Carl Safina Talks Of Wild Wolves And Bottle-Fed Squirrels

Sep 17, 2015

In the arena of ocean ecology and conservation, Carl Safina is a superstar. Through television documentaries, his writings and the Safina Center, he's been a vital force for years in educating the public about ocean pollution, overfishing and conservation.

When I found out that Safina had written a new book in my own area of research — animal cognition and emotion — I was eager to read it. I finished Beyond Words:What Animals Think and Feel just as Alva's piece about it came out last Friday.

Alva's take on the book differs from mine. I was enthralled with Safina's blend of stories from his time in the field with elephants, wolves and orcas (killer whales) and the people who study them, especially with the way he blended those stories with the latest science of animal minds.

Over the weekend, I interviewed Safina by email. What follows is our conversation, edited for length.

The segment of the book about Yellowstone wolves was a huge favorite of mine. Could you choose one wolf whom you observed and whose behavior made a big impact on you, and say why — and why this type of knowledge matters?

Wolf packs are nuclear families, much like ours, with two breeding adults and their offspring of several years. As the offspring mature, they leave to seek their own lives and take their own chances, as do our kids. Yellowstone's Lamar Valley pack was unusual in having three adults: the breeders and the brother of the breeding male. This non-breeding brother had an avuncular role and liked to watch the pups more than he liked to hunt. In 2012, when the pack wandered past our imaginary "park" border, they had no way of knowing that wolves had just been removed from the endangered species list and Wyoming had declared open season. The breeding female — a famous and much-watched, much loved wolf — and the avuncular male were soon shot despite their prominent research collars.

The remaining adult male (the "alpha," known as male 755) began wandering, probably first looking for his mate and brother, then looking for a new mate. Into the power vacuum wandered two prime males who found his family's maturing females to their liking; and their feeling was mutual. This meant that 755 could not return to his own family. Further, two of 755's female offspring appeared jealous of the attention being paid to a precocious sister. They ganged up to eject her from the pack; an event I witnessed over several days. That female tried to re-enter but her sisters would not allow it. Alone, hungry, she wandered out, found a chicken coop, and was shot there.

So, for one thing, I saw how the killing of part of the family completely destabilized the lives of the survivors and resulted in an additional death. The father, 755, who had been alpha male in the most-watched pack in Yellowstone, lost everything. Coming into winter, he had no company, no hunting partners, no safe territory, no support. I was certain he would soon die. But by skill and persistence he survived that winter. And the next. And two years later as a graying, aging wolf he is again in possession of a territory, a mate and, for the first time in three years, pups.

So the family dynamics, the individuality, and the surprising survival power of one wolf with the worst odds was really amazing to me.

You write, "Humans are not the only animals who love one another." I so completely agree! You make the point that some animals recognize our (human) minds and hearts more readily than some of us may recognize theirs. Can you give an example? How could this strange happenstance come to be?

Injured animals from dolphins to manta rays sometimes seek and accept help from humans. Almost no one would have suspected that a manta ray would seek help, much less from us, yet various creatures seem to understand that we can understand. This is far more than most humans are willing to grant them, which means it's far more than most humans are able to see. Killer whales have returned to researchers lost in fog, and guided them out. 'How can this be?' you ask. Well, I'm not entirely sure, but it means that there are other minds sharing the same air we breathe. It means that other minds have evolved, but have not created stories of their own categorical superiority. The story of human exclusive superiority is mainly a Western one; tribal peoples long respected, recognized and emulated the minds and abilities of other animals around them.

For such a compassionate person, you are awfully hard in your book on some scientists who don't study wild animals, and on academic philosophers, too. This being the case, I have to ask: What did you think of Alva's 13.7 post last week?

Oh, geez. Well, only a professional academic philosopher could write something as consummately circular as, "The glowing smile is not evidence that she has positive emotions; it is the veritable face of those emotions"— and actually think he has said anything. He misrepresented much of the book and simply missed the rest. He entirely skipped, for instance, everything I included about evolution and neurology as sources of insight into other minds. He skipped the animals that are the book!

You're doing book tours now, but you're also carving out time to spend in the field with animals, which I imagine is restorative, as is time at home with your family, which includes nonhumans. Can you tell us about any recent favorite animal experiences?

Being near and around other animals is like my meditation. I get to be quiet and observe, alert to what's around. At home, it can simply be coffee on the back porch with our pooches and chickens nearby, while we wait to see if the squirrel we bottle-raised a year ago will come out of the woods for some treats. At the shore, especially at this time of year when migratory animals are beginning to mass and move, it's the swirl of fish, the diving terns, the migrating shorebirds and the swallows in the front behind the rain. I love these local, available experiences; nothing fancy, but miraculous nonetheless.

And I am looking forward to something extraordinary: I am about to go to British Columbia for a week to observe wolves who live along the coastline and glean their livings by eating fish eggs and digging clams and catching salmon. The issue is that the government wants to build pipelines and oil ports along that last wild coast, to ship dirty oil from their tar sands catastrophe, piling injury upon injury and threatening these fantastic creatures who have lived there for millennia. So there is heartache and struggle amidst the miraculous. As usual.

In Beyond Words, Safina takes a stance that resonates with me: We should treat animals with compassion for their sake and also for ours.

"If we treated animals as they deserve," he writes, "human inhumanity to humans would stand out all the more appallingly. We might then turn our attention to the next step beyond human civilization: humane civilization. Justice for all."


Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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