The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals

flannery_1-100815.jpg
Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York
Elephant herds crossing a lake bed in the sun, Amboseli, Kenya, 2008; photograph by Nick Brandt

The free-living dolphins of the Bahamas had come to know researcher Denise Herzing and her team very well. For decades, at the start of each four-month-long field season, the dolphins would give the returning humans a joyous reception: “a reunion of friends,” as Herzing described it. But one year the creatures behaved differently. They would not approach the research vessel, refusing even invitations to bow-ride. When the boat’s captain slipped into the water to size up the situation, the dolphins remained aloof. Meanwhile on board it was discovered that an expeditioner had died while napping in his bunk. As the vessel headed to port, Herzing said, “the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort” that paralleled the boat in an organized manner.

The remarkable incident raises questions that lie at the heart of Carl Safina’s astonishing new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Can dolphin sonar penetrate the steel hull of a boat—and pinpoint a stilled heart? Can dolphins empathize with human bereavement? Is dolphin society organized enough to permit the formation of a funeral cavalcade? If the answer to these questions is yes, then Beyond Words has profound implications for humans and our worldview.

Beyond Words is gloriously written. Consider this description of elephants:

Their great breaths, rushing in and out, resonant in the halls of their lungs. The skin as they moved, wrinkled with time and wear, batiked with the walk of ages, as if they lived within the creased maps of the lives they’d traveled.

Not since Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen were at the height of their powers has the world been treated to such sumptuous descriptions of nature.

Safina would be the first to agree that anecdotes such as Herzing’s lack the rigor of scientific experiments. He tells us that he is “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.” Beyond Words is a rigorously scientific work. Yet impeccably documented anecdotes such as Herzing’s have a place in it, because they are the only means we have of comprehending the reactions of intelligent creatures like dolphins to rare and unusual circumstances. The alternative—to capture dolphins or chimpanzees and subject them to an array of human-devised tests in artificial circumstances—often results in nonsense. Take, for example, the oft-cited research demonstrating that wolves cannot follow a human pointing at something, while dogs can. It turns out that the wolves tested were caged: when outside a cage, wolves readily follow human pointing, without any training.

Safina explains how an evolutionary understanding of the emotions helps us to see even humble creatures as individuals. The chemical oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure and a craving for sociality. So widespread is it that it must have originated 700 million or more years ago. Serotonin, a chemical associated with anxiety, is probably equally ancient: crayfish subjected to mild electrical shocks have elevated serotonin levels, and act anxiously. If treated with chlordiazepoxide (a common treatment for humans suffering from anxiety) they resume normal behavior.

The basic repertory of emotions evolved so long ago that even worms exhibit great behavioral sophistication. After a lifetime studying earthworms, Charles Darwin declared that they “deserve to be called intelligent,” for when evaluating materials for plugging their burrows, they “act in nearly the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.” Emotions are the foundation blocks of relationships and personalities. Driven by the same complex mix of emotion-inducing chemicals as ourselves, every worm, crayfish, and other invertebrate has its own unique response to its fellows and the world at large.

Worms and crayfish may have distinct personalities and emotional responses, but their brains are far simpler than ours. Humans fall within a small group of mammals with exceptionally large brains. All are highly social, and it is upon this group—and specifically the elephants, killer whales, bottlenosed dolphins, and wolves—that Safina concentrates. The last common ancestor of these creatures was a primitive, small-brained, nocturnal, shrew-sized mammal that lived around 100 million years ago. The brains, bodies, and societies of these “animal intelligentsia,” as we might call them, are each very different, making it hard to understand their lives.

Safina sees and describes the behaviors of the animals he’s interested in through the eyes of researchers who have dedicated their lives to the study of their subjects. What is it like to be an elephant? Cynthia Moss, who has lived with the elephants of Amboseli National Park in Kenya for four decades, sums them up as “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” It all sounds impressively human, but elephant societies are very different from our own. Female elephants and their young live separately from males, for example, so they have no conception of romantic love or marriage (though the females can be very interested in sex, enough to fake estrus in order to attract male attention).

Much published behavioral science, incidentally, is phrased in a neutral language that distances us from animals. Safina argues that we should use a common language of grief, joy, friendship, and empathy to describe the equivalent responses of both human and other animals. To this I would add the language of ceremony: What other word but “marriage” should be used to describe the ritual bonding, followed by lifelong commitment to their partners, of creatures like the albatross?

Sometimes it is the small things that best reveal shared life experience. When baby elephants are weaned they throw tantrums that rival those of the wildest two-year-old humans. One youngster became so upset with his mother that he screamed and trumpeted as he poked her with his tiny tusks. Finally, in frustration, he stuck his trunk into her anus, then turned around and kicked her. “You little horror!” thought Cynthia Moss as she watched the tantrum unfold.

