understand animal ‘speech’, and are often surprised to receive a clear impression of what an animal is ‘saying’ to them that does not resemble their own internal self-talk but is relevant to the immediate context. Might they be re-discovering a latent or neglected faculty? I have never witnessed a negative, critical or otherwise harmful message being received in this way, unlike much of a client’s internal dialogue. From the song, poems, visions and myths of the past and my own over 20 years’ close contact with herring gulls I support this impression, that we are able to understand each other across species to a far greater extent than has so far been seriously considered in academic scientific circles.
Language is scattered with traditional idioms rooted in our agricultural history expressing the contentment of harmony between an animal’s bodily state and the environment. Two English examples are, ‘as happy as a cow in clover’ and ‘as happy as pig in shit’. In UK legislation animals in captivity should be free enough to conduct some of their basic, natural, species-characteristic behaviours, although sadly many are not.
Violent crimes often appear to be a result of a ‘primitive’ impulses exploding into attack or destruction. Describing someone as ‘animal’ or ‘brutish’ is to suggest that the sacred boundary of the category ‘human’ has been transgressed. As an insult, it declares someone less than human-person, uncivilised, inarticulate, violently unregulated and aggressive. It maintains the cognitive distinction between us and our animal kin. In contrast, many Indigenous peoples have belief systems that affirm their close connection to the animals of their home environments, whose spirit and right to life they respect and learn from and with whom they empathise and cooperate for mutual benefit and ecological harmony.
Colloquially we say someone behaved like an animal, even when referring to something animals rarely do, reinforcing a belief that our animal nature is a too potentially explosive, destructive force that must be regulated (tamed) at all times as it carries the dangerous potential for ‘unbridled’ (the horse unbroken) chaotic, inhuman threat. ‘Animal’ is a category into which we can place many complex, psychologically uncomfortable phenomena, an ‘other’ that is also inescapably part of our self.
Beyond animals we have other categories of marginalised and animate beings; monsters, angels, demons and gods, peripheral to human life all of whom have historically been regarded as able to inhabit our world on occasion, capable of taking up residence and taking possession of our body-mind and soul.
What is our relationship to animals in therapy?
The following ancient questions, explored for millennia across many disciplines, are far beyond the scope of this essay but are worth mentioning to awaken our exploratory introspection and imagination.
What kind of animal is a healthy human?
How best should we acknowledge this aspect of our being?
What does it mean to integrate and respect our animal self in psychotherapy?
What is our relationship to other animals?
Wolves and underdogs: identity, identification
Some clients bring to therapy their empathy and intensely passionate identification with animals and need this relationship to be witnessed and acknowledged, not pathologised as a symptom or evidence of deficiency by the therapist. Bernstein  gave credence and significance in psychotherapy theory to the importance of nature and animals as core sources of relational connection care and unconditional love for some clients formerly diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Finding kinship among other animals is an adaptive survival strategy when human relationships have been catastrophic. Fortunately, BPD is now redefined as a set of natural tendencies caused by unattended trauma.
Where there is deep unconscious trauma, life provides many opportunities for empathy and identification with the suffering of other beings and advocacy for their recognition, inclusion, status and rights. Christian ethical social norms underpinning British society historically reward care for the less fortunate and ‘virtue signalling’ is a well-recognised syndrome amongst those who need to be seen as allied with the socially approved moral stance. Beyond empathy, support and advocacy some move into over-identification-with their suffering animal kin, and adopt behaviours, clothing, language etc. that display their social identity. This can become a strong attachment, to a persona, a role and the symbols that publicly signal their affiliations and allegiances and stance. Identification with the animal victim may help to carry unbearable human pain, providing a sense of membership in a community of fellow sufferers, a parallel horizontal experience to counter the agonising, lonely despair of abandonment. Animals are rarely reported to communicate anything that contradicts the ‘victim’ role many animal advocates place them in although there are examples from animal communicators with major predators having found that the animal is not so much a victim as angry or frustrated by its human associates .
In Buddhist psychology a practice called Tonglen – ‘giving and taking’ – addresses our empathy with, connection to, and power to alleviate the suffering of other beings.
Breathing in, we ‘inhale’ the suffering of others, drawing it out of them in the form of black smoke and sending it, not into one’s own egoic self but into the limitless, luminous space of enlightened compassion and wisdom. Here all suffering is instantaneously dissolved, black smoke is transformed into the space and light of goodness, compassion.
Breathing out, we send to others this flow of light, compassion and wisdom from the heart of Buddha Dharma. An indirect benefit of this type of practice is how it can reduce the tendency and attachment to strong identification. Instead of clinging to a vicarious, victim identity, laden with our projections onto the other, we energetically activate our inherent power of compassion and the energy of our embodied imagination to alleviate suffering and direct its flow towards them.
