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Book Review: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina


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I read (this is a conservative estimate) at least forty full-length books a year...probably closer to a book (or more) per week.


Whenever I'm not writing for clients, writing blog posts, riding my bike, hanging with my goats or cats, or doing the other required activities of daily living, I'm usually reading a book. (It's a wonderful life!)


I love reading. I love writers.


But there are a few writers whose books I love so much that I never want them to end. I've just finished reading one of them.


So if you're not hooked on reading to the degree I am, and if you read only one animal-related book this year, I highly recommend Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.


It's a massive book (I love that about it: the topic is so fascinating, it could have been twice its present length of 414 Kindle-size pages and I would have hung on every word) about elephants, wolves, killer whales, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, dogs...and more.


It's a scholarly read with lots of end notes for further study, but easy and engaging nonetheless. In fact, it's downright tear-jerking in some places, without being maudlin or anthropomorphic.


The author takes some time to explain that our brains are so similar to so many other animals' brains--and not just mammalian brains--that what animal researchers used to call "anthropomorphism" isn't really an accurate term, nor is it a deal-breaker when we think about animals and their behaviors and reactions/responses. Our brains and nervous systems and animals' brains and nervous systems developed and adapted to many of same challenges and requirements in order to continue as viable species, so love/sex, pair- and family-bonding,  fear- and pain-avoidance and all of the other success strategies register in much the same way in all sentient minds, from worms to ants to grasshoppers to great blue whales.


The book begins by quoting one of my all-time favorite nature lovers, Henry Beston:


"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. "



With the rapid advancement in animal behavior studies (in captivity and in the wilds) it is no longer scandalous for even scientists to believe--as it was in the not too distant past--that a great many animals and birds have as rich an internal life and as deep, abiding friendships with their families as we humans have with ours.


This book documents that contention in wonderful ways. It also challenges us to consider what we're doing to nature that is making it nearly impossible for our fellow creatures to continue to exist.


The chapters on elephants, killer whales and wolves are particularly poignant.  They leave me pondering, "What can I do to make sure these magnificent beings remain viable long after I'm gone?"


We  have to do something more, and soon , if we're going to save so many species of animals ... and ourselves, the only animal capable of making the changes needed that can save us all.


I know I need to get out there in Puget Sound real soon to see the killer whales that live here before they are gone.  They will be gone not long after I am, the way things are going... and that would be a catastrophic tragedy.


Don't believe me? Read the book and I promise you will! I am absolutely in love with elephants, killer whales, wolves and bonobos.  (And that's just the short list of the many animals I love with all my heart.)


If you love animals--and hey, you're at Kris and Kritters, so of course you do!!! -- you NEED to read this book!  You'll thank me and I'll thank you.  Then let's put our heads together and do something for these fine furred, feathered and finned folks!


Here's another book I read this week along the same lines. It's not as much fun to read (it's written in a more scholarly way, so unless you're familiar with a lot of research terms, it's harder to get through) but it's still very good: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Franz De Waal





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