Imagine a six-foot-tall, muscular, 212-pound black convict shedding tears while reading Sam Mowe’s interview with Carl Safina [“Signs of Intelligent Life,” August 2016]. That was me.
Afterward I thought about how for so long I’d considered human animals superior to, well, animal animals. The only exception I’d allowed was dogs, because I could tell they wanted many of the same things I did: love, affection, companionship.
The interview educated me profoundly and encouraged me to try to understand all of God’s creatures.
Why, when discussing intelligence in animals, do we surrender our own intelligence? Carl Safina’s story about dolphins acting skittish because someone on a research boat was dead was the epitome of anthropomorphic gibberish. Maybe they were skittish because a shark was nearby; maybe a dolphin had recently been killed by a propeller; maybe the boat was leaking fuel.
Moreover, by Safina’s logic, the parts of the U.S. Constitution dealing with life, liberty, and happiness should apply to all beings. “Most other species are far ahead of humans in respect to these principles,” he claims. Really? I tried discussing this with the mites that live on my face before I washed it this morning but got nowhere.
When we speak of animals, we tend to limit ourselves to mammals and maybe a bird or two, leaving out fish, crustaceans, and insects like those harmless face mites, and also dust mites, head lice, and pubic lice. And why stop there? Philosopher Alan Watts defended his vegetarianism by saying, “Cows scream louder than carrots.” But chemical changes occur when a carrot or radish is uprooted; who’s to say this isn’t some sort of agonized death throe?
Every living entity is encoded with the genetic imperative to survive and replicate. The Ebola virus just wants to live. AIDS just wants to live. Even smallpox just wanted to make it through the night until we eradicated it. The essence of all life is the desire to go on.
Educated as a chemist, my mother married in the early 1950s. In those days women had babies, not jobs. Faced with this limitation, my mother read voraciously, often sharing with me the knowledge she’d gained. I believed every word she said.
One time my mother announced with glee new scientific evidence showing that bottlenose dolphins had larger brains than humans; they were actually smarter than us.
I told this to my classmates the next day on the playground. One of them challenged me, asking, “If dolphins are so smart, how come they don’t wear clothes?”
I was surprised to learn in Carl Safina’s “There Is Someone in There” [August 2016] that the dolphin research my mother had read about is no longer considered accurate. No matter what the scientific consensus on the issue, I stand by my answer to that kid in elementary school: “Because they have figured out how to stay warm without a coat.”
I appreciated your August 2016 issue spotlighting our fellow creatures. I have always suspected that other animals are conscious and intelligent. Now that I am an elder, I know they are, though they are not often given credit.
I volunteer at an ornithology lab, working with live birds’-nest cams. It’s an honor to observe and learn from these creatures. When I first started, other volunteers cautioned me against anthropomorphizing. The more I’ve watched the birds, however, the more it’s become clear that they have personalities and abilities. They clearly make choices of whom to mate with (many mating for life), how to construct their homes, and what to eat. Every animal has a great deal to teach us.
I enjoyed reading about the surprisingly human antics displayed by the dolphins in Carl Safina’s “There Is Someone in There.” While living in Washington State, my friends and I discovered that raccoons could essentially be domesticated through the use of food. We set out water and summoned them by rustling a plastic garbage liner — a sound they knew from foraging in the trash cans. Soon we had from three to twelve raccoons climbing the stairs to our second-story patio, where we fed them everything from peanut butter and jelly to chips, cookies, and eggs. Over time they would climb into our laps for food. We named the raccoons, and they would respond to their names. Once, I rustled the liner, then went to get some food. I’d left the patio door open and turned around to find a raccoon patiently waiting inside for me to bring him something to eat.
Hopefully, with people like Safina leading the charge, more of us will realize how wondrous all life on this planet is.
I appreciate Carl Safina’s compassionate perspective on animals. I wonder if he’s vegan, and if he isn’t, why not?
