Into the animal world

Print edition : February 16, 2018

Three leopard cubs found in a sugarcane field near Chamalapura in H.D. Kote, Karnataka. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

The book is an antidote for anyone who labours under the mistaken belief that humans are an exalted species.

WE humans— Homo sapiens—are the wise ones. Before scientists could chronicle the specific ways we differed from other living things, we assumed a superior location in the faunal hierarchy. Self-aware beings, we make tools, have emotions, reason, and so on. Many of us are so used to our exceptional position that we are shocked, and even marvel, when animals do not seem all that different.

There cannot be too many books on the subject. The Inner Life of Animals is another one to pull us down from our high perch.

In Inner Life, Peter Wohlleben seeks to do for animals what he did for plant life in The Hidden Life of Trees. Written in the same simple chatty style, the 41-chapter book explores whether fish, animals and birds feel love, pain, gratitude, grief and empathy. In short, is the rest of the animal world rocked by the same powerful emotions we feel?

The single-celled many-headed slime mould has no nervous system but can still solve mazes and possess spatial memory. Honeybees recognise and attack people who had annoyed them while letting others be. Vampire bats with full bellies feed starving ones with some of their food. Pigeons not only remember 725 abstract patterns presented by researchers but recall which ones earned them treats.

Beavers are devoted to their chosen mates until death do them part. But all these animals are not automatons programmed to behave in a certain way.

Take the case of a male white stork. When his regular mate did not show up at their nesting site one season, the male struck up a relationship with another one. Migration can take a toll on bird lives, so such a situation is not unusual. But what would the poor male do when his long-term mate showed up later? He raised a brood of chicks with her, too, and “ran himself ragged providing for both families”. Or, for instance, honeybees. Scientists used to think navigation needed big brains until these tiny insects proved them wrong. The brains of these insects do not look anything like our sophisticated large ones, yet they build a mental map of the area they frequent and can find shortcuts between locations.

Responsible animals

Even as he discusses the emotional lives of non-human life forms, Wohlleben advises readers on how to be responsible towards them. Deer leave their fawns in well-camouflaged spots since they have not yet figured out how to take turns babysitting nor do they hire babysitters. Well-meaning people come across these fawns and assume that the poor darlings have been orphaned. And they take the fawns home. Wohlleben says their mothers will return for them as soon as they have filled their bellies and “rescuing” these fawns does not do anyone a favour.

In discussing this issue, Wohlleben cautions the reader that mothers reject their young ones if they smell of humans. This is an old wives’ tale not borne out by science or experience. Mothers carried their young ones to term and nurtured them. The smell of humans, however rank, cannot shatter the strong maternal bond.

In India, people “rescue” leopard cubs from tea gardens in Assam and West Bengal where their mothers park them before going out hunting. It is only in recent years that some non-governmental organisations and Forest Departments have been advocating the idea that the cubs be taken back to wherever they were found. The mothers accept the cubs thus returned.

People like to feed wild animals such as primates, elephants and deer. In temperate countries, where plants lose their leaves before winter sets in, herbivores go without food. People think they are doing the animals a favour by setting out feed or hunters habituate deer by feeding them, but they end up causing starvation instead. Wohlleben explains the paradox—deer slow down their metabolism so they can live off their stored body fat. When they eat, they jack up their sluggish metabolism for digestion, using up more energy than they gain from eating. The energy deficit causes starvation. The author shines the light of science on such well-meaning but harmful efforts.

Although winter in the tropics is not as cold as it in other regions, feeding animals does not help. Much of the macaque problem in tourist areas, where they snatch, scratch and attack people, started with somebody giving them handouts. Giving fruits to elephants makes them lose their fear of people, creating a dangerous situation. These are wild animals; they know how to fend for themselves.

Europe-centric

The animals in Wohlleben’s stories tick off each one of the long list of emotions. Many of the examples are from his own experiences with farmyard animals. He sources the rest from the Internet as well as research subjects. One cannot escape the impression that this book is for a European reader since tropical animals do not make an appearance at all.

In that sense, this book is no different from his tree book which was also Europe-centric. In the chapter on grief, the author writes of deer visiting the site where their fawns died. Elephants and marine mammals have by far the most elaborate funerary practices, and their absence in the book is mystifying.

Human bias

Wohlleben suffers from a human bias. He calls abandoned pets adopting humans as “completely unforced relationships”. We have selectively bred wild instincts out of domesticated animals over generations, making them unfit to survive on their own. In any case, pets are used to their meals appearing in bowls. If they lose their human owners, they will look for a replacement because their survival depends on one. To argue that this is “unforced” is not correct.

In one of the early chapters, “Loving People”, the author asks if animals can love us. When the creatures in question are chickens, reindeer and dolphins, it is of no consequence. If large dangerous animals loved us, we would be in big trouble. Their fear of us maintains the peace as they steer clear of our settlements and agricultural fields. Even when they attempt to eat our crops or livestock, farmers can scare them away.

Why do they not feel an overwhelming need to cuddle us? Fear is one reason why predators such as wolves, polar bears and tigers that could easily include us in their menus stay away. If they eat us, they will pay a costly price, not only individually but as a species.

Do we love animals? The majority of people are afraid of wild animals. When they claim to love these creatures, they most probably refer to the cuddly, furry kind. The ones who love snakes and insects are in a tiny minority. In another chapter, “Black and White”, Wohlleben uses our universal dislike of ticks to highlight this selective preference.

In India, people who share the land with elephants, tigers and crocodiles may not love these creatures, but they do not hate them either. They are respectful and keep their distance, and that is the way it should be.

The problem with this human gaze prevalent in the book becomes clear in a chapter titled “Good and Evil”. One of Wohlleben’s pet rabbits attacked her hutch mates, leaving their ears in tatters. Wohlleben pronounces her “evil” because the behaviour was not species-appropriate nor morally defensible. If you have ever kept rabbits or frequented husbandry forums online, you will know this is a common problem. It takes time, effort and space to help bunnies bond with each other before they can be trusted to get along.

On a few occasions, the author does not seem to have read the research he cites. In “Fear”, he implies that trauma and fear perpetuate across generations through genes. But the research paper says people with variations of two specific genes—one promoting sensitivity to fear and the other preventing the person from forgetting it—may develop anxiety disorders later in life. Another paper says stress in early life affects genes, increasing the risk of depression. Nothing about inheriting this fear over generations.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is an antidote for anyone who labours under the mistaken belief that humans are an exalted species.

Charles Darwin had no such illusions writing the appropriately titled The Descent of Man in 1871: “Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” We are still rediscovering this, 150 years later.

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