An approach recently shared by nurse Katherine Thorn  involving animals has some of the spirit of this Tonglen practice. It relieves the sufferer of the delusion of isolation by connecting. She introduced a series of animal videos to clients who had experienced peer rejection. She and her child clients watched together how animals expelled from one group went about the process of joining another. She observed that ‘watching videos also seems less ‘weird’ for children who already feel very different. It seems to have proven a good starting point’ and ‘seems to give a normalising framework and of course an opportunity to reflect on the trauma within third person (third animal) distancing.’ [11, course feedback].
As Mary-Jane Rust and many other eco therapists since have written, and as Indigenous and many rural remote communities dependant on animals and nature recognise, the local trees, plants, mountains, waters and animals share with us a basic bio-spiritual affinity, we are ‘kin’ a knowledge which we suppress or eradicate at our peril and theirs. The loss of felt connection is transferred to many other areas of life, the body and relationships, and may be profound and often subtle, lurking beneath our civilised persona and self-image, a hidden anguish expressed as a nameless suffering.
The self-harm inherent in much of capitalist, materialist-consumerist ideology and lifestyle erupts gradually in therapy, like poison leaving the body.
- Have industrialised societies come to ‘other’ animals, to conceptually categorise them as non-persons, less sentient, less conscious, less important than ourselves, because we need to hunt, farm and kill them?
- Do we ‘other’, depersonalise, them in order to do this with impunity and mute, avoid and silence our inevitable dissonance and guilt?
- Or, do we strive to find ways to make good our relationship with animals as having some rights as unique, sentient individuals, ‘persons’ with social needs and affiliations?
- Do we live in a precarious state of psychological vulnerability, always on the edge of moral jeopardy, suppressing a deep moral injury by denying and suppressing awareness of our collective abuse of animals?
- Would we be healthier to do as so many Indigenous societies have always done; to surround the hunting, fishing, farming and slaughter of animals with ritual and ceremony to honour the being that was, to acknowledge its own right to life, its presence and contribution to the whole, and the loss of that as as a sacrifice and facilitate the animal’s soul’s passage to its next place? Should we be making sacred whatever we can, using our human abilities for ritual arts and other practices?
These are not merely academic ethical questions, they pervade embodied life and influence where we locate the sources of our psychological emotional problems and where we look for remedies. The cruel and ecologically destructive trade in animal parts for questionable medicines demonstrates our alienation from our own bodies and an integrated view of life and health. To believe that destroying vibrantly alive and wild animals, the totem teaching animals of our ancestry, to eliminate such beauty from the Earth and destroy the ecological systems they are part of in order to ‘heal’ people in another place is a very vivid kind of disconnected ignorance and misunderstanding. It is my hope that ecological therapies will prove to be a contribution to something better for all beings.
- A’Court, B. (2016). ‘A communion of subjects.’ Holistic eco art therapy: Integrating embodiment and environment in art therapy. In A. Kopytin & M. Rugh. (Eds.), Green studio: Nature and the arts in therapy (pp. 47-76). –Happauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
- Adey, P. (2006). Airports and air-mindedness: Spacing, timing and using Liverpool airport 1929–39. Social and Cultural Geography, 7: 343–363.
- Adey, P. (2015). Accounting for the elemental. Dialogues in human Geography, 5(1): 37-45.
- Bernstein, J. (2005). Living in the borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. – New York and London: Routledge.
- Breytenbach, A. with Foster, C. & Thiyagarajan, S. (2012). The Animal Communicator. Video www.animalspirit.org
- Case, C. (2005). Imagining animals: Art, psychotherapy and primitive states of mind. – London & New York: Routledge.
- Douglas, M. (1984, 2002). Purity and danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. – London & New York: Routledge.
- Engelmann, S. (2015). More than human affinitive listening. Dialogues in Human Geography, 5(1): 26-35.
- Japyassu, H. & Laland, K.N. (2017). Extended spider cognition. Animal Cognition, 20(3): 375–395.
- McNiff, S. (2023). ICAET Online presentation.
- National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine (NICABM). Online course forum Oct. 2023. www.nicabm.com
- Oliver, M. (2009). Evidence poems. – Boston, MA: Beacon press.
- Rust, M.-J. (2020). Towards an ecopsychotherapy. – Confer Books.
- Thorn, K. (2023). Unpublished Personal communication, NICABM online forum.
- Wilder, S. Unpublished performance poem. Personal Communication, 2023.
Reference for citations
A’Court, B. (2024). Squawk. Contemplations on animal presence in art therapy. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 5(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)