Clans of female elephants, led by matriarchs, periodically associate in larger groups. As a result, elephants have excellent memories, and are able to recognize up to one thousand individuals. So strong is elephant empathy that they sometimes bury their dead, and will return repeatedly to the skeleton of a deceased matriarch to fondle her tusks and bones. Indeed, an elephant’s response to death has been called “probably the strangest thing about them.” When the Amboseli matriarch Eleanor was dying, the matriarch Grace approached her, her facial glands streaming with emotion, and tried to lift her to her feet. Grace stayed with the stricken Eleanor through the night of her death, and on the third day Eleanor’s family and closest friend Maya visited the corpse. A week after the death the family returned again to express what can only be called their grief. A researcher once played the recording of a deceased elephant’s voice to its family. The creatures went wild searching for their lost relative, and the dead elephant’s daughter called for days after.

Elephants have been known to extract spears from wounded friends, and to stay with infants born with disabilities. In 1990, the Amboseli female Echo gave birth to a baby who could not straighten his forelegs, and so could hardly nurse. For three days Echo and her eight-year-old daughter Enid stayed with him as he hobbled along on his wrists. On the third day he finally managed to straighten his forelegs and, despite several falls, he was soon walking well. As Safina says, “His family’s persistence—which in humans facing a similar situation we might call faith—had saved him.”

Most of us will never see a wild elephant, much less spend the time observing them that is required to understand them as individuals. But there are animals that share our lives, and whose societies, emotional depth, and intelligence are readily accessible. Dogs are often family to us. And it is astonishing how much of a dog’s behavior is pure wolf.

The Canidae—the family to which wolves and dogs belong—is a uniquely American production, originating and evolving over tens of millions of years in North America before spreading to other continents around five million years ago. The American origins of the wolf family did not save them from frontier violence. By the 1920s they had been all but exterminated from the contiguous forty-eight states of the US. Their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in January 1995 offered a unique opportunity to follow the fortunes of wolf families as they made their way in a new world. Yellowstone’s wolf research leader Doug Smith says that wolves do three things: “They travel, they kill, and they are social—very social.” But wolves are also astonishingly like us. They can be ruthless in their pursuit of power, to the extent that some will kill their sister’s cubs if it serves their ends. But they will also at times adopt the litters of rivals.

The best wolves are brilliant leaders that pursue lifelong strategies in order to lead their families to success. According to wolf watchers, the greatest wolf Yellowstone has ever known was Twenty-one (wolf researchers use numbers rather than names for individuals). He was big and brave, once taking on six attacking wolves and routing them all. He never lost a fight, but he was also magnanimous, for he never killed a vanquished enemy. And that made him as unusual among wolves as did his size and strength. He was born into the first litter of Yellowstone pups following the reintroduction of wolves in the park. Twenty-one’s big break came at age two and a half when he left his family and joined a pack whose alpha male had been shot just two days earlier. He adopted the dead wolf’s pups and helped to feed them.

A telling characteristic of Twenty-one was the way he loved to wrestle with the little ones and pretend to lose. The wolf expert Rick McIntyre said, “He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air. And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging.” “The ability to pretend,” McIntyre said, “shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence.” That many humans recognize this in dogs, but have failed to see it in wolves, speaks strongly of the need for Safina’s book. For dogs are wolves that came to live with us.

The similarities between wolves and humans are arguably more extensive than those between humans and any other animal. Tough, flexible in social structure, capable of forming pair bonds and fitting into ever-shifting hierarchies, we were made for each other. And when we out-of-Africa apes met up with the arch-typical American canids a few tens of thousands of years ago, a bond was created that has endured ever since. Just who initiated the interspecies relationship is hotly debated. The traditional view is that humans domesticated dogs, but Safina makes a convincing case that the process was driven as much by the wolves as by the humans. The wolves that were better able to read human tendencies and reactions, and were less skittish of human contact, would have gotten access to more food scraps from human camps. And human clans willing to tolerate the wolves would have obtained valuable warnings of the presence of danger from other animals (and other humans). Eventually, Safina says, “we became like each other.” The partnership, however, has had some puzzling effects. The brains of dogs, as well as humans, have shrunk since we began living together, perhaps because we came to rely on each other rather than solely on our own wits.

flannery_2-100815.jpg
Lisa Denning/Ocean Eyes Photography
An Atlantic spotted dolphin mother and calf, Bimini, Bahamas, 2007

Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth—around six times larger on average than our own—while bottlenosed dolphins have the largest brains relative to body size, with the exception of humans. Along with killer whales, these species have a place beside the elephants, dogs, and great apes in the animal intelligentsia. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is a comprehensive academic work by researchers who have devoted their careers to studying sperm and killer whales. Ocean-going and deep diving, sperm whales are difficult to study, and researchers can as yet offer only a bare sketch of their societies. But it’s already clear that their social organization has remarkable parallels with that of elephants. Like elephants, sperm whale females and young often live in “clans” of up to thirty individuals, while adult males, except when mating, live separate lives.

