Conservationist Carl Safina Explains Why Animals Treat Us Better Than We Treat Them

In Depth

We are living through a mass extinction. From climate change to overpopulation to poaching, the world we’ve created is closing in fast on the incredible and still-mysterious animals we share it with.

It’s a very emotional time for scientists. And while Beyond Words, the seventh book from award-winning marine conservationist Carl Safina, isn’t driven by emotion—it’s the product of extensive research and meticulous field observations—it’s notable for the freedom Safina gives himself to write beautifully, and lovingly. The book is charged in a way that seems rare for a 400-page tome written by an ecology PhD.

Safina focuses in on three species: the elephant, the wolf, and the killer whale, whose lives are complex and social enough for Safina to designate them under the category of “who” animals, as opposed to “it” animals. Studying them takes Safina from Amboseli National park in Kenya to Yellowstone to the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, he works with a wise, dedicated and occasionally heartbroken array of local researchers, whose discoveries are often astonishing.

A central thesis of the book, which since its July publication has been heaped with praise from the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, is that scientists, for a long time, have approached the study of animals from a damaging us-versus-them angle. “Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science,” Safina writes. And so in this way, the study of animals was for a long time also a study in human arrogance, an exercise in performing our own supposed superiority. Until very recently, Safina explains in the book, even the most informed conjectures about an animal’s motivation could ruin a person’s professional prospects.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change, and Safina’s book works to upend our limited understanding of what animals are capable of. “Humans are not the measure of all things,” Cynthia Moss, a legendary elephant conservationist, tells the author. In fact, if you read this book—and I highly recommend it—you’ll discover that certain animals might possess some cognitive abilities that we do not.

Safina writes of killer whales and dolphins who seem able to read minds—guiding researchers out of the fog, for example—and an elephant researcher who is adamant that his creatures can do the same. He writes about elephant researchers who find themselves knowing an elephant is around despite not seeing or hearing it (“I think we’re hearing their subsonic calls,” one suggested), and about two male chimpanzees who were seen holding hands and watching the sunset together in Tanzania.

Safina, who has also hosted a PBS series and recently accompanied Miley Cyrus to British Columbia on a research trip to protest the B.C. government’s wolf cull program, makes a regular habit of living out my wildest dreams. Needless to say, I was excited to speak with him.

When did you become interested in ecology?

I was born in Brooklyn, and my father’s hobby was raising canaries. So there were always birds around, and when I was 7 I started raising homing pigeons in a shed in the backyard of our apartment building. The pigeons each had a little box with a nest, and each pair would go out every day and fly around, come home and eat dinner, and take care of their babies. And right across the yard, I lived in a building where we had our own little cubbyholes, and each day the adults went out and came back and had dinner and took care of their babies. So before I ever heard anything about any differences between humans and animals, it just seemed obvious to me that we’re basically the same.

It’s easy to take our inability to communicate with animals to the extent that we communicate with each other as evidence that their inner lives are less complex than ours. Your title suggests that we ask: how important are words, really?

I’m sure they’re less important than we think they are. Most of our empathy and many of our thoughts occur without words, and our ability to navigate the day occurs without words. If you’re driving along, you don’t say “Oh, there’s another car”—you see the car and you respond to it. We think that we’re constantly using words for everything, but really, we do a lot without them. I think how other animals experience love or rage or fear is probably very similar to how we do, with similar parts of the brain and similar hormones going; they just don’t layer a lot of complex words on top of it after they feel the feeling.

Yeah, I thought it was interesting that, within this beautifully written book, there was a suggestion that words get in the way.

Yeah, they certainly do. Even though we use words a lot to convey information, we are also constantly checking to see if the person is misleading us in some way. So there are words, and then there are other ways of making sure that those words really represent reality, because one thing you can do with words is lie.

You speak a lot about intelligence in the book, notably that the entire notion of idea of judging an animal’s intelligence—when we can’t even really measure it in humans—is kind of bullshit. What makes an animal a “who”?

