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Getting to Know Them

The matriarch of an elephant family stepping forward to protect her relatives from threat in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, one of the few places on earth where they are still safe and in abundance; photograph by Beverly Joubert from Eye of the Leopard, written with Dereck Joubert and published by Rizzoli

Not so very long ago we humans thought of ourselves as a separate creation—the pinnacle of God’s work—that had been granted dominion over nature. But then along came Darwin, and we discovered that we are related, through descent, to other animals. Despite this blow to our dignity we long maintained a polite fiction that we’re special enough to merit classification in our own scientific family—the Hominidae. In our minds at least, we thus maintained a comfortable distance from the apes. But the analysis of DNA put an end to that, with the demonstration that only 2 percent of our genetic code differs from that of the chimpanzees. Now we and chimps must share a twig in the family tree, and the Hominidae has been expanded to encompass the other “great apes”—chimps, gorillas, and orangutans.

That being said, we clearly differ from the other great apes in many ways, a fact elucidated in Anne Innis Dagg’s The Social Behavior of Older Animals. It’s a highly unusual work in that it treats an age group of organisms that has received little previous attention. It is also a commendably broad study—covering a diversity of species from parrots to primates. Humans and chimps, it turns out, value age in sexual partners very differently. In our species youth is prized, but among chimps the reverse is the case. Importantly, female chimpanzees (unlike female humans) do not experience menopause, and thus can remain fertile into old age.

Flo was one of the most sexually attractive female chimps in a troop studied by Jane Goodall. By the time Flo was forty, her teeth were worn down to the gums and her time as the dominant female in the troop was over, but she still managed to drive the boys crazy, attracting a string of suitors and mating fifty times in a single day. Researchers, wondering whether Flo was an anomaly, carried out an eight-year study of chimpanzee sex. In what seems to be something of an understatement of their results, they concluded that

chimpanzee males may not find the wrinkled skin, ragged ears, irregular bald patches, and elongated nipples of their aged females as alluring as human men find the full lips and smooth complexions of young women, but clearly they are not reacting negatively….

There is great variety in the ways older animals differ from younger ones—in both physical and behavioral manner. Older chimps may go bald, and leopards suffer faded spots, but not all creatures bear such badges of seniority. The plumage of geriatric swallows, for example, is indistinguishable from birds in their prime. But old creatures, regardless of species, tend to be less agile than young ones, and more likely to suffer from arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and mental confusion. All of this means that they’re unlikely to be top of the pack, and the way they cope with this is intriguing.

Sherlock was a male baboon who, at the age of twenty-four, was about ninety in human terms. While still keen on sex, elders like Sherlock often don’t have the status required to assert themselves against other males. So they often befriend individual females instead. Remarkably, such friendships are not about sex alone. They often involve nursing females, who, though rightly nervous of most males (who occasionally kill infant baboons), in a remarkable sign of trust will even leave their babies in the care of their older male friends while they forage.

When the end comes for older animals, they do not always go unmourned. Some species, such as elephants and chimpanzees, show unmistakable signs of grief and mourning at the death of a member of their group, and even gray whales have been observed behaving as if paying their last respects to the dead. Astonishingly, careful disposal of the body is not beyond some, for gorillas have been observed to bury their dead, while elephants have been known to raid a shed filled with the body parts of slaughtered elephants, removing the feet and ears (which were destined to be turned into umbrella stands) and burying them.

In many ways, elephants represent the great “other”—enormous, highly social, and intelligent creatures whose ways on occasion eerily echo our own. G.A. Bradshaw’s Elephants on the Edge is a remarkable study of elephant–human interactions, whose opening premise is that “it is not so much that elephants are like us. They are us, and we them.” This, I fear, the author means literally rather than metaphorically, for she seems to see no difference between the elephant and the human mind. That allows her to attempt psychoanalysis of elephants using methods developed for humans, and to diagnose their “condition” using human criteria. It flows from her premise that elephants should be endowed with all the basic human rights, and that we can expect them to respect our rights in turn. Unfortunately, the implications of Bradshaw’s extraordinary opening premise are not fully explored in her book. Instead, it’s essentially a catalog of human abuse of pachyderms, which jumps in an instant from the treatment of elephants in circuses to the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

Very few people would accept Bradshaw’s premise uncritically, so it’s important that we explore the nature of the relationship between humans and elephants. Taking an evolutionary perspective reveals many similarities, but differences as well. Every now and again evolution throws up a new kind of creature that goes on to colonize most of the world. The landmass of Eurasia, being the largest of the continents, has produced the largest number of these species, including the family that includes sheep, goats, and cattle. But North America too has given the world its champions, including the dog, camel, and horse families—arguably man’s best friends. Africa, while larger than North America, has paradoxically few such champions. Only two are of any note —the families Hominidae and Elephantidae—yet between them elephants and humans have colonized the habitable surface of the earth. Indeed they are arguably the most successful mammal families ever to have evolved.