Sperm whale clans possess distinctive “dialects” of sonar clicks. These are passed on by learning, and act as markers of clan identity. They are an important part of the whale’s communication system, which enables the creatures to synchronize their diving, feeding, and other activities. So social are sperm whales that females share the care of the young of their clan, for example by staying at the surface with a young whale while its mother dives for food. Clan members are so closely bonded that they spend extended periods at the surface, nuzzling one another or staying in close body contact. As with elephants, clans can gather in large congregations, so it seems reasonable to assume that sperm whales have the capacity to memorize large social networks.

Killer whales (otherwise known as orcas) have a very different social organization. Without doubt their most unusual characteristic is that all male killer whales are deeply involved with their mother. They never leave their mother’s clan, and despite their enormous size (growing to twice the weight of females), their fates remain deeply intertwined with those of their mothers. If their mothers should die, even fully adult males over thirty years old (they can live to over sixty) face an eight-fold increase in their risk of death. Just how and why the orphaned adult males die remains unclear.

Another striking feature of killer whales and near relatives is the extraordinary length of lactation. Short-finned pilot whales lactate for at least fifteen years after birth, even though puberty occurs at between eight and seventeen years. Sperm whales reach sexual maturity at nine to ten years of age, but traces of milk have been found in the stomachs of thirteen-year-olds. Killer whales and humans are unique in that they experience menopause (for the whales typically at around age forty). Because female killer whales can live up to eighty years, around a quarter of females in any group are postreproductive. Yet they remain sexually active. Grandmothers are evidently very important in killer whale societies, almost certainly because of the wisdom they have gathered over a lifetime.

An equally odd aspect of killer whale culture concerns food taboos and ways that whales observe them. In this they offer an extraordinary parallel with some human cultures. One clan of killer whales eats only a single species of salmon. Another kills only one species of seal. When members of a mammal-eating clan were captured for the aquarium trade in the 1970s, they starved themselves for seventy-eight days before eating the salmon being proffered, and then they ate the fish only after they had performed a strange ceremony. The two whales held gently onto either end of a dead salmon, and swam a single lap around their pool with it in their mouths, before dividing the fish between themselves and consuming it.

Killer whales are strongly xenophobic. Clans of salmon eaters never mix with mammal eaters, for example. Genetic studies show that clans with different food taboos don’t interbreed, leading to slightly different appearances and genetic makeup. Each clan has a distinctive dialect of vocalizations (perhaps we should call them languages), which facilitates coordination of their work, division of their labor, and care of one another.

At times, killer whales have developed special relationships with people. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at Twofold Bay south of Sydney, Australia, killer whales and humans set up a mutually profitable whaling enterprise. The killer whales would notify the whalers of the presence of humpback whales by performing a ritual in the waters of the bay fronting the whaler’s cottagers. The men would harpoon the humpbacks, and the killer whales would hold on to the harpoon ropes to tire the prey.

After a humpback was lanced and killed by the men, they observed the “law of the tongue.” The whalers would leave the humpback body for twenty-four hours so that the killers could feast on the lips and tongue. Remarkable proof of this partnership persists, in the form of the skeleton of “Old Tom”—a killer whale whose teeth were worn flat on one side while holding onto harpoon ropes—which can be seen in the killer whale museum in the town of Eden, Australia.

With the exception of our species, killer whales are earth’s most capable predators. When they evolved ten million years ago, half of earth’s whales, seals, and dugong species became extinct. Because they specialize in a particular food type and are so intelligent, killer whales continue to have a huge impact on their prey. As a result of global warming, killer whales have appeared in Arctic waters. Horrified Inuit describe them as voracious and wasteful killers that have reduced populations of some Arctic mammals by a third.

Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion: prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this? Are our egos “threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel? Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?”

The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of Beyond Words we need to reevaluate how, and why.

Beyond Words will have a deep impact on many readers, for it elevates our relationships with animals to a higher plane. When your dog looks at you adoringly, even though he or she cannot say it, you can be as sure that love is being expressed as you can when hearing any human declaration of eternal devotion. Most of us already knew that, but have withheld ourselves from a full surrender to its implications. Along with Darwin’s Origin and Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, Beyond Words marks a major milestone in our evolving understanding of our place in nature. Indeed it has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.