Animals as Social Beings Is Not Such a Wild Idea   Leave a comment

From Vineyard Gazette on July 30, 2015 by Heather Hamacek

When Carl Safina went for hunting for big game it was for their minds, not their bodies.

With a PhD in ecology and a jaunty writing style, Carl Safina isn’t so much a science writer as he is a writer who is a scientist.

“Other animals are really leading lives that matter to them,” he said in an interview. “They desperately want to stay alive and keep their children alive. Their lives are vivid to them and valid in the world, as valid as humanity is. We need to let them be who they are and leave them some room.”

At the book festival this weekend, Mr. Safina will discuss his new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, which explores the lives of animals and humanity’s relationship with them. The talk begins at 12:45 p.m. Saturday at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. He speaks again on Sunday at the Chilmark Community Center at 10:30 a.m.

His book zeroes in on three enigmatic mega faunas: elephants, wolves and killer whales. Each of these animals suffers from preconceptions that come along with their species as well as troubling histories with humans. Mr. Safina also weaves in examples of apes, domesticated dogs, tortoises and other creatures.

“I wanted to focus on animals that live in complex social structures,” he said. “Where being an individual really matters in the social structure.”

This structure parallels the human experience, but how the animals are like us is the wrong question, the author said. Instead, he wants readers to “open their eyes and hearts and see what life is like for these other creatures.”

Written from a conservational standpoint, Mr. Safina does not get carried away with emotional pleas to protect the animals. He stays true to his scientific background basing all of his arguments on detailed research, and admitting his own doubts when recounting stories.

“I try to make strong but easy to understand arguments based on science,” he said. “I try very hard to understand the research and put it in a way that’s easy to understand [for non-scientists].”

For Mr. Safina, his book fills an important niche in the literary world. Science is about curiosity and discovery, and by targeting his books to scientists and non-scientists alike, that wonder can be more readily shared.

“There’s not a lot of point in having science writing only in scientific journals read by scientists,” he said. “Especially with conservation, there is no point in keeping it hidden.”

Pack animals like wolves served as perfect subject matter. — Carl Safina

Mr. Safina said in the beginning he worried that people would think they already knew everything about the creatures he focused on and be deterred from exploring more. Ultimately, this wasn’t a problem.

“Most of us know these animals on sight, but that’s it,” he said. “It was easy to find things about the animals to tell people.”

Mr. Safina worked on the book for two years, spending time in the field gaining firsthand experiences with the creatures, as well as doing extensive research.

Through a journey from Ambroseli National Park in Kenya to the tundra of Yellowstone National Park and out into the waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, the author tries to help humans see how they affect non-humans, even those who live on another continent or no continent at all.

“My role, I feel, is to illuminate the relationship humans have with the rest of the world,” he explained. “The one we have now, it isn’t working for other creatures and it’s not going to be really working for us.”

While reading the book it is easy for readers to forget they are learning as they gambol with elephants, hunt with wolves and dive deep with killer whales. But the end result is a book that makes you think.

When Mr. Safina received the invitation to the book festival, he was delighted.

“When I was there [the Vineyard] in my early 20s I loved it so much, I was afraid to go back,” he said.

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