There are some paradoxical occurrences in today’s world. We are witnessing an unprecedented level of animal anthropomorphizing – of pets and wild animals alike, which is often unhelpful in understanding the intricacy of their lives, and we have a bustling pet industry that aims to cover the needs of our animal companions to a fault. One can say we are but steps away from mapping their minds.
At the same time, troublesome rates of decline in wild animal species around the globe urge scientists and environmentalists to sound the alarm periodically. When it comes to our plates, we seem to accept, for the most part, that cheap food often has an ugly side that involves inhumane practices and animal suffering, but the change is slow to come by.
Hence the question: Is there a line between the animals we grant protected status to, even if unofficially, such as pets, versus the ones we use for food, or the ones roaming the wilderness? Only the one humans have created, and an arbitrary one at that, is what Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals challenges us to ponder on.
The divide between humans and animals is a space filled with curiosity on both sides. There are stories of animals that we carry around from the times of childhood till today, each festooned with elements of awe and magic, many redeemed from the solely anecdotal realm by research. Not that they need to be. Magic needs no redeeming, save for advocacy reasons.
Which is precisely why The Inner Life of Animals is an essential read. Aside from helping us see behind the curtain in the animal world, much like he revealed the secrets of trees in his highly acclaimed book The Hidden Life of Trees, Mr. Wohlleben weaves fascinating stories of pets, farm animals and wild critters with scientific research, and in doing so, he invites us to consider a new premise to see the wordless animal realm. What if there’s more to them than what we’ve been told?
From hedgehogs to ridiculously small weevils and tardigrades (affectionately known as”‘water bears” by most people, and if you are curious, well worth an internet search), the author shares personal anecdotes as well as the conclusions of new and revolutionary animal studies, in a quest to provide arguments that animals feel more than they have been given credit for. The reason? As simple as it is morally obliging, the author argues: “Scientists have spoken against emotions in animals for so long, that their view is mostly accepted, but wouldn’t it be better to give animals the benefit of the doubt to be sure they are not suffering unnecessarily?”
With each chapter shedding light on an emotion or life fact, we are led to discover that animals experience embarrassment, empathy, altruism, and regret. For some, such as domesticated pigs, raising their young means showing them how to make a straw nest, and for daughters, how to prepare for the birth of their own young. If the word midwife comes to mind… wait, can that be so? And if it is… Yes, a rabbit hole appears, and the author leaves it to the reader to follow it: “The question then becomes, if researchers know so much about the intelligence of pigs, why isn’t the image of the smart pig publicized more? I suspect it has to do with eating pork. If people knew what kind of animal they had on their plate, many would completely lose their appetite…”
Beyond providing the readers with knowledge about the emotions animals experience, Peter Wohlleben’s masterful storytelling and kind style invite to compassion and humbleness, which is where the journey starts if we are to not only understand animals, but change our ways to make co-existing sustainable in the long-term. That each chapter carries a story of its own is a welcome feature. You can simply open the book and delve into a story, no matter what page you left it at.
The Inner Life of Animals is the book you’ll read while snuggling with your children, surrounded by questions and sounds of awe, and it is, at the same time, the book you can bring up in a circle of science enthusiasts, conservationists, and scientists. It is the kind of book that invites you to think outside of the box and dares you to see beyond the limitations that have us all doubt that animals experience the emotions we usually associate with humans.
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” The world of animals belongs to no nation, but to all of humanity, and the belonging is a two-way street, one realizes after reading Mr. Wohlleben’s book. The Inner Life of Animals appeals because it leaves room for magic, which is yet another measure — albeit less orthodox — of the beauty of the world, one that cannot be quantified but becomes a vital tool in building a better future for humans and the living world that contains them.
Title: The Inner Life of Animals
Author: Peter Wohlleben, foreword by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (translated from the original German by Jane Billinghurst)
Publisher: Greystone Books Ltd.
Daniela Ginta is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Kamloops, British Columbia. She writes on various environmental topics, but focuses mostly on environmental pollutants.