In times past the elephants were more successful than people. Dozens of species—from the pony-sized dwarfs that once grazed on the island of Crete to the woolly mammoth and the mastodons of North and South America—colonized the whole habitable world (with the exception of Australia). But then humans spread and climates changed, so today there remain just two species—the African and Asian (though some argue that the pink-tusked, pygmy elephant of the Congo is a third type)—and today all are under siege from a growing human population. Elephants are more truly African than we are, being members of an ancient group known as the Afrotheria, whose ancestors lived in Africa at the time of the dinosaurs. The hominids, in contrast, are only newly African, our ancestors having arrived on the continent from Eurasia a mere ten million years ago.

These disparate histories mean that the last common ancestor of the elephants and ourselves was a rat-sized creature that lived over 100 million years ago. Yet undeniably we share much in common, perhaps because some of our ancestors were shaped at the same evolutionary forge—the productive, crowded, and intensely competitive world of the African savannah. It’s this world, in part, that endowed both elephants and humans with exceptional intelligence, and a dependence on complex societies for their well-being. But for all their sagacity, elephants have been losing the battle for survival for the last 50,000 years—since humans started leaving Africa. As humans have encroached upon their world, one after another species has gone extinct, and Bradshaw argues that, as we endanger the last living species, they have become prey to psychological stresses that they are manifesting in startling ways.

About two hours’ drive outside Johannesburg lies the small nature reserve of Pilanesberg National Park, which is plagued by strange goings-on among its elephants. Rangers working there have observed young males harassing older females for sex, and tourists filmed the astonishing spectacle of an elephant copulating with a rhinoceros. Then dead rhinos started to turn up, all gored to death by elephant tusks. Bradshaw thinks that these phenomena have their roots in a “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” suffered by the elephants. The stress, she believes, was inflicted by human interactions with elephants—and she thinks that the aberrant elephant psychology at Pilanesberg is only an indication of something much larger.

These are important claims, and in order to assess them properly we need to know more about Pilanesberg’s elephant population. Prior to its proclamation as a national park, elephants had been long extinct in the Pilanesberg area, and in an attempt to build up the region’s biodiversity, park managers accepted two former circus elephants (both female) and a number of juvenile males that were orphaned during elephant culling operations elsewhere in South Africa. The rhino-raping and killing males, it turns out, originated in Kruger National Park. At the time they were captured, only small elephants could be transported, so no adult male was present at Pilanesberg when they arrived. Among elephants, males and females lead largely separate lives, the females belonging to herds led by a matriarch, and from which males are ejected at puberty. They then join all-male groups, and presumably learn from mature males the recipe for a successful life.

In her search to explain the bizarre behavior of the young males, Bradshaw focuses almost entirely on the trauma they suffered when their families were shot during culling. “Elephant attacks on rhinoceroses…reflect the violence that this otherwise peaceful species has experienced,” she says. But surely the situation is far more complex than that. What about the circus-raised females? Did they have much experience of elephant sex, and know how to handle young males? Bradshaw tells us nothing of their reproductive histories, nor their interactions with the males other than that they rebuffed “behavior not only unbecoming of a young bull but highly irregular.” Such modesty might be fitting in a Victorian novel, but as we seek to understand the Pilanesberg situation we need facts.

Then there’s the matter of the rhinos. Frustratingly, Bradshaw tells us nothing of the histories of Pilanesberg’s rhino population, and too little of their fate. It’s reasonable to assume that the rhinos, like the elephants, came from elsewhere; but had they any prior experience of elephants? If they had never interacted with elephants before, may they not have been vulnerable to bullying by the larger creatures? And what of the sex? Was it only female rhinos that were sexually penetrated and then pierced with tusks, or was interspecies sodomy practiced as well? Pretty much all we know is that forty-nine white rhinos died at Pilanesberg between 1992 and 1996 from such attacks—and that is far too little, in my view, to accept uncritically Bradshaw’s diagnosis of “complex post-traumatic stress disorder.”