A “who” animal lives in a social group where it is defined as an individual by its relationship to other individuals. A chimpanzee is a “who” and an elephant is a “who,” but a mosquito is an “it” because a mosquito doesn’t have any social relationships at all, as far as I can tell. So is a herring in a school of thousands of herring, where it doesn’t have any constant companions or any relationship to its offspring—and that’s not to say that a herring is not a miraculous or beautiful creature, this is just a comment on its social structure.

And in between that, there are some animals that have a much more temporary relationship to others, like a doe and her fawns, who may be together for about a year. So, like everything in life, this idea exists on a sliding scale. But the animals that I’m referring to in the book, in order to make this point, are simply always living in a complex social group, and who they are relative to others is a constant part of their life.

Two of the three species you focus on in the book (elephants and orcas) live in matriarchal family structures. Do you think there’s a connection between high social intelligence and female leadership?

I wouldn’t quite say so. I think there’s a connection between high social intelligence and structured social groups, because if different individuals mean different things to you, you have to have nuanced relationships.

But the matriarchal societies seem to me to be a lot more pleasant! The starkest contrast is between chimps and bonobos: they’re very similar, but one is female-led and one is male-led. The males do a lot of male-type things—there’s a lot of aggression involved, and a lot of fighting, and it limits what they can be as a society. I certainly think that we see that in humans. You know, I’m no fan of maleness, let me just say that as a male.

I think my most overwhelming reaction as I read your book one of jealousy. Can you explain what it’s like to study animals as your life’s work? And is there some nugget of nirvana that makes up for the heartbreak and worry?

Well, there is a lot of heartbreak and worry. But there’s a tremendous amount of connection with beauty, and an extreme sense of diversity. The world is a much more enlivened place when you’re aware of these other creatures around. There’s also a great calm that comes from the feeling that all these other beings have been here for an incredibly long time, and in some pretty incomprehensible way gave rise to ourselves and all these other creatures.

It really makes the world seem like a miraculous and sacred place, because we’re not just here driving around going to the store and sitting at our desks, you know? We come from the incredible depths of time, and we’re connected to all of these things—although in the last century or so we’ve become very disconnected. But the reality is that we are of all of this, and we are truly connected to it, whether we realize it or not.

Yeah, in that same vein, it’s interesting to me that these researchers you work with in the book are able to cue in to things that aren’t necessarily common knowledge or scientifically accepted—like noticing that elephants have facial expressions, for example. What are these people like, who spend their lives mostly outside of society, living in the midst of elephants, wolves, chimpanzees? Do they become somehow different from the rest of us?

Well, they’re much nicer than the average person. They’re just fantastic company. They tend to be very serious in the discipline of their work, but they’re very casual socially, and usually very easy to be with. I think they certainly see deeper realities. The things that they carry around in their head about their work is not what company has what quarter earnings profits, or who they’re going to compete with in the next product cycle. What they carry around is our understanding of how life works—things like the water cycle, some bits of geological history, how bodies function—so they have a different perspective on the world.

A strange dichotomy occurred to me while reading: there’s an emphasis in this book that we can never really know for sure what, for example, a killer whale is thinking; we can only make educated guesses based on experience. But then you include the kind of magical-seeming idea that some cetaceans, like killer whales, seem to truly be able to read minds. Do you believe they have access to some plane we don’t?

I think that’s possible. First of all, we didn’t even understand that they had sonar until 1960. So maybe’s something else going on with them that we just don’t understand. And there is some evidence for it, because it appears to be best explained that they can read minds. So what in the world is that? Is that a mistake, or is it that we just don’t know how they’re doing that yet? I don’t know. Recently, I read that a new part of their brain has been discovered that people don’t have, and maybe they do something with that that people don’t do. But it’s a mystery. I wouldn’t want to make more of it than that, but I also wouldn’t want to totally dismiss it or discount it.

