Black Dog and Leventhal, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-57912-968-2

 Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


As this author points out, very few of us will ever get the opportunity to see the most remarkable of our planet’s fauna in a natural setting. To gaze in wonder up the impossibly long neck of a giraffe, to be awed by sheer bulk of an elephant, make eye contact with a chimpanzee or hear the full-throated roar of a lion, our only option, usually, is to pay a visit to the zoo (and even then the lions may well be silent). But as we all know, wild animals confined in zoos cannot express the fullness of their natures or live in the full complexity of their natural lives, no matter how benign and enlightened the zoo’s management. Therefore, like humans in unnatural situations, they limit and adapt their behaviour, sometimes in ways that appear neurotic, such as constant pacing. How, then, do we interpret what we see? How do we start to learn their language?

Natural science writer Janine Benyus has given us an invaluable resource, a thorough, detailed description—a ‘dictionary’ if you will—to aid our deeper understanding. She takes us methodically through the full repertoire of sounds and signals and behaviours of twenty creatures she has studied. Their natural habitats range across five different zones, from the poles to the Equator, including the oceans. Through the pages of this book we come to know not just how to interpret what we see them doing when we go to the zoo but who they would be—and how they would be—if we were to meet them on their own home ground.

Here are the vocalizations, the body language, the behavioural signs and all the other elements that make up the languages used by these precious creatures who share our world. For like us, they use a variety of ways to communicate, some obvious, some subtle. Almost everything they do has a meaning, and by close observation and the recognition of what means what, we can open a window into their lives. Moreover, we can separate the natural, instinctual patterns they would follow in their native habitat from the adaptive responses they have developed to survive life in captivity.

Observation, as ethologist Alexandra Horowitz says in her Foreword, is not a simple skill.  There is “looking” and there is looking—not just opening one’s eyes and seeing, but seeing with fresh eyes, seeing without glibly assuming we know what’s happening. And no readers of this book will ever be able to stand in front of a zoo exhibit afterwards in a state of non-curious mindlessness, even if they have forgotten the detail (in fact, if I ever visit a zoo again I shall take my copy with me for sure).

Many of us find zoos depressing, even the modern ones that make a real effort to  duplicate natural habitats as much as they can. But as this author explains, in these days of environmental destruction and dramatic species loss they may, like a world-wide network of Noah’s Arks, be the only hope of survival for many of our fellow animals. And, as she points out, this awareness has served to replace traditional competitiveness between zoo management personnel with a new, globally co-operative mindset. By sharing their records and their knowledge, and especially by moving animals around for breeding purposes, as is standard practice nowadays, they are aiming to keep the gene pools of every species as healthy as possible.

So, although there is a strong likelihood that there may soon be no more orang utans left in Borneo, at least there is some chance that we may manage to keep at least a few of these creatures in our midst in the hope that some day they may once again re-inhabit some jungle somewhere and communicate with each other again in the full richness of their true language.

Even though millions of us may never hear a wolf howl, encounter a Nile crocodile in a river or watch a flock of  sandhill cranes take flight, with the help of this book we may at least learn a little of the many and varied ways in which ‘all our relations’ live and love and communicate.