Book Review: Phoenix Zones by Hope Ferdowsian

Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives by Hope Ferdowsian, MD, is among the many compassionate, powerful, inspiring books the world needs now. This slender book about trauma and healing portrays the lives of human and nonhuman animals from myriad parts of the world, examining the ways in which suffering—and healing—is universal across  borders and across species. Most important, Ferdowsian turns tangible evidence, through both studies and stories, into ideas for how we can create and embrace opportunities for change.

Published in 2018, Phoenix Zones feels more relevant than ever, addressing issues that include pandemics and social justice; it is also highly accessible, its ideas portrayed with empathy and compassion through studies but primarily through recovery stories of human and nonhuman animals, drawn from the author’s own experiences as a human rights physician and at animal sanctuaries.  

In telling the story of an abused girl named Mary Ellen more than a century ago, the book’s introduction reminds us of the role of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in helping to create protections against child abuse (while protections for animals were still new in the 1870s, there were few, if any, such laws protecting children). When the ASPCA’s founder, Henry Bergh, advocated for Mary Ellen in court, he said, “The child is an animal … It shall not be abused.” 

And yet, as Ferdowsian writes, “Today, some hesitate to even acknowledge that we as human beings belong to the animal kingdom, or to consider what our inclusion in the animal kingdom implies about our shared vulnerability with other animals.” It is not until we reject violence against all beings, she argues, that we can move forward. 

In her work with refugees and trauma victims, Ferdowsian has witnessed firsthand what is known in medicine as the “Phoenix Effect”: that humans and nonhumans can thrive after severe trauma. The book’s title refers to the places in which humans and animals find what they need to recover, “the literal and figurative sanctuaries … where the injured heal and mend.” 

The principles associated with these Phoenix Zones—liberty, sovereignty, love and tolerance, justice, hope and opportunity, and dignity—are revealed through stories of humans and nonhumans who have escaped captivity and abuse, and have recovered after finding sanctuary and agency.

In six chapters devoted to these principles, Ferdowsian highlights human and nonhuman stories side-by-side, reinforcing the notion that we are not separate. Rescued wolves and war veterans heal together through the Warriors and Wolves project in Southern California, where wolves—“endangered by aerial hunts, human encroachment, and hunters’ steel traps”—live in sanctuary and are cared for by veterans who find “a chance to rebuild trust, form important bonds with the wolves and other veterans, and become part of something greater than themselves … They have transformed physically and mentally, in part through commiserating with wolves who have also suffered bodily and emotional injuries.” The veterans “find deep meaning in the unconditional love and acceptance offered by the wolves, and that they can offer the wolves in return … as [the wolves] slowly recover from surgeries to remove chains embedded in their necks, limps associated with being chained and confined, and their psychological wounds.” 

In Congo, “where one woman is raped almost every minute [and] where almost one-third of men told one study’s investigators women want to be raped and may even enjoy it,” Ferdowsian shows how women, girls, and gorillas find hope and opportunity. Climate change and the loss of the natural world is devastating here for both human females and nonhuman animals, with gorillas losing their territories to war and poaching, and women struggling to care for their families with ever-scarcer resources. The lack of freedom and sovereignty isn’t limited to one species, and Ferdowsian invites us to “imagine a world that allows for the full self-determined potential of every being. Consider what we might learn from each other—as women and men, boys and girls, nonhuman and human animals—and how we could grow together.”

For readers who may feel distanced from tales of war or distant continents, Ferdowsian points out that places like Congo are not necessarily the most dangerous—it is the United States, where “spread across almost every state, large windowless warehouses have become the deadliest conflict zones for animals.”

More than 60 billion animals are killed each year for food, about 10 billion in the U.S. Ferdowsian tells the story of Julia, a pig in a factory farm who was brutally abused before she was rescued by Farm Sanctuary, by then “exhausted and terrified. Burns and lacerations covered her head, back, and ears. Bruises covered her belly. She slowly slipped into shock.” She is one of the lucky ones, out of billions, to have been rescued and given the chance to recover and live freely. In this chapter on the systematic (and legal) abuse of farmed animals, Ferdowsian points to history, citing studies and examples that show how the maltreatment of animals has coincided with human atrocities as well. In the past hundred years, “animals’ lives and deaths have become more mechanized, removed from human view and emotion. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, human beings have also faced two world wars, the rise of genocide, and escalations in the use of rape as a weapon of war … Nowhere is this link more visibly apparent than in industrial farms and slaughterhouses.” 

When it comes to abuse of animals for food, important connections are noted: “in the past three decades, world meat production has increased more than ten times the population growth rate—resulting in billions of animals being deprived of their dignity and sovereignty. Over time, the shift from plant-based to meat-based diets has contributed to rising human disease rates in both wealthy and developing nations. Consequently, adults and children suffer from debilitating diseases like obesity, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.” In addition: “More than half of the infectious diseases found in humans are spread from animals.” 

And yet, instead of changing how we treat animals, the public health response does the opposite, focusing on vaccines and killing animals instead of tackling the cause, i.e., not using and abusing animals in the first place. Ferdowsian quotes South African philosopher David Benatar on the avian flu pandemic in 2007: “Indeed, the curative and many of the preventative measures on which humans focus are ones that often involve further suffering and death for animals.” 

Ferdowsian writes, “Consider for a moment if we instead addressed the truest links between health and violence across species. What if we infused the principles found in the Phoenix Zones in all of our individual and collective choices—from business decisions to choices at the supermarket?” 

With empathy and humane education, change is possible—and the heartbreaking yet inspiring stories in this book attest to that. “We have the power to affect other people and animals,” Ferdowsian writes, “including those we will never meet, in countless ways. For example, decisions about what, or who, we do and don’t put on our plates matter. The lived histories of all our purchases—the people and animals required to create them—are real. Our choices online, or at the market, are meaningful to them.”

Language, too, matters—referring to animals as he, she, and they rather than it—and Ferdowsian implores us not to be intimidated by the enormity of all that needs to change. 

As is evident across the world, “as long as our institutions are built on oppression and exploitation, we will not find the freedom or justice we seek.” Yet, as the principles of the phoenix zones illustrate:

“Wrongs can crumble—when freedom breaks through prisons; sovereignty halts trespasses;, love trumps hate; justice overpowers inequity; hope surfaces from despair; and dignity transcends degradation.  Each one of us can make a difference in the life of one and the lives of many.”

— Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives 


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