Skip to main content

Gulf & Main Magazine

All in the Family? Not necessarily!

May 07, 2021 03:03PM ● By DR. RANDALL NIEHOFF

Consider soulmates to also be in the form of friends and animals, the wind, the tides, the plants, pieces of art, and the moon.  —Victoria Erickson (author and poet)


The word family is derived from the Latin familia (household), which in turn comes from the Sanskrit dhaman (dwelling place). Before we humans could write, we pictured family as the social circle to which we belonged, with whom and where we shared the experiences of daily life. Archaeologist Curtis Marean of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University notes that the momentous shift from wandering hunter-gatherers to organized societies began about 100,000 years ago along the coast in southern Africa, where shellfish and marine creatures provided a “dense and predictable” food resource.

Settling down led to our species’ most unusual quality—cooperation. Marean writes: “The high levels of cooperation with non-kin that modern humans express is completely unique in the animal kingdom.” 

So, if choosing to practice empathy and model altruistic teamwork made Homo sapiens the dominant species on earth, how might we learn to manage familial living here on our own home coast? Our dwelling place is a unique environment with a subtropical climate that supports a colorful array of native flora and fauna. About 12,000 years ago the Southwest Florida habitat began attracting human visitors who decided to settle down and live here year-round (hence earning the title natives). The Calusa were the first to establish their households along the shoreline. Spanish explorers arrived six centuries ago. They, and all that have raised families here ever since, brought with them non-natives—plants and animals not historically found in the area but who have made themselves quite at home. Some were introduced on purpose, and some got here by accident.

Now, our Gulf Coast family of plants, animals and people is like any household when it comes to getting along together: When a neighbor behaves in a way that disrupts the neighborhood, destroys habitat or threatens any member of the social circle, we need to recognize it as a “home invasion” and take action to protect the family. We refer to these dangerous plants and animals as invasive species.

With regard to plants, such unwelcome characters are Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, and melaleuca. As for the animals, there are currently more than 500 non-native species in our state, of which some 450 came via the live-animal trade and escaped (meaning that they are reproducing in the wild). Among those not welcome in our dwelling place are the Burmese python, Nile monitor lizard, iguana and lionfish.

Handling unruly people who can be toxic to the family requires muscular thinking and delicate actions. I recall a delightfully strong-willed female friend who when filling out a medical form blurted out: “Instead of single as a marital status I prefer independently owned and operated!”

Certainly as individuals we have rights, but as family members we operate interdependently. We have rules and regulations, which run the gamut from the mundane (speed limits, restricted parking) to the necessary (sewage disposal, recycling ordinances) to the practical (minimum age for driving or purchasing alcohol) to the profound (licensing requirements for physicians, teachers, pilots, electricians, plumbers)—not to mention laws against theft, assault, and murder. When rules are broken, the offender must be held accountable: a fine paid, a license lost, a “time out” in one’s room, a jail sentence. 

Attorney Brian Stevenson, a leading advocate for justice reform and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, wisely asserts: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

The ethic at the center of each of the eight major religions and the classic philosophies of both East and West have basically the same belief: Treat/care for/love your neighbor as you would want to be treated/cared for/loved in return. As the experience of functioning families throughout history tells us: The vulnerable will be protected, and the rehabilitated welcomed back home.

That’s sweet!


Ran Niehoff has managed a household on the Gulf Coast since 1991.