The Inner Lives of Animals

By William Crain
Carl Safina

“Beyond Words”

Carl Safina

Henry Holt, $32

Over the centuries, most scientists believed that nonhuman animals lacked thoughts and emotions. Scientists assumed that other species just automatically react to stimuli — unlike humans, who make plans and experience feelings such as sorrow and joy. A few pioneering thinkers, such as Charles Darwin in the 19th century and Jane Goodall in the 1960s, challenged this traditional view, but without much success. Indeed, researchers who wrote about animals’ thoughts or feelings were accused of anthropomorphism, falsely projecting human qualities onto other species. These investigators’ papers were usually rejected by scientific journals.

Finally, as the 20th century came to a close, animal researchers such as Donald Griffin and Marc Bekoff began to make a dent in the traditional attitude. Their writings created new awareness of the possibility that other animals think and feel. Carl Safina’s new book, “Beyond Words,” will expand this awareness.

Mr. Safina observes that a major reason for denying thought and emotion to other species is that they lack human language. “Because we cannot converse with other animals, animal behaviorists threw up their hands, saying we can’t know if they think or feel, and we should assume they cannot.” But other animals do communicate in their own languages. As Mr. Safina says, they use “scents, gestures, postures, hormones and pheromones, touch, glances, and sounds.” It isn’t easy for humans to decode their communications, but Mr. Safina shows that if we patiently study their exchanges and sensitively observe their behavior, we can begin to understand their mental and emotional lives.

“Beyond Words” covers a wide range of material. Mr. Safina focuses on three kinds of animals — elephants, wolves, and killer whales — but he also writes about numerous others. Mr. Safina tells us about his interviews with scientists who are studying animals in the wild, and he discusses several contemporary research topics, including tool-use in other species and comparisons between human and nonhuman physiology.

The book is beautifully written. Some passages are pure poetry. For example, this is how he describes elephants approaching from the distance:“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. The land walked as multitudes, their strides so utterly of the earth that they seemed the source of the very dust.”

Mr. Safina tells us about elephant memory and other cognitive abilities, such as forethought. For example, nursing mothers need to drink water daily, but before they venture into a marsh they nurse their babies longer than usual. The mothers know that it will be difficult for their babies to nurse in the water, so they make sure their babies are filled up beforehand.

But Mr. Safina gives more attention to elephant emotions, especially grief. When a family member or companion elephant dies, elephants suddenly go silent, and they frequently visit the deceased’s remains, gently touching the body with their trunks. When Eleanor, an elephant matriarch in Kenya, died, others tried to revive her, and they stayed with her body for as long as a week later. Some elephants have been observed covering the deceased with dirt and leaves. When a young elephant dies, the mother may slowly trail far behind the herd for several days. It seems clear that she is depressed. Mr. Safina believes these expressions of grief reflect how much elephants love one another.

Grief reactions are common because so many elephants are killed. As the author explains, the slaughter of elephants for their ivory has been going on for centuries. By the 1500s, Europeans had combined the ivory and slave trades. “Captured humans marched captured ivory to coastal ports, where both were shipped.” After slavery was abolished, elephants fell victim to poachers. Africa’s elephant population dropped from about 10 million in the early 1900s to 400,000 today. At present, “an elephant dies every l5 minutes.”

Elephant life still has its happy side. Like other young mammals, young elephants love to play. Mr. Safina quotes Cynthia Moss, a legendary elephant researcher, who described youngsters “racing about, beating through bushes and tall grass, heads up, ears out, eyes open wide glinting with mischief . . . letting forth wild, pulsating play trumpets.” They sometimes pretend they are chasing lions in the brush.

During mating seasons, mature elephants are in high spirits. Males walk with a swagger; females move in a wiggly, rolling, coy-looking manner. Sometimes mature elephants just act silly, as when they walk on their knees — just having fun. Elephants become happiest after it rains, or when they see babies playing or sleeping. Babies bring them great joy.

But the descriptions of the elephants’ happiness are bittersweet. The threat of hunters is always present.

When it comes to wolves, Mr. Safina says that before the Europeans arrived, there were probably a million in the territory that became our lower 48 states. By 1930, humans had wiped out 95 percent of them, primarily through hunting. Since the 1970s, government protections have enabled populations to recover somewhat, but in the last few years protections have been weakened.

Mr. Safina emphasizes the extent to which wolves care about members of their families, sharing food and going to great lengths to help them. For example, he describes how a young, sickly wolf, seeing his sister being attacked by three hostile wolves, jumped into the fray and managed to save her life.

Killer whales, sometimes called orcas, actually belong to the dolphin family. Mr. Safina explains that there are several types of killer whales and predicts that these types will eventually be classified as separate species. The general public has become familiar with killer whales by visits to marine theme parks, where the animals are held captive.

Compared to wolves, there is less information on the sizes of killer whale populations, but the numbers of several types are clearly dwindling. This is often because humans have overfished the salmon they need for food.

Like elephants and wolves, killer whales are extremely social animals that care for one another. Surprisingly, they also have been known to look out for humans. Mr. Safina tells of people who were out boating and became lost in thick fog. They feared they would drift out to sea. Then killer whales appeared and guided them home. When we hear about these animals’ altruism toward humans, their captivity in marine parks feels all the crueler.

When Mr. Safina turns his attention away from elephants, wolves, and killer whales, one topic he discusses is animals’ sense of beauty. I found this discussion particularly intriguing. He mentions how two chimpanzees separately climbed to the top of a hill, greeted each other, clasped hands, and watched the sunset. Humans, of course, enjoy sunsets as well. Humans also find beauty in the same visual patterns and scents that attract many insects. Mr. Safina points to a fascinating topic for further research.

Running throughout the book is a central question: Just how unique are humans? Mr. Safina recognizes that each species has its own special talents and capacities that have enabled it to adapt to its particular environment. But he believes that commonalities are more fundamental. Beneath all the diversity, we are all kin.

The book includes endnotes that direct the reader to the author’s sources. I think the endnotes could have been fuller. I realize, though, that a longer list might have made the book so large that it would discourage potential readers. Perhaps expanded endnotes could be placed on a website.

But this concern pales in comparison to the impressive quality of this book. It is well reasoned and highly informative. Above all, it is an eloquent call for greater respect for the animals that share the planet with us.


William Crain, who lives part time in Montauk, is president of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife and a co-founder of the Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, N.Y. His most recent book is “The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights From a Farm Sanctuary.”

Carl Safina’s books include “The View From Lazy Point.” The founder of the Safina Center on the environment at Stony Brook University, he lives in Amagansett.