Yale University Press, 2017
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Its publisher describes this book as an: unprecedented scientific journey into the minds and experiences of grizzlies, sharks, rattlesnakes, crocodiles and other carnivores, and I can totally affirm the accuracy of that description.
In its fascinating and informative pages we learn that: …great white sharks express tender maternal feelings, rattlesnakes make friends, orcas abide by an ancient moral code, and much more. These creatures we have been conditioned to think of not only as ‘the other’ but as one-dimensional beings whose only attributes are that they are fierce and scary and potentially dangerous to human life are, in fact, as complex and multi-dimensional as we are, and share the rainbow of emotions that humans experience, including psychological trauma.
The reader will probably be surprised to discover that in many cases, if not most, those creatures upon whom we have projected the ‘bad guy’ image are not in the least interested in attacking humans. There are a few exceptions, but, apart from defending themselves or their young when they are cornered or threatened, most carnivores prefer to avoid human company altogether and get on with their lives in peace.
So why does the myth persist, in so many quarters, that these animals—wolves, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, pumas etc.—are a threat to life, limb and livelihood and need to be exterminated?
It seems that sadly, an atavistic yearning for the hunt that lingers in certain quarters of the human population has created a highly lucrative industry, particularly in North America, that has a vested interest in maintaining the myth of the dangerous-to-humans predator who is also a threat to livestock (and thus to profits).
The author maintains that even the prohibition against feeding brown bears, which is standard policy in America’s National and State parks, may have less to do with ursine wellbeing than with this cultural need to maintain the stereotype of bears as dangerous creatures. I had not thought of it this way before. To be sure, we are doing the bears a favour by keeping them from ingesting non nutritious junk food. But in my experience every campground and picnic area in the world has its resident ‘moochers’, whether blackbirds, raccoons, squirrels, or whatever (I’ve seen sandwiches whisked away by gulls, pelicans, emus, kangaroos, kookaburras and monkeys, to name just a few) yet much less effort is expended on warning visitors against feeding those non- ‘dangerous’ species. And unlike bears, they are normally not forcibly removed, relocated or killed for their begging habits.
Even if all this book gave us was a set of deep insights into the emotional lives of carnivores it would be both interesting and useful. However, its message about the stereotyping of predators and the ecological imbalances that have historically occurred—and are still occurring—from our ‘war’ against them is also one that everyone needs to hear.
Thirdly, another major point which every reader should find deeply troubling is that in an alarming number of cases the normative behavioural and social patterns of whole animal communities have been not only temporarily but permanently altered by what humans have done to them.
Following on from the discovery that many African elephants are exhibiting atypical dysfunctional behaviour arising from human-caused post traumatic stress, it has recently been shown that the same thing is happening in various carnivore populations. The new science of epigenetics tells us that dysfunctional behaviour patterns can be—and in fact are being—inherited. So, because of our interference, certain pathological behaviours are now being documented in populations where they had almost never occurred before.
The author’s overall aim, with this book, is: to compel scientists and non-scientists alike to openly accept that we are kin with the finned, feathered, furred, and scaled. Once the distorting lens of modernity is set aside, any outward differences between herbivore and carnivore fade in the glaring light of similarity. Like the elephant, the animal eater can be flooded with emotions. Like the elephant, the puma shares tender moments with friends and family, and like the elephant, the crocodile exercises keen intelligence and restraint and basks in nature’s caressing sunlight. And, like those of the elephants, carnivore minds will, when tormented, contract into the oblivion of the inescapable psychic pain for which no amount of learning and evolution can prepare. Their souls are as susceptible to betrayal as any human victim’s.
So often, the blame for that lies at our feet. We need to change our attitudes. That’s why books like this are so important.