The Healing Power of Art and Animals for Inmates: Moon Bear Has a Place

An essay by a former inmate shows how other animals can help people move on.

An essay by a former inmate shows how Dr. Marc Bekoff's class helps inmates move on
Dr. Jane Goodall visiting Dr. Marc Bekoff's class at the Boulder County Jail. Photo: Marc Bekoff.


On Wednesday I wrote about Dr. Marc Bekoff’s inspiring class at the Boulder County Jail, and his new website, Boulder Art for Animals, that shows the work of students in the class.

This guest post is by Kyle Warner, an accomplished writer, artist, and former student of the class.(1) 

My personal hero, teacher, and dear friend, Marc Bekoff, comes to the jail faithfully every Friday to facilitate just one of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots groups. We engage in a lot of profound, meaningful discussions and he helps us to really understand just why animals matter. He also helps us to take part in many causes and worldwide issues between nonhuman animals and humans. With Marc's help, we have had our voices heard within many discussions, court battles, online debates, and protests. Some of these include whether we should reintroduce wild wolves here in Colorado, how to stop the potential trophy hunting of grizzly bears in Wyoming, what to do about the mass killing of elephants, the injustice of rich people hunting majestic lions for sport, and other similar topics.(2)


One issue that stands out for me is the moon bear. Since learning about this beautiful crescent-stamped animal, I have felt drawn to them on a deep level. There is an industry in China where people keep them in small cages to harvest bile out of their gall bladders for Traditional Chinese Medicine. With the help of an organization called Animals Asia, these bears have hope. Animals Asia rescues these bears from coffin-like cages, attends to their medical and psychological needs, and provides them sanctuary in their very own paradise.

In 2017, I drew a few of these beautiful animals. In one was Jasper, who passed away not long after I took on this project. Also in that drawing was Oscar and BeaRtrice, whom Marc named after his parents. He was happy to share my art with Animals Asia and many throughout the world. Since then, I have had an opportunity to share my art with Jane Goodall, probably one of the most fulfilling moments of the last three years for me. Recently, in one of the other amazing groups I get to attend here at Boulder County Jail, I embarked on a brief vision quest during a guided meditation. The gentle, soft-spoken instructions began with an ascent.

Artwork from Marc Bekoff's class at the Boulder County Jail shows how animals can help people move on
Oscar, Jasper, and BeaRtrice. Source: Kyle Warner


Meeting my spirit animal


I imagined my conscious awareness being granted liberty from the limitations and confinement of my body I first hovered above myself before floating up to the ceiling, above the jail, higher and higher, hoping to come back with an animal name.

I was instructed to fly west toward the Rocky Mountains and to proceed past the foothills, deep into the jagged, snowcapped Rockies. I landed in a clearing, perhaps some sort of valley surrounded by mighty aspens on high mountains. It was an almost-familiar place, but nowhere I’ve been before. Everything was much bigger and the colors more vibrant. Most of the mountain peaks were hiding in the heavens, camouflaged by clouds.

I walked for a while, grateful for every stop I took. I found a cave. My group leader, who was guiding the meditation, instructed me to go into the cave. I really wanted to see what was in there or find out where it would lead me. The cave had to be a mile long. The light pouring in from its entrance was quenched by the darkness in minutes. The cool ceiling was dank and the floor slick. I could hear the faint sound of dripping water all around me.

The ceiling dropped lower with every step I took until I was ducking low. It wasn’t long before I was crawling. Eventually, it was so cramped I was using my knees and elbows to proceed. For me, this was a nightmare come true. I’m claustrophobic. A decade in a jail cell will do that if you’re not naturally predisposed to having an aversion to spaces tighter than coffins. No turning back now!

The healing power of animals. Jasper the bear, drawn by an inmate in Marc Bekoff's inspirational class at the Boulder County Jail
Jasper. Source: Michael S., a former student of Bekoff's at the Boulder County Jail


Finally, there was room for me to breathe. A few more yards and I was crawling. Soon the ceiling was high enough for me to walk. What a relief! Now I could see light in the distance and I knew I was approaching a way out. After exiting the cave, I quickly realized that I had just traveled through a portal. I’m not sure if it was a portal leading to somewhere on earth or some other dimension, but I knew I was no longer in the Rockies nor anywhere in or near Colorado.

I proceeded into a strange forest and decided to sit on a tree trunk. I was at a resting place where at least I was able to intentionally appreciate my experience, even the claustrophobia I had felt in the middle of the cave. The beauty around me was indescribable.

I heard rustling up ahead where there were many trees. I could see movement and be able to connect it with what I was hearing. Something was emerging. The first thing I saw clearly was the crescent. It was a moon bear and it was approaching. He came right up to me and we made eye contact.

After that moment, we consented to one another’s presence with empathy, compassion, and understanding, validating each other’s very existence. We accepted one another and connected at the level of consciousness and spirit.

I then realized that my physical self, far away and still in jail, was crying, releasing a whole world of grief, loneliness, abandonment, betrayal, fear, and suffering. This was a moment where I knew my experience would have been incomplete without purging the poison inside me.

A postcard from Jane Goodall to a student in Marc Bekoff's inspirational class with inmates at the Boulder County Jail
A postcard from Dr. Jane Goodall to Kyle Warner. Source: Kyle Warner.


I leaned into the feeling of deep sadness, grief, and attachment, but more than anything, I was saturated with gratitude. That’s when I knew it was time to say goodbye. I really didn’t want to leave and as I’m sure you can imagine, I was reluctant to return to jail. I was so free and for once I felt validated. I was glad to hear my brother who was guiding me say that even though I had to leave, my new friend would forever remain with me.

This is my spirit animal—the moon bear. I came to know that regardless of how some of these bears are treated in captivity, even they have a place in the world. I, too, have spent much of my life in captivity and confinement. I’ve done a lot of damage in this world, but deep within I’ve known all along I have a place and it is my calling to be part of something bigger than just me.

I have ventured far away for these affirmations and am returning with a new name: Moon Bear Has a Place.


(1)Posted with Mr. Warner's permission. I'm not the only person who was moved by Mr. Warner's essay. So too, were many other students and jail administrators. Another essay to which students in my class contributed is "Among Homeless People, Dogs Eat First and 'Absorb Empathy'."

(2)Here are some other essays that focus on Dr. Bekoff’s class at the jail.
Roots and Shoots: A unique program at Boulder County Jail has inmates learning from nature
Inmates, Animals, and Art: Creative Expressions of Hope
Nature Behind Bars: Animal Class Helps Prisoners Find Compassion
Inmates and Art: Connecting With Animals Helps Soften Them

This guest post was originally published on Dr. Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today blog with the title The Healing Power of Animals: Moon Bear Has a Place.

For more guest posts by Dr. Marc Bekoff, see "Bad dog?" The psychology and importance of using positive reinforcement. You might also like my interview with Marc Bekoff about his book, Canine Confidential.

About Dr. Marc Bekoff: Marc is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has won many awards for his scientific research including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. Marc has published more than 30 books and three encyclopedias, and writes regularly for Psychology Today on "all things dog" and various topics focusing on animal cognition, animal emotions, and compassionate conservation. His homepage is marcbekoff.com and, with Jane Goodall, ethologicalethics.org.

The healing power of Marc Bekoff's class at the Boulder County Jail. Photo of Marc Bekoff
Marc Bekoff with Minnie


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