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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.