Probing the Rich Inner Lives Of the Planet’s Wild Animals

Scientist Carl Safina has examined our steadily evolving understanding of the complex interactions among the more social members of the animal world. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why it’s vital to our humanity to empathize more deeply with wild creatures.

Ecologist Carl Safina has made his name studying and writing about the world’s oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. Now, Safina has turned his attention to the fascinating and controversial topic of the inner lives of animals, exploring, as he puts it, “the incredible shimmering world of nuance that many of these creatures experience in their lives with one another.” The result is his newly published book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Safina discusses the rich existence — full of strong family attachments, playful interactions, and cooperation and competition — of complex social animals such as elephants, wolves, and killer whales. “I wanted people to understand that these creatures lead lives that are valuable to them, lives that are vivid to them, lives that mean something to their families and friends and rivals,” he says.

Carl Safina with orphaned elephants
Carl Safina with an orphaned elephant in Nairobi Naitonal Park, Kenya. JULIUS SHIVEGHA

Safina — who holds an endowed chair in nature and humanity at Stony Brook University in New York and is the author of the award-winning books Song for the Blue Ocean and Eye of the Albatross — also discusses why our refusal to see many animals as rich, complicated beings has had a brutalizing effect on human society. And he sharply criticizes some research on animal behavior, saying it has led to a flawed understanding of the natural world. “I totally bristle at the idea that an animal can ‘pass a test’ administered by human beings,” Safina tells e360. “It’s irrelevant whether the animal corresponds to your concept of something.”

Yale Environment 360: What led you to write this book?

Carl Safina: My first interest in life really was, what do animals do and why do they do it? And even though all of my work has been ocean-oriented, my interests have never been confined to the ocean. I’m an all-purpose animal lover, especially free-living animals. The other thing is that we talk about conservation in the following terms: We say they’re down by 80 percent, they’ve lost 70 percent of their habitat, there are only 3,000 of them left. That is just numbers. The numbers alone are not turning the tide. They’re not enough. And as is often said, by dictators anyway, it’s a great stroke of luck that the murder of one person is a tragedy but the murder of a million is just a number. People don’t really relate to numbers. I wanted to show not just what was at stake but who was at stake. I wanted people to understand that these creatures lead lives that are valuable to them, lives that are vivid to them, lives that mean something to their families and friends and rivals and that they try very hard to stay alive and try very hard to keep their babies alive. So in that sense I was telling a conservation story in a very different way, and trying to let the animals make a case for themselves.

‘Animals make sense of the world in ways that are similar to us because they have similar imperatives.’

e360: Speaking of individuals, you write that a wolf is not an “it,” a wolf is a “who.” Talk a bit about that.

Safina: The distinction I was trying to draw between an “it” and a “who” type animal has nothing to do with the value of the animal. It’s just that for some animals, social relationships define them. So a mosquito, for instance, is not defined by who it is in its social group. But a wolf is, a dolphin is, a parrot is, a raven is. And some of these groups are permanent and last for many decades in the case of elephants and whales. Some of them last the course of a breeding season in the case of birds and their relationships to their mates and their offspring, although for some birds, their bond with their mates is lifelong. I’d be the first to tell you that the dichotomy between “it” animals and “who” animals is a false dichotomy, because it’s a range.

e360: You emphasize the individuality exhibited by many species, including some that might be surprising to people, like turtles.

Safina: Many animals have the ability to relate as individuals in ways that we don’t tend to recognize, like the tortoises that my friend had at a museum. Who would have known that the tortoises would go into little temper tantrums and they would love the secretary and like being with her more than they like being with the guy who actually owns them? Who would have guessed that? Imagine the incredible shimmering world of nuance that many of these creatures experience in their lives with one another and in their territories that we don’t suspect because we don’t know about it.

e360: You write that for fear of anthropomorphizing, some researchers who study animal behavior end up doing some bad science. How so?

Safina: They categorically refuse to entertain the question of whether animals are aware. Science is supposed to be the most curious endeavor. It’s supposed to be where your mind is always open to what’s possible and you explore to see if the evidence is there for one possibility or another. You don’t close yourself off before even asking the question, or drum a person out of his profession for writing a book on the question of animal awareness where he’s mustering evidence that shows different ways that animals are aware of themselves and their environment. That’s more like religious dogma than it is the freeing of the curiosities of science to see what the world really contains. That’s why it’s bad science. It’s not bad science to say we’re not going to assume that they think like us. It’s bad science to say we insist that they don’t think at all.

e360: It seems that anthropomorphizing is almost a tool for you, a way into an animal’s mind.

‘The harm is that people tell themselves that we are the only creatures that have vivid lives or value.’

Safina: Anthropomorphism is our best first guess at why animals are doing something. They make sense of the world in ways that are similar to us because they have similar imperatives.

When they look like they’re really hungry it’s because they’re really hungry. When they are happy and having fun playing with one another and playing with their babies it’s because they’re happy and having fun. So to say obviously the animal is hungry and then deny them the possibility that they have fun is also not a scientific thing to do, and it doesn’t match with the evidence. So with anthropomorphism, it’s the best guess. But then you need to look to see if that makes sense. For instance, you might see two elephants mating. Your anthropomorphic sense might lead you to say those elephants are in love. Ok, that’s a good first guess. But then when you keep watching you see that the male doesn’t stick around. They have no bond. Ok, so they’re not in love. So your guess was wrong. You can see that by watching them.

e360: Chimpanzees are one of the species that pass the mirror mark test, which is an experiment to establish self-awareness. Researchers place a mark of some kind on an animal’s face and see whether the animal touches the mark on its own body.