There was a point in the book where you underlined the sheer terror of being an African elephant today. “Since Roman times, humans have reduced Africa’s elephant population by perhaps 99 percent,” you wrote. It’s kind of like their existence, for millennia, has been one long extended genocide.

Yeah, I think that that’s exactly right.

But elephants are still somehow, in general, not particularly aggressive towards humans or each other; they are still gentle, they still have fun. How is this possible?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I have thought about it with humans—like in London during World War II, when entire sections of the city were being blown to rubble, how people simply survived the war. What did they do for a few years while all of this was happening? They had to just work a little, eat something. They had to get on with being human in some way, and it seems like this is true for all of these animals. You can see how all of this changes what they do: how they’re afraid of some people, how they won’t go to some places, how their families are disrupted by the violence. But deep down, it seems that they have to be who they are, and we have to be who we are, despite the horrendous stuff that happens.

While poaching is the main force that’s pushing African elephant and rhino populations towards extinction, public anger has recently been aimed much more loudly and effectively at trophy hunters, who pay thousands of dollars to kill elephants, rhinos, lions, etc. Most of these hunters, and the organizations that back them, consider themselves conservationists because of the money their hunting brings. Do you think trophy hunting is a necessary evil, or do you think it’s just a stupid thing?

I think it’s a stupid thing. I think it’s very unnecessary. It’s incomprehensible to me the amounts of money people will spend to go someplace, look for an animal, and then pull the trigger, while they wouldn’t spend the same amount of money to go to the same place, look for the same animal, and try to get a really magnificent photograph of it—which actually takes a lot more skill. Why it’s worth more to them to actually destroy the thing that they have sought, I don’t comprehend.

I understand some hunting and some killing, with a different kind of motivation. But to go and kill a really big and really magnificent thing that you want nothing of except a token that you killed it, I don’t get that at all. I think it’s very bizarre.

I completely agree with you, I don’t understand the desire to do it. What I’m wrestling with is that they put a lot of money into these parks—

Kenya outlawed hunting completely a long time ago and has a gigantic tourist economy. I think that those people putting a lot of money into those parks is partly just a mismanagement on the part of the country of its own wildlife. Why didn’t they just develop a better tourist economy?

And as climate change encroaches, the threats to species like elephants and orcas go beyond overfishing and poaching to factors that we likely cannot control. Do you have hope for the future of these animals? Have they proven themselves to be adaptable at all?

Well, I think that human population pressures are going to overwhelm elephants, and pretty much already have, but I think it will get a lot more acute. I don’t know if elephants will be able to make it in the next couple hundred years or not; they probably will in some extremely reduced way. I think all of these animals are very adaptable to climate changes, because they have lived through a lot of climate changes in the past, although those were mostly much slower than this one. Many of them move around, and even if local populations do terribly, other populations find more advantages.

And in the ocean, killer whales have moved up and down the latitudes as climates have changed. But the acidification of the ocean is likely to have really large implications for just how much can live there. It’s unpredictable as to what will survive and what will die, and what will die because other things died. So there are a lot of unknowns. I think with elephants, the human population in Africa especially is a much bigger issue. And the Asian elephant situation is vastly worse.

I didn’t know that.

We don’t talk about it as much. There are only about 30,000 of them in the wild. There’s about 500,000 elephants in Africa remaining—although the population is growing much faster now in Africa. And in Asia people have a different sense of elephants; there’s less poaching, less animosity.

Do you think, if and when it comes to it, that it’s better from an ethical standpoint to allow a species to die out naturally, or try to keep it going within artificial zoo-like environments?

Well, in a natural world there would not be anything unethical about a species going extinct, but we have created a world in which animals are going extinct at one thousand times the rate that they were before humans became a global influence. We’re taking their habitats, we are changing their climates, we are stealing their food. There’s nothing ethical about that, and therefore we should, ethically, try to prevent all of these extinctions, because we’re causing all of these extinctions.

Do you think it’s necessary to prevent these extinctions in any way possible, even if that means putting the animal in an unnatural situation?