For all its faults, Elephants on the Edge deals with a fascinating and little-understood subject, which makes it doubly disappointing to find it so devoid of facts and overstuffed with opinion. Sadly, it seems to be as much about its author’s view of human nature as it is about elephants; but even more disappointingly, it has almost nothing useful to say about how humans and elephants might continue to coexist. Bradshaw talks of creating enormous wild areas for the use of elephants—areas large enough for them to migrate in search of food and water. But in an Africa whose human population is growing exponentially, that is a fantasy. It’s clear that the millennia-long contest between elephants and humans will only accelerate in the future, and that the elephants can survive only through our good graces, and on our terms. This means that elephant populations will need to be managed. As they overpopulate parks, we can either watch them precipitate collapse of the ecosystem, then starve to death, or we can cull them. In this context, it’s hardly helpful to talk, as Bradshaw does, of a “humane self” and an “Auschwitz self” in conflict as we try to manage elephant populations.

A lioness feeding her cub, Masai Mara, 2007; photograph by Nick Brandt from A Shadow Falls, a collection of his images of wildlife in East Africa, with forewords by Vicki Goldberg and Peter Singer and published by Abrams. For a slide show of Brandt’s photographs, see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.

If the largest of wild creatures pre- sent profound moral and physical challenges to us, so too do the domesticated species with which we share our lives. Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University who has devoted much of her career to the humane treatment and slaughter of the cattle, sheep, and pigs that feed us. She is also autistic, a disability that she argues allows her a special empathy with nonhuman creatures. Her latest book, Animals Make Us Human, is an amazing tour de force of animal–human relationships, with chapters on our companion animals, as well as on livestock, wildlife, and zoos.

Most of us would prefer not to know where the meat on our plates comes from. And indeed when we consider slaughterhouses where animals mean only money, such knowledge is enough to turn one off meat for life. Grandin comes at the problem from a very different perspective from most, asking simply, “What does an animal need to be happy?” Even creatures raised for meat, she believes, have the right to a happy life—and they can have it if certain “freedoms” are granted them. Among these are freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, and disease; and freedom to express normal behavior and to live free from fear and distress. Yet as she points out, it’s far from obvious how such freedoms might be granted, for each species has its own requirements, and conditions that are paradise for one may be purgatory for another.

If we are to grant these freedoms, Grandin argues that we need to understand how animals think, and most of the book is taken up with chapters on the inner lives of our companion animals—from dogs to cows to chickens to wildlife we interact with, and animals in zoos. In each instance Grandin displays an exceptional understanding of beings that, to most of us, remain enduring mysteries. It’s hard to know which animals Grandin has the greatest fondness for, but cattle must be high on the list, for she has long experience of them, and has arguably done more than anyone to improve their lot.

Cattle, Grandin argues, aren’t tame animals as are dogs or cats, and therefore freedom from fear is a big issue for them. As she puts it, “A central welfare issue for beef cattle is poor stockmanship. People screaming and yelling at cattle, hitting or punching them, shocking them with electric prods—all of these things terrify cattle.” In arguing against such practices, she poses a series of immensely practical alternatives, such as positive reinforcement with food treats to move cattle into trucks or chutes. Well-cared-for cattle will “actually SEEK handling procedures,” she asserts, and such cattle can remain relaxed, unstressed, and happy all of their lives—right up to the moment of slaughter.

Unfortunately this is not, for reasons both mundane and infuriating, how most cattle live. “Even when plants [i.e., slaughterhouses] know they’re losing money by shocking and yelling at the animals, they still do it,” she says. “In one slaughter plant I documented $500 to $1,000 savings per day after I had trained employees to handle cattle quietly, but when I left, workers quickly went back to their old rough ways.” She feels that the greatest obstacle to the humane treatment of cattle is that “to be a good stockperson you have to recognize that an animal is a conscious being that has feelings, and some people don’t want to think of animals that way.” She also admits that

handling untamed, untrained cattle is frustrating…and frustration is a mild form of rage…. That’s why it’s easy for people to blow up at farm animals (or at small children). Getting angry at frustrating situations is natural.

There is also a direct relationship between the way a business treats its employees and the way workers treat the animals in their care. Making sure that workers don’t get exhausted by working long shifts, and giving them rewards for measurable outcomes, such as less bruising, injuries, and noise, can all ensure a better life for the creatures that feed us.

Cats are a big part of my life, so I read Grandin’s chapter on felines with unusual concentration. I was a little dismayed, therefore, to discover that “animal behaviorists and ethologists don’t know as much about cats and their emotions as we do about other domestic animals.” I thought I knew my cats pretty well, but Grandin surprised me by having much of great interest to say about these superbly sensual, mysterious creatures. One bare fact that had hitherto escaped me is that there are two basic cat personalities—bold and shy—which are associated with coat color. Black cats, it turns out, are usually laid-back, while tortoiseshells are the typical “scaredy cats.” I live with a black and a tortoiseshell cat (known respectively as the Captain and Bernadette), who could be models for this: the Captain is as solid as a rock, his aura of calm spreading far and wide, while Bernadette has been known to take fright at her own tail. Both, incidentally, had identical upbringings from kittenhood.