Safina: I totally bristle at the idea that an animal can “pass a test” administered by human beings. It’s irrelevant whether the animal corresponds to your concept of something. That’s another way to ensure that you’re not seeing what’s going on, because you’re insisting that they must do what you say they must do, and then all you’re looking for is whether they do what you say. You’re not looking for what they do.

e360: What harm comes from misinterpretations like this?

Safina: The main harm is that people can continue to tell themselves a story that we are the only creatures that have any idea of what’s going on around us or have vivid lives or value, which is of course exactly what people say about other people that they want to abuse. You see people say the same things about animals, and the harm that comes from that is not only do you rob yourself of understanding what the world is really like, which is a terrible thing, but you also make it very easy to abuse and cause misery and pain to those around you.

e360: You write that when you look at animals you don’t see otherness. What does it say about us, as a species, that we may need to see these other creatures as like ourselves before we try to save them from extinction or not do terrible things to them?

‘Killer whales are really the only animals that really should never be in captivity.’

Safina: It says that human beings are exceptionally narrow-minded, and amplify the otherness in everything around us because we have tribal brains that are always alert to the possibility that there are strangers presents. We’re a lot like wolves in that regard; when we meet members of other packs those meetings aren’t friendly, unlike bonobos and chimpanzees and elephants. So there are some animals that are friendly to strangers and some that are violent with strangers. We are violent with strangers. So we amplify all the differences and we have an insuperable problem with race relations in our country and in the world. If we don’t have people of other races to hate, we hate people from our own race who have a different religion. If their religion is the same, we hate them because they’re a different sect of the same religion. It’s unbelievable how the otherness is totally amplified.

e360: While researching this book you shadowed elephant, wolf, and orca scientists. Tell us about some moments that helped you get an insight into the emotional life of those animals.

Safina: We were watching some elephants at a very muddy water hole and young ones were squirming all over the mud and each other and hitting the water with their feet to make it splash. The adults were submerging and tossing their heads around. It was just so apparent that they were having such great pleasure, and you could ask a different question about that: What is the survival value of covering themselves in mud? But we don’t do things for the survival value. We don’t mate with each other in order to fulfill a calculation about the survival of our genetic make-up, we mate with each other because it feels good.

So you make sense of their world the way they make sense of their world. You don’t make a mistake that animals that are squirming around in the mud are angry, and that an animal that turns itself around and trumpets at you wants to come and give you a kiss. It’s obviously telling you to back off. You get that.

With the wolves, one thing that I witnessed was very surprising. I knew wolf packs were a family. I knew they cooperated and they were loyal with one another. But I didn’t expect the politics involved. I saw two littermates ganging up on a sister that they were trying to eject permanently from their own pack following the death of their mother and another adult male, their uncle, and the loss of their father. The precocious sister got ganged up on and ejected forcibly from the pack. She ended up permanently gone, leaving Yellowstone, and quickly getting shot. That was very surprising to see.

With the killer whales, whales are always difficult to observe in detail, you mostly get their backs. But the narrative I was getting was about who they were and how long they’d been together and the very surprising fact that with killer whales, the males and females stay with their mother their entire lives, which can last quite a few decades. Think of the implications of the tightness of that.

‘By giving Cecil the lion a name and knowing who he was in his social group, he became a who.’

e360: You think then of the implications of captivity for them.

Safina: There are arguments in favor of captivity. But I don’t think that we can provide the right environment for them to let them be anything like who they are at the scale of their lives. They’re just too big for us to put them in captivity. The killer whales are really the only animals that really should never be in captivity.

The first time I saw captive killer whales, it never occurred to me that the people who would be loving those killer whales would be connected to an outfit that would so abusively harass and undo their wild families. It never occurred to me to ask how these things were brought into captivity. I didn’t think people could have it in them to be that cruel.

e360: When there’s a public outcry against a perceived injustice against an animal, there’s often a pushback that some people care more about animals than people. I’ve heard this pushback in regard to Cecil, the lion killed by the American dentist. What’s your take on that?

Safina: I care about injustices to people and animals. Injustice is injustice. There are some that are horrible, there are some that are a little less horrible, there are some that we can do something about. The idea that we have to do something about one before we have to care about another is only voiced by people who don’t want you to care about something you care about. I think that’s a completely invalid thing. I don’t have to fix people before I can get a chance to think about animal cruelty. It doesn’t work that way.

The thing about Cecil the lion has a lot to do with the fact that by giving him a name and knowing who he was in his social group and in his place, he became a “who.” That’s why we cared about him. In my lifetime the number of lions in Africa has declined by 75 percent. Lions get shot all the time. Lions get driven out of habitat all the time. We are driving them completely extinct. Basically we only know about three lions: Elsa from Born Free, Christian the Lion from YouTube, and we now know Cecil. But every single lion knows who they are in their family group in their territory. They are no more or less special than Cecil was, and the injustices to them are only more anonymous.