The writer and ecologist Carl Safina has been looking at animals his whole life. I am not talking about sheep – but dolphins and whales, elephants and wolves, crows and razorbills. His beautiful book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, contains a wealth of observations of animal life that lend a whole new depth to the question, Why look at animals?
When your dog rolls over for you to rub her belly, or wags her tail and beams at you – is it fair to say that she is happy, or would you be assuming too much? Is it possible that humans are so different from dogs, or cats or lambs or elephants, that we are the only ones who experience happiness, or that other creatures cannot express it in similar ways? Science has collected evidence abundant to demonstrate that animals are individuals – as humans are – that they use tools, that they are aware of the minds of others, that they can use deception and cleverness to out-smart others; that whales, dolphins, wolves and elephants grieve and mourn their dead, help and care for others in distress; they play, laugh, joke, and cry (elephants even produce tears). We are not anthropomorphizing when we apply these words to animals; these emotions and abilities do not belong exclusively to us. “Certainly projecting feelings onto other animals can lead to us misunderstanding their motivations. But denying that they have any motivations guarantees that we’ll misunderstand … Not assuming they have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science.”
Jane Goodall was famously scorned for her work with chimpanzees when she enrolled as a doctoral student. She shouldn’t have given the chimps names, her esteemed professors told her, and she shouldn’t have talked about their feelings or personalities. But this insistence on human uniqueness and difference contradicts what we know about biology and evolution – not to mention what is evident to just about anyone who has ever had a dog. Biology tells us that each newer thing in nature is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess comes from somewhere – frogs and chickens have femurs, the precursors to our jointed leg. That is to say, that most of what we possess as a species is shared. “Species differ,” Safina writes, “but they are not really very different.”
“We never seem to doubt that an animal acting hungry feels hungry. What reason is there to disbelieve that an elephant who seems happy is happy? We recognize hunger and thirst while animals are eating and drinking, exhaustion when they tire, but deny them joy and happiness as they’re playing with their children and families. The science of animal behavior has long operated with that bias – and that’s unscientific. In science, the simplest interpretation of evidence is often the best. When elephants seem joyous in joyful contexts, joy is the simplest interpretation of the evidence. Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions –and that’s evidence, too.”
I doubt that there is a reader out there who would question Safina’s reasoning – but in the hallowed halls of animal science, to make these kinds of statements is to commit professional suicide.
Ironically, we began to learn about the social and emotional lives of whales from watching them in captivity. It did not take long for their captors to realize that these creatures were not like sheep or cattle. Babies taken from mother killer whales provoked displays of grief that could break anyone’s heart. “One mother,” describes researcher Alexander Morton, “stayed in the corner of the pool, literally shaking and screaming, screeching, crying.” Another watched as her calf was lifted by crane from the pool and “as her baby’s voice left the water and entered the air, the mother threw her enormous body against the tank walls, again and again, causing the entire stadium to shake.” Another mother who lost her baby was inconsolable, and for hours would face the gift shop, staring at the toy baby orcas.
Anyone who thinks that animals have no consciousness, no language, no ability to plan ahead, no self awareness or consciousness of death, or that they do not have “theory of mind,” meaning that they cannot know that “others have thoughts different than their own,” would be astonished by the observations recorded by researchers who have logged countless hours patiently watching them. All animals, it turns out, are individuals –even the squishy octopi are different, one from the other, just like we are – where one octopus will screw open a jar to retrieve its contents, and then rescrew it, another will show no interest whatsoever in the jar. A razorbill knows every other razorbill by name– out of thousands in a colony –and can find his mate among them, without fail. Groupers are clever, who solicit the cooperation of eels at capturing their prey. Jays plan consciously, storing food and eating the perishable food first. Elephants mourn and remember their dead. Killer whales – orcas – live in social units with their distinct dialects and avoid mixing with other units for cultural reasons. There is no parallel for this, that we know of, outside of humans. Above all, the species that is most like us is not a primate – but the wolf, who lives in family packs, in socially complex groups, who is as loyal as she is brutal. Wolves will banish one another, defend their loved ones to the death, and lead suffering, tragic lives. Males care for their spouses and offspring for life, and bring food home to their families – only humans do this, and no other species is at war with itself, wolf against wolf, the way we are. “Wolves and humans understand each other,” Safina writes. “That’s one reason we invited wolves, instead of chimpanzees, into our lives.” Wolves, dogs, us. “We were made for one another.”
