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Critters have feelings, too

2007-04-29
Critters have feelings, too

So says ethologist Marc Bekoff. Other books illuminate significance of animals in our lives.

mary jo anderson

IT IS ESTIMATED there are eight million dogs and cats living in Canadian households, not to mention hamsters, snakes, budgies or chickens.

This column looks at three new books with the common theme of animals in our lives.

In The Emotional Lives of Animals, (Publishers Group Canada, $28.50) American ethologist Marc Bekoff looks at how science examines such qualities as "joy, sorrow and empathy" in animals. Bekoff declares that it is "because animals have emotions that we are so drawn to them; lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication."

Not all in the scientific community are willing to accept the techniques and ideas found in the work of biologists and ethologists like Bekoff. But the field is growing and there are many, including Jane Goodall, Konrad Lorenz and even Charles Darwin, whose work has greatly influenced this area of science and set the standards of methodology. I was dismayed to find, in the first two chapters of Bekoff's book, poorly presented arguments and ideas.

One of Bekoff's main arguments is against that part of the scientific community that refuses to accept anecdotal evidence of animal behaviour. Bekoff damages his argument and his book by including "cute" stories of actions by animals as though they prove his point scientifically.

"Identifying emotions with scientific rigor can be tricky," Bekoff writes, "and to do so, researchers usually consider the sum of actions, behaviors, and expressions they're seeing, as well as the larger context of the situation."

It is troubling Bekoff does not stick to these standards in his own book. For example, he describes seeing near his home a small, female, red fox kicking debris on the carcass of a dead fox. Bekoff explains, "She'd kick dirt, stop, look at the carcass, and intentionally kick again. I observed this ritual for a minute."

Bekoff returns some time later to find the dead animal "totally buried." From his very brief observation he wonders if he has "just seen a fox funeral?"

Admittedly, I know nothing of fox behaviour, but I would think to consider other explanations for the actions of the female fox before attributing the explanation of a "funeral." Perhaps a fox would feel fear rather than grief on seeing another fox dead. Perhaps covering the dead fox was for safety, to keep predators away. Perhaps the fox was covering the carcass for a hundred reasons. But after a minute's observation, it is dangerous to conclude anything.

To witness an animal act from joy, sorrow, or compassion is within many of our own, personal experiences. But such information must be recorded dispassionately and with an open mind, which posits many interpretations.

Bekoff reminds us that humans are indeed animals so it should seem beyond question that other animals have emotions.

Where I have absolutely no quarrel with his ideas and opinions is in the area of ethics. He contends that much is still to be learned about animal emotions, "what we already know should be enough to inspire changes in the way we treat animals."

From Chapter Three through to the end of the book, Bekoff presents ideas that, for the most part, are well reasoned and presented in prose that are reasonably well written. But the first two chapters seriously detract from his message and his information, and overall, the book's prose is clunky and repetitive.

Keeping Chickens (David and Charles, $24.99) is a profusely illustrated guide to everything you might want to know about chickens.

In this age of avian flu, many might not want to raise fowl. But when I was a bookseller, I was astonished at how many books about chickens sold the minute they hit the shelves.

So this informative, full-colour reference will delight those who just want to spend some time with chickens without the work.

When young, I spent many deliriously happy hours reading every "horse" book available: The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley and National Velvet by Enid Bagnold were among my favourites. The God of Animals (Simon & Schuster, $29.99) is not a novel for young readers, though the narrator is 12-year-old Alice Winston, but it is a novel about horses.

It is also a subtle coming of age story that is perceptively written. Alice is left to help her father on their farm when her older sister, Nona, runs away to marry her rodeo cowboy boyfriend. Nona has been a prize-riding rider and has been the focus of their father's attention.

Alice's mother has spent most of the 12 years of Alice's life sequestered in a bedroom upstairs. Nona explains that the mother had handed baby Alice to her, "had said she was tired, and gone upstairs to rest."

"She never came back down," Alice states plainly.

From her vantage point, the mother can see much of what happens on the ranch. The father attempts to brighten their economic prospects by accepting "boarders" who leave their horses in the ranch's care. He also gives riding lessons to Sheila Altman, daughter of a wealthy family. Though Sheila possesses no natural talent or skill, Alice's father leads both the mother and daughter into thinking she can be a winning ribbon competitor.

Alice, like her mother, sees very clearly what is going on at the ranch. She watches her father manipulate Sheila and Mrs. Altman's wallet, and she watches her father develop a relationship with Patty Jo, one of the women who boards a horse at the ranch.

Alice longs to be the centre of her father's attention. After the father buys a wildly high-spirited horse at an auction, Alice knows he will never look at her the way he looks at the horse.

"Once, he had looked at Sheila Altman that way, and before her, my sister. There must have been a time, back before I had knowledge or language or memory, when he looked at me that way too."

In her loneliness, Alice begins making late night phone calls to an English teacher at her school.

Mr. Delmar, as lonely as Alice, engages in philosophical and quirky conversations with the young girl. During one phone call, Mr. Delmar cautions Alice that the world is a dangerous place and that she must "be careful."

When Alice asks if he is careful, Mr. Delmar replies, "All things considered, I would say that I am very careless."

The novel slowly unfolds through a long hot summer.

Alice learns much about her family and herself, about loss and about what arrangements adults make to carry that loss.

Mary Jo Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax.
 

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