If you’ve ever gazed at your dog, cat, parrot or pet fish and wondered, What are you thinking? What are you feeling? then Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures is just the book for you. A few centuries ago, scientists scoffed at the idea of animals harboring the ability to think much less feel emotions. Some conceived of them, along Descartesian philosophical lines, as not much more than preprogrammed flesh-covered robots which enacted different behavioral routines in response to specific stimuli.
In Animal Wise, Morell expertly tells a tale of how mainstream science learned to ask the right questions in order to study animal emotions and the ability of different species to think, plan, and problem solve, as well as their ability to feel emotions. Although early in the book she discards the idea that there are lower and higher orders of animals, she chose to arrange the book chapters in order from animals that have comparatively simplistic brain anatomy to animals with increasing complexity. As a result, the reader moves through the labs and field sites of scientists studying ants, to those of fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, gorillas, dogs, and wolves. Among a few other behavioral oddities, we learn that ants intentionally teach their fellow nestmates; rats laugh when tickled — and will even seek someone out for a festive bout of sensory joy; not every “mooooo” is the same — cows have linguistic differences akin to our regional dialects; confined dolphins can develop crushes on their trainers and attempt to elicit sex; and elephants sometimes visit and linger over the bones of their departed herd members.
Although the early material on social dynamics in ants and archerfish that can “dart” their prey with uncanny precision held my interest, things really picked up for me when Morell began investigating the existence of thought in birds and dolphins. (This is likely more due to my affinity for the animals involved rather than the writing itself.) And of course, the “genius” African gray parrot, Alex, made a lovely cameo here. But it was the chapters on elephants, and wolves and dogs that were absolutely riveting. Here, Morell reports on research investigating how elephants repond to the deaths of herd members. Losing a matriarch is particularly devastating to a herd; and Morell paints this crushing image to convey the loss: “Baby elephants, too, have much to learn, and their brain size at birth is around 35 percent of what it will be at maturity. When poachers target the matriarchs or older females—as they often do, because older elephants usually have larger tusks—they also destroy that lifetime of learning and knowledge. For an elephant family, the death of a matriach must feel like losing an encyclopedia, or an entire library. . .” (If that doesn’t make one pause, I’m not sure what will.) From here, she questions whether elephants are mourning when they linger over the carcass of a fallen herd mate, or when they seemingly visit an elephant bone pile with intention, and use their tactile trunks to touch, caress, and inspect the sun bleached bones.
Dogs and wolves have been the focus of much research and inquiry, not only as to their evolutionary relationship but also regarding differences in their brains. Dogs, afterall, think and behave in ways that are much more complimentary to humans over the past several millenia than do wolves. But why? In this concluding chapter, Morell recounts the story of how science finally rediscovered the minds of dogs in the late 1990s, even though “The idea that dogs are more like us than they are like wolves goes back at least to Darwin . . .” The bonding between dogs and humans, dogs’ ability to memorize words and commands, and even their capacity to seemingly understand right from wrong are all explored, then compared to research on wolves which seeks to understand how humans shaped the minds of dogs.
It wasn’t just the findings that made these sections interesting for me, it was the way in which Morell dissected the studies and the people performing them. She asked questions that uncover the backstory of each scientist and how they got into their line of research. She then uses this string to knit a storyline of the exposition of their discoveries in a way that very nearly makes each chapter a stand-alone narrative.
Morell’s knack for humor, and her penchant for making inferences and asking sharp questions, softens and warms her keenly observative and deeply researched journalistic writing—which floats sublimely and seamlessly thoughout the manuscript, buoyed by a raft of facts gleaned from years of expert reporting. While animal lovers and cognition researchers will cherish this book for its clear and concise compilation of evidence regarding thought and emotions in our animal friends (for more on this, read Jason Goldman’s wonderfully insightful review in Conservation magazine), nonfiction writers will adore it for its commanding combination of narrative writing and well-vetted reporting.
Several other reviews I’ve read, including Liza Gross’s delightful write up for Quest, picked up on the exact same parting note as did I: the deeply probing question Morell lobs at her readers like a firebomb before scribing her last words. After underlining it heavily and stewing over it for days if not weeks, I’m now going to lob it at you: “Given that we now know that we live in a world of sentient beings, not one of stimulus-response machines, we need to ask, how should we treat these other emotional, thinking creatures?”
How, indeed? Perhaps this single line is an opening for a follow-up book exploring what our relationships to animals may be like in the future, akin to Emma Marris’ futuristic Rambunctious Garden. Only time will tell.