Wildlife Rehabilitator Jaclyn DeSantis has secretly been part of my morning routine for weeks. Watching her daily dose of Animal Medicine became part of my soul nourishment. Before, I’d never seen the mighty eyes of a Hawk up this close. Or a group of beautiful white Owls sitting closely together staring back at me with bright golden eyes. Jaclyn offers a look into something that I and many others would otherwise not be part of. Clearly, I wanted to know more about her work and what she learned from wildlife about transitions and the cycles of life and death. So we sat down during one of the hottest days of the month to talk about the art of living, dying and being reborn. Welcome to Part II of The Transition Series.
Jaclyn, every time I watch your videos on social media, I feel like a curious child learning something mysterious, wild and new! It totally excites me to get so close to these mighty animals through glimpses of your work. What led you to be around predators on a daily basis?
Becoming a Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator really was a series of synchronistic events that happened in a strange way. I came to California from New York in 2003. Back then, I was a professional actress and I had a contract with Fox for a TV Show. It was a great and easy living. I was on a completely different path and I can say that I was a completely different person. I knew absolutely nothing about birds, wildlife, or nature and never really paid attention to nature growing up in the suburbs of New York.
Living in the city, I so know what you are talking about!
I didn’t go camping until I was 25! So, really no exposure to nature. What changed my life completely was a near-death experience in 2005. It was literally a re-birth that happened for me back then.
I remember I woke from that experience the next morning and there were birds outside my window. No exotic birds, just some sparrows, and listening to them, I started to weep. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard and it was like I was listening to birds for the first time in my life. I knew that moment that I had to change my life. I needed to start paying attention.
Going through a Near-Death experience must be a total game changer. How did you experience your re-birth at first?
It was a blessing and an awakening that led to a difficult divorce of my former life. I really was terrified. I knew that this had forever changed me and there was a part of me that I had lost. In retrospect I realize, it was a huge part of my ego that had been released. I had attached my whole identity to this story of my work as an actress. So it was a really a hard break up in a way.
What helped you through this?
I learned to practice Seva, to give service. I tried all kinds of things like the reading to kids program, I fed the homeless,… Also, one of my practices was to intentionally hike in nature. One day, out on a hike, I heard this really strong voice inside me that guided me to the top of a rock. Once I got up there, I saw this bird in the distance. I had no idea what it was but I somehow knew that it was gonna come to me. And it landed about 5 feet away and just stared at me. Today, I know it was a Red-tailed Hawk. We kind of stared into each other’s eyes and it felt like time stood still.
A couple of days later, my cat brought in an injured baby opossum and I really wanted to help this little animal. I looked for professionals and this woman came over who examined the opossum and wanted to take it away to rehabilitate it. I was in awe of her! I thought to myself: How beautiful it is to be able to help an animal and set it free again – what an amazing thing to know how to do that in this lifetime! Long story short: I asked her if I could become an apprentice and she got me connected to the center I now work for. Every weekend I drove from LA to Ojai and stayed at her house, learning everything I could.
Looking back, don’t you think it is so powerful to realize how life creates this momentum for us and one thing kickstarts the next. Still, while we are in that transition, it can be so freaking scary, painful and dark. What helped you to trust in divorcing the old and starting the new?
I was very lucky that that momentum happened so quickly and naturally to me. That story and identity of being an actress almost naturally disintegrated itself. I literally tanked every audition I went to. I cried asking myself why I couldn’t do this anymore, how to pay bills. What helped me through this pain was the acknowledgment that I really needed to learn how to meditate. It was not a maybe it was something I needed to do. I got into Vipassana and that practice offered a lot of calm and stability to me.
Facing death and realizing that our human body and everyone’s around us will die one day is a deeply humbling acknowledgment. Especially in our western society there’s so much fear and hushing around death. What’s your take on that?
Death is such an interesting topic. The fact that we don’t want to talk about it really doesn’t serve us. We know it’s gonna happen to all of us. It’s part of the contract. We are all going to die. Still, we are so obsessed with staying alive. There’s such a big obsession with youth, with anti-aging which is funny especially in the spiritual community because death is the biggest spiritual experience we have. Everything leads up to that point. It might be very unconscious but I think that the realization of our mortality is the driving force behind a lot of our major decisions in life. Especially the ones that are driven by our soul’s desire. And often times what our spirit is calling for is the more difficult choice.