The stories of whales and dolphins are the most extraordinary. Dolphins escorting lost boats through the fog. Accounts of dolphins lifting drowning bodies to the surface are legion – although humans have not reciprocated their kindness, dolphins and whales have shown an extraordinary gentleness and care towards our species. A group of bottlenose dolphins forms a protective ring around a surfer who’s been bitten by a shark. The attendant dolphins who cared for the boy Elian Gonzalez, adrift at sea, nudging him back onto his tube to keep him afloat. The dolphins who suddenly abandon the sardines they are feasting upon to swim six miles to where a woman lies floating, face up, unconscious but alive. In another account, a group of dolphins suddenly acts strangely, abandoning their sportive diving around a boat’s bow to swim in a column along the portside, keeping a solemn distance. It turned out, someone had died in his bunk on board; only after the body had been removed did the dolphins behave normally again, diving and frolicking around the bow. These researchers had watched dolphins for twenty-five years and never saw them behave this way.
These accounts are too many, too detailed, and too consistent to dismiss as mere anecdotes – many of them recorded by hard-nosed scientists with recorders and notepads in hand. Things like dolphin telepathy – what sounds to a rationalist like woo-woo – has compelled a scientist like Safina to reconsider. Whales and dolphins and elephants caring for lost and injured human beings? What on earth is going on here?
On beaches where killer whales hurl themselves onto the sand to drag away thousand pound sea lions, whereupon they will beat them and tear their bodies to shreds – the same whales will, docile as puppies, form a ring around a park ranger who has slipped into the surf in his kayak. Giant predators who will crush and kill any other mammal in the water, have never killed or hurt a human being, not even accidentally. How is it, Safina asks, that they have never – not once– even tipped over a human being in a kayak? Or accidentally smacked one of us with a tail or fin? Whales will seek out our kind, hanging around boats, putting on a show for whale watchers, seeking us out as playmates and companions; they have escorted lost researchers home, guarded humans from sharks and mourned our dead. Something very mysterious is going on here. Is it possible that whales and dolphins detect a kinship with us, that they do not feel they have with flounder or seals – and that it has something to do with our minds, our consciousness, or dare I use the word, our souls?
Elephants, too, have been known to defend and protect us – showing an empathy and kindness that we surely do not deserve. One elephant carried an injured woman to a safe place, covered her in branches for warmth, and sat with her through the night to defend her from hyenas until help arrived. We have heard the stories of elephants carrying people to higher ground during the Boxing Day tsunami. Elephants will stop dead in their tracks to avoid hurting a human in their path – treatment they would not give to a hyena or a warthog. What is it that elephants see in us that they give us this special treatment? Especially us – who are the only species to massacre their entire families, destroy their forests, and cause them to live their lives in terror and trauma?
Not all animals mourn their dead, or experience the profound and inconsolable grief that whales and elephants do. I have seen our sheep step over their dead lambs as if they were nothing to them. And when we take their lambs away, when they are a year old, the ewes that gave birth to them and cared for them so tenderly in their first months do not even notice they are gone. They graze and chew their cud and lounge about as if nothing whatsoever were amiss. I can say this with as much confidence as I can say that they are happy when they show happiness, or that they are bored and pissed when they are pestering Art to move them to new pasture. This may be what Joel Salatin means (of Polyface Farm) when he says that he has no problem with killing and eating animals because “they have no souls.” By this measure, livestock are different than elephants or whales, who are the very embodiment of soul. If our sheep wailed and screamed and shook when their lambs were taken, it would surely not happen on our watch.
But to say that they do not miss their lambs is not to say that they are machines, or that they do not suffer, nor is it to deny that each of them is a who, not an it. (Every time I type a “who” to refer to an animal, grammar-check advises me to change it to a “that”.) It is our responsibility as their guardians to provide them a good life, and that means, to allow them to live a sheep’s life– to borrow from Salatin again – that is, a life in which they are allowed to express their sheepness. That is their ewetopia.
We are all too familiar with images of nature tooth and claw. But what of nature heart and soul? What about the myriad displays of intelligence, joyfulness, empathy, caring, kindness, loyalty, even soulfulness, that is there for us to see in the animal world if we would only bother to look? How is it that, having lived with animals since time immemorial, we have missed all of this wonder and astonishment? Our science-based understanding of animals is coming around to what the aboriginals always knew, who certainly never doubted that animals had “theory of mind.” To accept that all animals have inner lives that are a mystery to us– sheep and cattle, too –is to admit the sacred into our daily lives. The world, it turns out, is a much more interesting and mysterious place than the one mapped out by Descartes and his descendants– alive with consciousness and empathy, language and music, and webs of communication across the species barrier that we have barely glimpsed. We need not be so lonely as a species. Surely we could not be as cruel – if only we would pay attention to what is hidden in plain sight.