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The Secret Life of Everything

Carl Safina
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
(Henry Holt and Co., 2015)

I recently saw Carl Safina, the scientist and marine conservationist, speak alongside Isabella Rossellini at 192 Books in Manhattan. Rossellini was interviewing Safina about his new book, Beyond Words, which considers in depth and with great seriousness the question of what animals think and feel. Before the interview, Rossellini read an excerpt in her rich and gently halting Italian accent. In that passage, we meet Cinderella, a young wolf in Yellowstone National Park who suffered great abuse at the hands of her tyrannical sister, Forty, the leader of their pack. Cinderella always took the abuse; she never fought back, even though her sister may have killed her pups. One year, the two sisters gave birth simultaneously, in dens a few miles apart. When the pack reconvened, Forty viciously attacked Cinderella. “When a fight breaks out between two wolves,” writes Safina, “others quickly join and take sides.” This time, all the wolves came forward in support of Cinderella. Forty was badly hurt, and later died. It was the only recorded instance in which a pack has killed its own alpha. In short, the pack punished Forty for her cruelty, and rescued Cinderella. Even more incredible, Cinderella then adopted and raised all of Forty’s pups, and went on to become a benevolent matriarch herself.

I’m predisposed to think highly of animals, but when I heard this story, I was astonished. Tyranny, strategy, revenge, mercy—a tale worthy of Shakespeare that suggested such depth and sophistication in the social lives of wolves. Female wolves are alphas? I wanted to know more. I wrote to my editor requesting to review the book and she agreed, with the hope that Safina would “transcend typical anthropomorphizing.”

For decades, anthropomorphism has been zoology’s dirty word. As Safina writes about his own training as a zoologist, “Wondering what feelings or thoughts might motivate behavioral acts was totally taboo. Radio blackout. You could say, ‘The elephant positioned herself between her calf and the hyena.’ But if you said, ‘The mother positioned herself to protect her baby from the hyena,’ that was out of bounds; it was anthropomorphic.” In other words, scientists had established a human monopoly on certain thoughts and feelings. Later, Safina writes, “But what is a human emotion? When someone says that you can’t attribute human sensations to animals, they forget that human sensations are animal sensations.” 

Even the most beloved of animal scientists, Jane Goodall, was chastised again and again for observing her subjects as individuals. In 1995 she wrote:

When, in the early 1960s, I brazenly used the words “childhood,” “adolescence,” “excitement,” “motivation,” and “mood,” I was much criticized. Even worse was my crime of suggesting that chimpanzees have “personalities.” I was ascribing human characteristics to non-human animals and was thus guilty of that worst of ethological sins—anthropomorphism.

Once, Safina sat with another scientist, observing elephants in the African bush. As they watched several adult elephants gently herd their babies out of the heat and into the shade of a palm, the scientist opined that they “might simply be moving to and away from heat gradients, without experiencing anything at all.” He went on, “I have no way of knowing whether that elephant is more conscious than this bush.”

In large part, Safina’s book is an attack on that attitude, a sort of j’accuse! to those who would presume to circumscribe the depth and breadth of animal intelligence. We tend to accept animals’ limitations as self-evident, but really, the only thing self-evident is how very little we know about them. Thus, Beyond Words names the poison but also provides its antidote, offering a wealth of anecdotal and scientific evidence for sophisticated and subtle animal cognition.

The book is divided into three major sections, which follow, respectively, the elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli Reserve, the wolves in Yellowstone National Park, and the killer whales in Puget Sound. Safina doesn’t limit himself to these species, but uses them as a jumping-off point to discuss the fascinating abilities of a wide range of animals, including his two dogs, Jude and Chula, as well as the wild raccoon and squirrel he raised by hand. Astonishing stories abound. Indeed, there seems to be no end to them: the bonobo monkey who captures a starling, then climbs to the top of her tree and releases him into the sky; the captive baby dolphin who sees her trainer smoking and blows out a stream of her mother’s milk in imitation; the orangutan who hides the wire he uses to escape from his zoo pen; the killer whale who rescues a stranded dog; the elephants who recognize the bones of their dead comrades; the wolf who wins every fight but never kills an opponent. “Do elephants really grieve?” asks Safina. “Can a wolf be magnanimous?” And again and again comes the answer, startling in its force and clarity: “Yes.”

Few readers will know that elephants use a huge range of vocal rumbles to communicate distinct thoughts, or that killer whales stay with their mothers until death, or that dolphins introduce themselves with a unique signature whistle. These insights are surprising in themselves, but the real revelations in Beyond Words are novelistic, emerging only as you follow character development and plot. Safina is a master storyteller. He understands, as evidenced by the Cecil outcry, that no tool is more powerful than the story of an individual. If at times his constant stream of impressive anecdotes grows a little wearying, it’s precisely because he wants to wear us down—to stop heralding moments of animal aptitude as extraordinary and start accepting them as commonplace. “Partway into considering examples of dolphin cognition, I realized that dolphins are as cognizant as anyone,” he writes. “There are so many examples of them acting aware and clever that one might as well try to compile examples of humans acting aware and clever.”

Of course, Beyond Words is not just descriptive; it’s a work of polemic and advocacy. Safina belongs to a cabal of writers, including Michael Pollan, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Paul Greenberg, who are able to assess complicated physical realities and not only explain them to the general public, but distill them into powerful moral treatises as well. It doesn’t hurt Safina’s case (nor, of course, the case of the animals) that he is a beautiful, evocative writer. His opening line shimmers: “Finally I saw that the very land itself had risen, that the sunbaked land had taken form as something vast and alive and was in motion.” Later, in a lovely passage about the appreciation of beauty, he writes:

As brains elaborated from a bee’s pleasure in a field of flowers to a bird’s delight in dance, and to our own—have our brains retained aesthetic roots that arose in insects? If so, the insects’ gift to us cannot possibly be repaid, except perhaps as reverence for the little elders at our feet and flitting amongst the flowers of our gardens. Regardless of who gets our thanks for the honor, there is no more wondrous fact than that we are kin, bee and bird of paradise and great elephant—stardust all.

Recently, driving along the coast of Northern California, I stopped with friends to admire cows as they grazed in golden fields flanking the deep turquoise ocean. I asked my friends if they thought perhaps the cows could, on some level, appreciate that beauty too, and bask in it. They indulged me for a moment but answered, no, they didn’t think so—cows just don’t have that awareness of their surroundings. Their certainty surprised me. I know nothing about how a cow thinks, about what makes her tick or what she feels when she looks at the ocean. My query had been as much a reflection on my own ignorance as a statement about the cow’s intelligence. Perhaps the cow sees nothing when she looks at the ocean. Perhaps she sees something profound. We may never know, but we can—and should—ask.  


Madeline Gressel

MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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