It turns out that coat color in cats may be associated with genetic changes that confer a defense against feline AIDS, and that in turn are linked to behavioral traits. In cities, where cat populations are high, the spread of feline AIDS (which is contracted through scratches and bites) is greatly facilitated. Black cats tend to predominate in such environments. Orange toms, found in certain studies to be more aggressive than black cats, die early because they spend too much time fighting (thereby exposing themselves to feline AIDS), while the laid-back black toms just lounge about, waiting for their turn to mate. There is so much in Animals Make Us Human that is thoughtful and deeply insightful that anyone who eats meat, or has a pet, would be well advised to read it.

Not all of the creatures we encounter are as readily studied as our pets, and in The Hidden Life of Deer Elizabeth Marshall Thomas takes us on an intimate journey into the lives of some of the more obscure. Despite the fact that deer are among the largest animals anyone is likely to see around their homes, they are so secretive that we know very little of them. Thomas, who lives in southern New Hampshire, began feeding the deer near her home in 2007, when a failure of the acorn crop led her to put out corn for the many wild creatures facing a lean time. Despite the admonitions of experts, she continued feeding the deer, and eventually came to be able to identify both individuals and deer families, the most frequently seen of which she named the Deltas. These she follows through the full cycle of the year, learning as much as she can about their travails and triumphs. But what strikes the reader so forcibly is the individual nature of deer lives—from those of the privileged deer with high social status to those lower down the totem pole whose life is one long struggle.

The Hidden Life of Deer is a wonderfully careful and honest account of one person’s attempt to get to know the wildlife living around her. Not all goes smoothly, however, as food put out for one species is likely to attract another. Here’s what happened to Thomas:

The full moon was so bright I thought I’d be able to see animals in the field if any were present. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the Deltas, I went to the kitchen door, a glass door, and cupped my hands beside my eyes to take a look. Surprisingly, I saw nothing at all—just total blackness. This seemed impossible. I looked out a nearby window and saw the whole moonlit scene of the fields and woods, every leaf, every grass blade. I tried again at the glass door, and again saw nothing. As I looked harder and longer, as my eyes got used to the solid black wall, I wondered if an unknown person for an unknown reason had draped a black blanket over our door. But then the blackness began to seem somewhat fuzzy, and I realized I was looking into fur.

You might think that finding yourself just a fraction of an inch from a bear in the middle of the night would be a terrifying experience, especially when, standing upright, your eyes only come up to the level of his ribs. Thomas, however, turned on the porch light, looked into the eyes of the creature just a foot away (which then ambled off), and proclaimed to herself that she’d “just had the greatest experience of my life.” The bear, it turns out, was known to Thomas. Indeed she had saved its life. When it was young it had been hit by a truck near her house, severely damaging its right hind leg. The police had arrived to put the creature out of its misery, but Thomas had argued that it should be given a chance:

I told the men they shouldn’t shoot him. The men said that the bear was suffering. They also said he was dangerous. He had to be shot, they insisted. I said I wouldn’t let them. They told me to go home. I said, “I am home.” They told me to go back to the house. I said I couldn’t. The officer wondered aloud if I might have been drinking…. The officer had not yet taken out his pistol, but he started to cross the road. So before things could go any further, I scrambled up the bank to the bushes and the bear and told the officer to stay where he was. The men looked at each other. The officer said, “It’s not your bear.”

I said, “No, but it’s my land, it’s posted, and you’ll need a search warrant to walk on it.”

I must admit that at this point I began to fall in love (in an un-chimpanzee like way) with this feisty older lady.

Despite such humane actions, Thomas is not averse to hunting, but she believes that the practice needs to be well regulated, and that hunters need to be disciplined and expert. In search of knowledge about hunters, she accompanies her neighbor Don, who has Native American ancestry and hunts with a muzzle loader. He’s such an expert hunter that for him the hunting season often lasts less than an hour. “Gaia put the will to hunt deep into our psyches—there’s nothing like it,” she concludes as she follows Don, stepping carefully, “eyes wide, ears open, hardly breathing…an experience of the utmost intensity.”

Through the eyes of this extraordinary woman, a reader slowly loses view of “the wild” and instead begins to see individual creatures. It’s as if we’re granted access to an extended family that includes deer, bears, turkeys, and all the wild things of New England. The Hidden Life of Deer is a glorious achievement, giving new meaning to what it is both to be human and to be alive on this planet of wonders.

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