Our Interactions With Animals

From Barbara King of the Friday Animal Blog:

When it comes to better understanding the behavior and emotions of animals, who should be the gatekeepers of knowledge? Is it scientists alone, those formally trained to observe animals in the wild or in captivity? Or should “regular people” who keenly attend to how animals act and feel also be trusted as contributors to knowledge about our fellow species on Earth?
In his new book, The Animal Manifesto, Marc Bekoff takes a bold stand on these questions. “Science,” he writes, “is catching up with what many lay observers already know from living with animals every day.” As a scientist and a person, Bekoff has spent many hours observing wolves, dogs, and other animals; he lives in Colorado in an area frequented by red foxes, mountain lions, and the occasional black bear.
Animals are sentient, feeling creatures, Bekoff says—no surprise to many of us animal people. Bekoff wrote once about the magpies he witnessed gathering around one of their own who had just died. These birds touched the dead body and flew off
to collect grass that they then laid at the corpse. Into Bekoff’s mailbox flew stories from people who had seen similar rituals in crows and ravens as well as magpies. “These stories,” he notes, “even from nonresearchers, are indeed data, and they challenge science to prove or disprove them.”
Scattered through the book are animal stories sent to Bekoff by animal lovers. I resonate with this approach. In my book Being With Animals, I report stories from my friend Nuala Galbari about her life with the injured crow Reggie. From Galbari’s stories, I learned about Reggie’s intelligence and emotion—she knows birds like I know apes—and I trust them.
What risks may accrue to admitting nonscientists into the sacred arena of data collection? Not necessarily what you might think: Bekoff, like Jane Goodall, the famed chimpanzee researcher, has no fear of anthropomorphism; when done carefully, it can aid rather than retard the understanding of animals.
Still, can everyone be a credible source? I’d have to say no. I’m often shocked when I replay videotapes of gorilla gestural interactions, only to realize that, watching them in real time, I completely missed significant movements. Through rigorous methodologies, and substantive checks and balances, science heads inexorably toward self-correction; if we are to rely on individual voices from outside science, we must find a way to fold them into that dynamic self-corrective process.
Once in a while, Bekoff goes too far himself in interpreting animal behavior. To say that Alex, the famous African gray parrot, “mastered” English surely cannot be right, and how literal should we take a passage such as this one: “Surely, a dolphin, a raven, and a human don’t look the same, move the same, or perhaps even think the same, but these differences are minor compared to what these animals share.”
These are only quibbles; I recommend The Animal Manifesto enthusiastically. Bekoff effectively urges all of us to increase our compassion footprint: We may eat less meat (or none), tell children that eating a burger means eating a cow, support only the very best zoos, and speak up for animals whenever and wherever abuse occurs.
Best of all is Bekoff’s continual optimism, his insistence that “we are wired to be good, we are wired to be kind, and we are wired to be compassionate”. When reading his chapter “Our World is not Compassionate to Animals,” a vivid log of cruelty to animals, I clung to his optimism as to a life raft. In the end, I conclude Bekoff is right: We have no choice but to believe we can turn things around.
If we gaze at animals together, and share stories, we can help animals as the result of our newfound knowledge. “Every individual action shines a light,” Bekoff notes, “whether it’s motivated by a desire to change society or simply to fix one injustice in the life of one animal.”

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One Response

  1. Pemudi says:

    Very interesting! I have oesbrved a variation of this phenomenon in my dog when he is ill he attempts to poop in the same spot until his gastrointestinal system is back in order. I assumed this was rooted in primal behavior (isolating himself from other dogs until he feels well again).

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