If I Could Talk to the Animals

Two new books make the case for what animals feel—and what we lose when we discount their emotions.

Animal cognition.

Illustration by Ed Luce

Is an animal a who or a what? Anyone who owns a dog or cat will tell you their pet has a mind of his own. Many of us have looked into the eyes of a great ape at a zoo and wondered who is really watching whom. Perhaps, observing the wildlife in our backyards, we’ve thought about how birds plan for the future by storing seeds or admired the tenacity and cleverness of a squirrel defying the latest “squirrel-proof” bird feeder.

But many scientists are still trained to think of animal minds as unknowable—that is, whether animals have minds at all. The influence of behaviorism (the theory that emphasized observable behavior over thoughts and feelings) made speculation about the inner lives of animals off limits to science until fairly recently. This dogma is slowly changing, thanks to advances in neuroscience and detailed field observations of animals living their lives.

Two new books take a closer look at the thoughts and emotions of animals through a combination of anecdotal stories and the latest scientific research. Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel covers a range of animals that the author observes firsthand alongside the scientists who devote their lives to their study, while Susan Casey’s Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins focuses on the human-dolphin relationship.

“Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science,” Safina writes. “Insisting that they did not was bad science.” In the past, Safina argues, scientists have erred too much on the side of avoiding anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to animals. In Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Safina observes elephant families whose closeness helps them survive poaching and drought. In Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, he introduces readers to the legendary wolf “21,” leader of one of the park’s most successful packs since the animals were reintroduced in 1995. Among the scientists studying Yellowstone’s wolves, 21 was admired for his bravery and compassion, never losing a fight but also never killing his rivals. And in the Pacific Northwest, Safina meets a surprisingly peaceful and intelligent pod of orcas, in which both individual personalities and group dynamics are shaped by the leadership of wise grandmothers.

Safina’s engaging writing takes readers along on his journey, so that we learn about these creatures as he does. Between his field adventures, Safina veers off for discussions of other animals, including primates, tool-using birds, and domestic dogs. The result is a meandering, entertaining tour of the animal kingdom, with pit stops for both amusing anecdotes and the latest scientific studies of animal behavior.

He reviews the research showing that humans and other animals use the same brain regions to handle emotions, which in turn implies that we all experience the same basic feelings. Observations of wild animals support this idea; Safina describes how elephants, wolves, and orcas form family bonds and maintain long social relationships with one another, demonstrating grief, love, joy, jealousy, and anger.

Safina’s adventures with researchers observing wild animals in the field are fascinating but also underscore one of his major points: With all the evidence from comparative brain studies and detailed field observations, why are some people still unwilling to acknowledge that other animals think and feel in ways similar to humans? Part of the answer is that admitting animals have complex inner lives makes it more difficult to abuse and exploit them. Safina chronicles how humans have slaughtered elephants, wolves, and whales—and reminds us that in the process, rich and complex families are broken up.

Author Carl Safina.
Author Carl Safina.

Image by Michael J. Lutch

The entertaining and informative Beyond Words is an appeal to reevaluate how we as humans interact with animals, especially those that seem to demonstrate self-awareness and empathy. Safina persuasively argues for the “who-ness” of the animals he meets.

One animal that many people will agree is a who and not a what is the dolphin. While swimming off the coast of Maui, writer Susan Casey had a profound experience with a pod of spinner dolphins. The animals’ playfulness was transformative for Casey, helping her emerge from a two-year-long period of mourning over the death of her father. The experience inspired a global quest to explore these alienlike beings and their complex relationship with humanity.

Casey is interested in why dolphins have inspired such strong emotions in humans for millennia. Dolphins have mythological and cultural significance in many societies, and have been the object of scientific study for decades. Casey says humans feel a kinship with dolphins because the animals are playful, social, and intelligent. Recent scientific research has shown that dolphins are able to recognize their mirror reflections, count, grieve for loved ones, form cliques, throw tantrums, rescue one another, and call themselves by name. We are only beginning to understand their giant brains, which rival ours in complexity, sophisticated navigation, and communication abilities.

In addition to covering serious scientific dolphin research—from the career of dolphin study pioneer John Lilly to current expert on cetacean brains Lori Marino—Casey goes out there. Casey reports with an open mind—perhaps too open for my taste, sometimes. While I rolled my eyes at the New Age belief that dolphins are a superior, extraterrestrial species, or the Hawaii community of “Dolphinville” where adherents swim with dolphins to receive telepathic messages of love, these kinds of stories are a reminder of the unique and complicated bond humans feel with these animals.

Author Susan Casey.
Author Susan Casey.

Photo by Rennio Maifredi

Casey also covers the dark side of humanity’s relationship with dolphins. This takes her to the Solomon Islands, where, in 2013, villagers killed nearly 1,000 dolphins in one day. She also travels to Taiji, Japan, the town made famous by the documentary The Cove, which chronicled the brutal slaughter and sale of dolphins. Casey isn’t afraid to link the global, multibillion-dollar captive dolphin industry to the atrocities in these places and to call her readers to action.

The journey ends on the Greek island of Crete, where Casey views ancient frescos and mosaics, some thousands of years old, depicting the significance of dolphins in Minoan civilization. She uses this example of a society that appreciated and lived in harmony with dolphins to show what humans today could learn about coexistence with these beings. After the harrowing sections on dolphin hunts, Casey’s moving writing left me with some hope for a better future for dolphins and humans.

In making the case for animals possessing thoughts and feelings like our own, these books implicitly and explicitly argue for treating our fellow animals with more compassion and respect. Only a few decades ago, books like these would not have been possible. Animal minds were considered by many scientists to be unknowable “black boxes.” Recent trends in brain studies and field research have made understanding animal minds a possibility. These two books demonstrate how interested we as humans are in the minds of other animals and just how much we still don’t know about other animals’ subjective experiences. But Safina and Casey both persuasively argue that the question isn’t “What are animals?”; it’s “Who are they?”

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. Henry Holt.

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins by Susan Casey. Doubleday.

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