From Apes to Elephants, Wolves to Whales, a Tour of Animals’ Minds and Emotions
By ANDREW C. REVKIN JULY 15, 2015 1:28 PM July 15, 2015 1:28 pm 16 Comments
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Carl Safina visited a nursery for orphaned elephants in Kenya while researching his book on animals' minds and feelings.Credit Julius Shivegha
Regular readers of Dot Earth will already know the work of Carl Safina, who for decades has meshed conservation science, campaigning and communication in a career devoted to building a durable relationship between human beings and the rest of Earth’s living things.
His focus, until now, has been on the ocean and winged, finned or flipperedspecies that depend on it. In his new book, “Beyond Words,” Safina divides his time between the marine and terrestrial worlds, examining animals’ intelligence and feelings both through the lens of science and simply through wonder-filled observation. Apes, lemurs, wolves and their domesticated kin, elephants, dolphins and killer whales are among the subjects in this captivating bestiary of animal behavior.
I particularly enjoyed a chapter titled “Woo-Woo,” a term meant to describe marvels of animal behavior that science has yet to explain. Safina, a longtime friend and fishing buddy, gave me permission to publish an excerpt here. I hope you enjoy it, and explore the book in full. Here’s the excerpt:
Killer whales along the Washington State coast.Credit Carl Safina
…The fact is, killer whales seem capable of random acts of kindness. Acts that defy explanation. Acts that make scientists consider some pretty far-out possibilities. It can seem that killer whale behavior falls into two categories: amazing behavior and inexplicable behavior.
Fog-guidance can seem like an exclusive service that killer whales feel inclined to provide—to people who work to protect them. Once, Alexandra Morton and an assistant were out in the open water of Queen Charlotte Strait in her inflatable boat when she was enveloped by fog so thick she felt like she was, “in a glass of milk.” No compass. No view of the sun. Flat calm; no wave pattern to inform a guess. A wrong guess about the direction home would have brought them out into open ocean. Worse, a giant cruise ship was moving closer in fog so reflective Morton could not tell where its sound was approaching from. She imagined it suddenly splitting the fog before it crushed them.
Then as if from nowhere, a smooth black fin popped up. Top Notch. Then Saddle. And then, Eve, the usually aloof matriarch. Sharky was suddenly peeking at her. Then Stripe. As they clumped close around her tiny boat, Alexandra folled in the fog like a blind person with a hand on their shoulder. “I never worried,” she recalled. “I trusted them with our lives.” Twenty minutes later they saw a materializing outline of their island’s massive cedars and rocky shoreline. The fog opened up. The whales left them. Earlier in the day the whales had been unusually difficult to follow, and had been traveling west toward open ocean. The whales had taken Morton south, home. When the whales left they changed direction toward where they’d just come from and where they had been headed.
Morton felt changed. “For more than twenty years, I have fought to keep the mythology of the orcas out of my work. When others would regale a group with stories of an orca’s sense of humor or music appreciation, I’d hold my tongue…. Yet there are times when I am confronted with profound evidence of something beyond our ability to scientifically quantify. Call them amazing coincidences if you like; for me they keep adding up… I can’t say that whales are telepathic—I can barely say the word—but… I have no explanation for that day’s events. I have only gratitude and a deep sense of mystery that continues to grow.”
~ ~ ~
We don’t have enough to really go on; the data aren’t enough to analyze. We have a few stories of free-living killer whales guiding people lost in fog; of the whales seemingly returning lost dogs, of free-living killer whales turning in circles as a person makes a circular motion with his finger, or returning a hat worn perfectly for the occasion, or seeing someone wave and waving back, of empathy—of sympathy. In Antarctica my friend Bob Pitman tossed a snowball near a killer whale and the whale immediately tossed back a piece of ice. These stories could be just coincidences. We don’t have the stories in which the whale ignored them and did not respond to their thoughts, their dogs, or their snowballs. I am a hard-hearted disbeliever of things unknown. As a scientist I am persuaded by evidence. And I tend to discount the less material explanations of puzzling phenomena.
More importantly, I don’t see that the whales—even if they are more intelligent than us (whatever intelligence means)—would be “sending us a message”—as one friend of mine believes with all her heart that they are trying to do.
Who wouldn’t like to believe that whales are trying to send us a message? That would make them special. But most important, it would make us very special. And how very special we are—is our favorite story. If humans have one overriding conceit and one universally shared delusion, it is that the world owes us for being so special.
Me, I am most skeptical of those things I’d most like to believe, precisely because I’d like to believe them. Wanting to believe something can bias one’s view of facts and events.
But the whales leave us with questions so puzzling they are disturbing. Why would these beings declare unilateral peace with humans and not with smaller dolphins and seals, whom they attack and eat? Why would they single us out to give assistance? And why no grudge? Why, after the chronic harassment, capture, and disruption we’ve visited upon them, no learned and handed-down fears of humans such as wolves and ravens and even some dolphins seem to teach their young? The dolphins of the vast Pacific tuna grounds have such fears. Tuna nets used to kill them by the thousands; they still flee in panic from a ship several miles away if it pivots toward them, or if its engine merely changes pitch. I have seen that myself, in person. The dolphins’ hard-learned fear of ships makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is: gigantic mega-brained predators patterned like pirate flags who eat everything from sea otters to whales and spend hours batting thousand-pound sea lions into the air specifically to beat them up before drowning and shredding them; who wash seals off ice and crush porpoises and slurp swimming deer and moose—indeed, seemingly any mammal they come across in the water; yet who have never so much as upended a single kayak and who appear—maybe—to bring lost dogs home.
Argentina is one of the places where killer whales sometimes burst through the surf to drag sea lions right off the beaches. You see the video and you think it would be insanity to stroll near the shoreline. Yet when park ranger Roberto Bubas stepped into the water and played his harmonica, the same individual killer whales would ring around him like puppies. They’d rally playfully around his kayak, and come as, by names he gave them, he called to them.
Through the squishy anecdotes runs a hard fact: free-living killer whales treat humans with a strange lack of violence. It’s especially strange when compared with the rate at which humans continue hurting and killing other humans. How to explain either fact? What can explain the whales’ striking forebearance? For the sea’s T. rex to stick its head up alongside a tiny boat uncountable times, and never hurt a human even in play; that begs an explanation. More crucially, it demands that we find a way to understand. What, in the world, is going on? Is it simply outside our cognition; are their reasons beyond our ability to comprehend? Perhaps one day—.
Click here for more on the book, including another excerpt. Here’s Safina explaining what he pursued:
ANIMAL WELFARE, BIOLOGY, BOOKS, MARINE M