And still, there is so much fear. How does one prepare for death?
The great Stephen Jenkinson often talks about the opportunities in life that allow us to prepare for that great finale: These are the losses we experience.
The more we contemplate about death in life, the more we appreciate life in a way that we are supposed to live. Working with nature and wildlife really has forced me to become comfortable with death. I am already a death worker. In Wildlife Rehabilitation it’s naturally a part of the work. By law, we are required to euthanize animals. Also, working with predators, I see that cycle of life before me every day. The more you observe nature, you start seeing this harmonious system. Humankind has in many ways learned to separate ourselves from nature. We now look at nature as this outside thing that is there for us to explore and exploit when we need it. But we live like somehow we are not part of this system. We thrive on separating ourselves from nature and this is really not serving us.
What did you learn from the cycles of life and coming back to our roots? What did it change for you?
Being present at the moment of death is probably the biggest thing that you can offer in your life: The manner in which you die. If you look at prey animals when they are being devoured by a predator, let’s say a gazelle that was hunted by a bunch of lions and it struggles to get away. There’s a fight. And then there’ll be a moment where the Gazelle succumbs to the situation. It’s not dead yet. It’s fully present and you’ll see that it has this calm, peaceful moment where it has admitted to the experience. I see this all the time and there’s something to that. This ability to be present and not fight it.
There’s a big element of death giving to life. If you look in the natural world, these cycles are happening all the time. Summer turning to Fall. Winter comes, everything dies. And still, we try to look at ourselves as this special exception to these rules. I think it is really dangerous because it robs of the opportunities that we have to prepare for death.
Maybe we work so hard to ignore the cycles around us because we fear there’s never enough time to finish what we came here to do?
I struggled most of my life with this idea we get planted at a really young age that we are here to find our one true calling. Even more: That there is only one true calling for each of us. Truly, I have never functioned that way. I always enjoyed doing many things. I find one thing and I immerse myself into it fully. Once I feel I got enough, I lose interest naturally and move on to something else. For the longest time, I really struggled with this because I thought, I’m never going to master something and become successful unless I fully commit to this one thing in life.
Such a masculine idea of mastering and controlling life, too.
This mindset really doesn’t allow life to flow in its natural way. I truly believe that if we listen to our soul’s calling we really live many lives within our life.
Someone recently pointed me toward Emilie Wapnick and she has coined the phrase Multipotentialite. I really like her work. We pinhole ourselves into these things and especially as we get to a certain age we feel like we can‘t reinvent ourselves. We fear it’s too painful to divorce ourselves from these false ideas and interpretations of who we thought we needed to be.
So interesting that birds guarded you through all of this. Spiritually speaking, birds hold this magical element of reminding us of a bigger picture, of the magic flying…
It really is funny. Out of all the animals, birds hold a special kind of significance. They literally dance between both worlds, the physical and the spiritual. Every single culture that has ever existed on our planet has placed birds in connection with a myth or creation story. There’s actually a term for it: Ornithomancy. It describes the practice of reading omens from looking at birds in the sky. I do think birds hold a special significance in the human psyche.
How do you plan to integrate all this knowledge you gathered since your re-birth? Do you plan to work with people in the future as well?
Yes! Going back to what I felt during my near-death experience is what I can best describe as my spirit leaving my body in the form of light and sound. It was almost like a grid of different colored light that was emanating different tones and together it created this beautiful symphony. To me, we each have an individual tone that we resonate with. A few months after my experience, I first got involved with sound healing which I really love. Recently, I was asked to bring my singing bowls to a patient in hospice care and to play for them on their deathbed. It was the most moving, profound experience I ever had working with sound. Working with sound for the dying is something that is calling me deeply. I’d love to offer that service to help families and patients alike. Truly, there is a lot to be learned in sitting with the dying.
Lastly, can you find three words that best describe your relationship with death?
Servant. Witness. Ambassador.