Carl Safina responds:
I’m touched and gratified by these letters. I appreciated Lori K. Gustavson’s sense of humor and would add that how smart a dolphin is depends on what form of intelligence one measures. Dolphins can’t do many of the things humans can do, and humans can’t do many of the things dolphins can do. Since tests of intelligence tend to measure the kinds of things humans are best at, the game is fixed. By thinking that we are the measure of all things we fail to see how we stack up against others. Elephants are more peaceful, for instance, and wolves are more faithful to their families.
Humans are inventive but also destructive and violent, and we don’t even really know what human intelligence is. For instance, who was more intelligent: Henry Ford or Pablo Picasso? Both were brilliant in their own way. Other species are brilliant in their nonhuman ways, and we could learn a thing or two from them. Holly A. Bacuzzi has learned to watch without defensiveness and sees that it can be an honor to learn from those species who have a better relationship with the world. Barry L. Taylor, too, has seen that, in some species, individuals often respond as individuals.
Karl Felsen’s fear of “surrender” is indicative of the closed-mindedness that causes many humans, in their insecurity, to miss much of what’s going on in the drama of life on Earth. We’re perhaps the one species most capable both of seeing and of refusing to see. In opening one’s eyes, blindness is the only thing one surrenders.
Perspective does have consequences though, and Robert Gotch puts his finger on one of those major consequences: what we eat. I am not strictly vegan, though I abhor many aspects of our food system, the horrors of which don’t stop at animal husbandry. Many plant agricultures are worse than certain forms of animal farming. Most of Brazil’s coastal forest was destroyed to grow soybeans on land that for millions of years grew monkeys and macaws. Meanwhile, if I kill a fish for dinner, it doesn’t impair the ability of the ocean to produce a similar fish. So plant-based diets, though generally better, are not perfect. My main objection to meat has more to do with how most farmed animals are made to live than with the fact that they are killed. I often eat fish or clams that I’ve caught, but I haven’t brought farmed-animal meat into the house in about thirty years. (If a neighbor hosting dinner presents me with meat that I would not buy, I usually just eat it, and sometimes we get into a conversation, and the needle moves.) When I buy groceries, I favor food that’s ethically raised, seasonal, organic, and local. Perfection isn’t possible, but improving our relationship with food isn’t difficult.
Finally I was most moved by William Mack Robinson’s letter, because he reminds us that openness is a two-way street. I thank him for that, and plan to send him a couple of signed books in appreciation of his instructive humility, which is perhaps the best quality we can bring to being human. As my neighbor says, “If you’re not too careful, you can learn something every day.”
William Jordan’s “A Cat Named Darwin” [Dog-Eared Page, August 2016] touched me. Love is about communion, and talking can sometimes complicate a relationship. With animals, we don’t have the barrier of speech. We feel our way into a mutual love and respect. These are things I will remember the next time I fall in love. As an octogenarian, I hope it isn’t too late.
I cried when I finished the August 2016 issue. From cover to cover, it was a gorgeous distillation of all that humans are doing wrong — and right — in this world.
In the July 2016 issue Gary Greenberg described how isolated and fragmented communities give rise to anxiety [“Who Are You Calling Crazy?” interview by Zander Sherman]. I thought of my experience, which proves his point in reverse. As an American living in New Zealand, I am struck by how supportive my suburban community is — and how healthy people are as a result. Just after I gave birth, midwives came to our home to check on me and the baby, a volunteer organization (as well as friends and neighbors) brought us meals, and a lactation consultant paid a complimentary house call. I found affordable classes available for new parents, and I was offered free or at-cost vaccines for my baby. None of these services are need-based, but they are provided because New Zealand society recognizes that all new parents need support.
Zander Sherman’s interview with psychotherapist Gary Greenberg was interesting enough, but the paragraph that caught my attention was Greenberg’s clinical assessment of Donald Trump. That Trump is “a menace, an amoral clown, a mean, power-hungry bully” is exactly the way I see him. If a Trump presidency does come to pass, I’m afraid many more clients may be seeking Greenberg’s services.