Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Burrowing Into Books - "The Inner Life of Animals"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings

                                                                                                                                    August 14, 2018

“The Inner Life of Animals”
Peter Wohlleben

The goal is not to anthropomorphize animals,
but to help us understand them better.”

As a reminder to new readers, these scribblings are not reviews and certainly not critical ones. That’s left to those far more qualified. These essays are less an analysis and more a celebration of the pleasure of reading and learning.

Peter Wohlleben is a forester in Germany. In 1987, at age 23, he took a job as a forest ranger for the Rhineland-Palatinate state which includes the largest coherent forest in middle Europe. A few years ago he began to manage five square kilometers of forests in Hummel where he was free to experiment with eco-friendly forestry methods. Off those experiences, he wrote his first book, The Hidden Life of Trees, which was discussed in this series last year.

In The Inner Life of Animals, Mr. Wohlleben writes of the complexity and intelligence of animals: From the fruit fly, which in microseconds can dart back and forth, because their eyes are made up of “about 600 individual facets;” to crows who have been seen sliding off the roofs of houses, with deliberate pleasure: and to pigs that, according to researchers at Dresden University of Technology, can recognize distant relations. The reader marvels at life, nature and the extraordinary fact of evolution.

He writes of myriad emotions displayed: Maternal love, common to all species; instinctual fear that is endemic to all wild animals, and which keeps them alive. He writes of swallows who pursue sexual dalliances and Billy goats who take obvious pleasure in mating. He tells of the compassion of elephants for those that died, and the shame shown by dogs who have misbehaved. Mr. Wohlleben once observed a magpie who deliberately tried to deceive him, as to where he (she) had hidden an acorn.

From a personal perspective, having grown up with horses, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats and having had, at different times during married life many of the same animals, I can attest to the accuracy of his assurance that animals are curious, smart and sensitive.

The author shares his knowledge and experiences. Many animals are both predator and prey. They kill and are killed. The Osprey feeds on menhaden, which, in turn, eats phytoplankton. Others are parasitic, like the tapeworm inhabiting the intestine of a cow. The planet is shared, and its inhabitants are, in fact, symbiotic. Over thousands of years, we, and they, have evolved, gaining knowledge and perfecting features and instincts. There are an estimated 8.7 million species that inhabit the Earth, many of whom have been around for millions – in some cases billions – of years. For most (perhaps all except man, domesticated animals and those we protect and provide for, like suburban herds of deer and city-dwelling racoons) it is the fittest that survive. It is natures’ way of ensuring that the strongest and most adaptable produce future generations.   

Mr. Wohlleben writes, easily and knowingly, of animals communicating with each other and with other species, including man. Anyone with a dog knows it can be trained to let people know when it needs to go out. He writes of researchers at ETH Zurich who “discovered that whinnies contain two basic frequencies. The first…indicates whether the whinny is communicating a positive or negative emotion. The second frequency indicates the strength of that emotion.” And some of us thought horses were dumb! He raises the question: Why does man, the most intelligent of all species, try to teach animals – domesticated and wild – to understand what he says and wants, rather than trying to learn animal-speak, as did the fictional Dr. Doolittle?

Peter Wohlleben concludes on the understandable but mournful note that man, like all species that cannot photosynthesize nutrients, must consume living entities to survive, plant or animal. He hopes that readers will be more thoughtful about what and how much they eat – that such habits will lead to “happier horses, goats, chickens and pigs.” The book is fun, short and informative.


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