There are many animals that are existing only in parks nowadays. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I think it’s better than having them be extinct. Separately, a zoo is not a substitute for life in the world, and it probably could not be viable in the long term for any species at all. A zoo can be a stop-gap measure in a desperate situation, like for the California condors—they caught the last six and put them all in the zoo, because they were dying at such a rate from lead poisoning. All of those birds would have died, so they brought them to the zoo to save them, breed them, and put them back out. But the idea was never that they were going to exist in the zoo as a substitute, the idea was always to fix the problem and put them back.

Here’s a question that occurred to me when I was reading: Are you a vegetarian?

I’m basically a vegetarian. If I go to someone’s home and they’ve made meat for dinner, I’ll eat it. But I don’t ever buy meat to cook at home. Once every 6 months, maybe, I’ll order meat at a restaurant. And I eat seafood, mostly that I catch. So strictly speaking I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat beef, I don’t eat pork and I almost never eat chicken or lamb. I completely abhor factory farming, and I try to make sure that I never plug into that at all.

Do you think it’s moral to eat meat if you have the means to not eat meat?

I think it depends on how the animals have lived more than it depends on how they’ve died. I don’t think it’s immoral for people who have small farms and offer a comfortable existence to domesticated varieties, and then humanely kill them. There is a tremendous amount of predation in nature; all animals have to eat something, and not all of them are herbivores. But those animals get to be what they’re supposed to be until they’re killed. That’s how the world works. But in factory farms, the animals live much worse than they die.

Yeah, I think it’s something that a lot of people just try to not think about, which is probably not the best route to take.

No. But let’s say that I catch a fish, and I bring it home for dinner. So I’ve killed a fish, and before I killed the fish, the fish was probably panicked, and then it died. From a humane standpoint, that is worse than eating tofu. But I did not harm the ability of the ocean to produce another fish, whereas the tofu probably comes from a gigantic soy bean farm either in the prairies that used to have lots of wildlife, or some huge farm in Brazil that used to be a tropical forest—so what is worse? I actually think the tofu is worse, so I don’t think this is a simple question. I think it’s more a question of, where does your food come from, and what is your relationship to it?

One of the most extraordinary things you touched on in the book is elephants’ and orcas’ inexplicable gentleness and restraint in the wild when dealing with humans, and humans exclusively. You were clear that the “why” here is unknown, but do you have any hypotheses? Do you think they somehow understand that hurting us would be bad for them?

I think it’s possible that they would understand that other humans would come after them. I think that’s unlikely, but it is possible. I think more simply, it may be that making contact with humans is an unfamiliar thing to them, and they are afraid of doing things that are unfamiliar because it may have unpredictable results. I think there’s probably at least a large dose of that in the interaction with humans. But that only gets you so far, because there are a lot of people who have been in the water kayaking around a lot of orcas, and orcas are playful, and orcas are really, really large, and some of them eat mammals; the idea that they’ve never knocked over a kayak is just really strange to me.

There are many animals that treat us as though we have minds, as though they understand that we understand. They do a better job of doing that to us than we do to them. More recently, I’ve been hearing stories about manta rays—they’re not even bony fish, for god’s sake—that are tangled in a fishing net, and they come over to divers and they let the divers take the net off, and they sometimes swim around in circles and stay with the diver for a long time after.

It’s as though they understand exactly what they need, that we can do it, and then they in some way appreciate that. It would be one thing if an elephant did that, but a manta ray—and I really love fish, you know? I give fish a lot more credit than the average person, but I find that really surprising. It’s quite something, and I think all these mysteries show that there’s much much more going on in the cognitive reality of this planet than humans tend to suspect.

If you read this interview and are suddenly feeling generous, here are the author’s favorite non-profits: The Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Save the Elephants, Big Life Foundation, The Wild Salmon Center, Yellowstone Park Foundation, and the Center for Whale Research.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Main images via Patricia Paladines, Henry Holt; elephant images by Carl Safina, wolf image by Alan Oliver, orca image by Ken Balcomb.

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