What can our beloved old dogs or cats, the wolf on the prairie or the birds in our backyards teach us about ourselves? Do they think about their lives in ways similar to the ways we think about ours? What can we ever know about how they feel or think about their lives in their worlds?
As it turns out, according to Carl Safina in his elegant new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, these are not exactly the right questions to ask if we want to understand more fully the ways in which other animals around us experience and know the world. In his journey to Kenya to observe and live with elephants, Safina quickly realizes that other animals aren’t as good at being like us as they are at being who they are. So, in addition to the elephants of Amboseli in Kenya, Safina also sets out to observe wolves in Yellowstone and killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, watching carefully to determine how human pressures affect what these animals do, where they go and how they live.
In Kenya, for example, he sees elephants pulling spears and veterinarian’s darts out of another wounded elephant’s side as a show of empathy for their fellow creature’s suffering; he observes elephants grieving for up to two years, and he sees one elephant feeding another elephant who cannot use her trunk. These animals display caring, loyalty, bonding and cooperation, and these function as social values among the herd into which they are born, live and die. He observes similar patterns of behavior in wolves and killer whales and dogs.
Safina, who holds a doctorate in ecology, has written six previous books about the natural world and humanity’s impact on it. In Beyond Words, his focus is on the ways animals experience their lives so that we can understand why it’s important that these animals survive. We’re all one, but, according to Safina, the elephants and the killer whales are among the few animals who recognize that the world will be saved by compassion, not calculation.