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Cuddly and cute they certainly seem, but beneath that adorable exterior there might lie a vicious demon — as Wohlleben found out with his own pet
Cuddly and cute they certainly seem, but beneath that adorable exterior there might lie a vicious demon — as Wohlleben found out with his own pet

Peter Wohlleben seems like someone I’d like to join for a cup of tea after a nice stroll through the woods. The forest ranger and author of the immensely popular The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World is one of the most likable characters (among many) in his new book, The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion — Surprising Observations of a Hidden World.

Animals is a natural follow-on to Trees and just as beautifully questions human assumptions about nature. Wohlleben again shares relevant science plus his own carefully honed insights on his subjects — what animals almost certainly feel and what their behaviours tell us about how they think — developed over years of observing, listening to and giving fellow creatures the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a tidy, polite little book. Each quick chapter is a sweet rush, a palm full of candy that makes you crave just a little bit more. Despite the short attention to such subjects as animal love, shame, trickiness, altruism, fear and regret, Wohlleben packs each chapter with stories and, where it exists, scientific evidence, so the reader feels nearly sated. (The subject of grief may be the exception: It cried out for more examples.) As a daily caregiver to animals and a trained ecologist working in the field, the author is well suited to bridge anecdote and published study.

Putting to rest human assumptions about nature

From outside the author’s experience, the stories of animal intelligence and empathy are often familiar: Koko the gorilla who learned sign language; the French bulldog that adopted wild-boar piglets; Clever Hans the mathematics-loving horse. These classic tales remind readers that the debate over animal capabilities is nothing new. It’s just taken this long for most of our species to consider the possibilities.

And there is much material here, outside of Wohlleben’s musings, that readers will find fresh. One example came from a wolf researcher who described to the author how wolf pups engage ravens in play and how the birds even warn “their four-legged friends” when a predator such as a grizzly is nearby. Another comes from a recent project in Germany to try “to teach manners to pigs” at mealtime, in which yearlings learned to respond to individual names.

Wohlleben pays attention. He cares about the little guy. “I, for one, would be really interested to know more about weevils,” he tells us cheerfully. He celebrates the thieving ways of squirrels, and even wasps are nothing worse than “really annoying ... stripy little stingers.” He’s not afraid to be sentimental and a little silly, especially when describing his own animals: “Our dog Barry was a little scaredy cat,” he writes. The family’s beloved goats, whose images grace the cover of the book, make repeat, sometimes goofy, appearances. Meanwhile, hibernating hedgehogs are “prickly little guys” who “roll up into a comfortable ball in a cosily padded nest.” Even a tardigrade — a microscopic, segmented, eight-legged thing — becomes an animal with “a cuddly body.” He calls them “little bears.”

Clearly Wohlleben approves of anthropomorphic terms — in fact, he suggests that many scientists’ and policymakers’ refusal to use them is misguided. Though schooled to think otherwise, I was convinced, by the end, that such language, used judiciously, does more good than harm.

The occasional factoid or entertaining digression plopped into a story — how chickens remain perched while sleeping, the underappreciated blue-green shine of the much-maligned magpie’s feathers, even the ingredients of snipe mess (a meal to some Central European hunters that includes the bird’s fecal-filled gut) — makes for golden moments that lend a little extra charm to the texts, not that they need it.

In this book, animals can do almost no wrong. Life is hard and living things must play at tug-of-war to survive. The author does take exception, however, in the case of a rabbit from his own menagerie. Evil is a hard term to define, he admits — and one, I’ll add, that most biologists would avoid. But Wohlleben applies it to his own pet, a “ruthless lady” who inflicted brutal wounds on the other bunnies in the pen in behaviour that he reports wasn’t species-appropriate nor morally defensible. He writes of this “bad rabbit”: “It’s not only people who have this freedom of choice [in deciding how to act]; lots of animals do, too.”

For the most part, Wohlleben, even when pointing out humans’ failings in our treatment of animals, doesn’t proselytise as much as nudge readers to look not just at the evidence of animals’ complex lives, but at what’s in our hearts about right and wrong. Whether chemistry and/or instinct drive them doesn’t diminish their emotional authenticity; after all, these same factors drive humans in much of what we do and feel. Empathy, kindness, love — they’re all real and they’re all shared across animals, regardless of how, physiologically, they originate.

Gentle though his approach may be through much of The Inner Life of Animals, Wohlleben delivers firm messages. Especially toward the end, the reader feels his frustration grow at the ways we underestimate our fellow creatures. “When people reject acknowledging too much in the way of emotions in animals,” he begins rather softly, “I have the vague feeling that there’s a bit of fear that human beings could lose their special status.” Then a bit stronger: “Even worse, it would become much more difficult to exploit animals. Every meal eaten or leather jacket worn would trigger moral considerations that would spoil their enjoyment.”

And then comes the slap: “When you think how sensitive pigs are, how they teach their young and help them deliver their own children later in life, how they answer to their names and pass the mirror test, the thought of the annual slaughter of 250 million of these animals across the European Union alone is chilling.”

Such hard-hitting (and rare) moments aside, Wohlleben’s words are bound to touch even the animal-emotion sceptic. With the support of a growing list of scientific studies, plus much thoughtful human observation — evidence perhaps just as valuable, in this author’s eyes — how can one suggest that other animals aren’t emotionally complex, very much as we are? Isn’t the better question, how could they not be?

The reviewer is the author of the Unlikely Friendships series

*By arrangement with the Washington Post

The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion — Surprising Observations of a Hidden World
By Peter Wohlleben
Translated by Jane Billinghurst
Greystone, Canada
ISBN: 978-1771643016

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2018