What elephants, whales and other animals think about.
Once in a long while, a book is published that felicitously combines lambent writing with dazzling facts, while also illuminating our knowledge of significant and engaging subjects. “Beyond Words” by Carl Safina, a scientist who has won a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award, is one of these exemplary books. It puts forth new information about some of the extraordinary animals with whom we share the planet but whose lives we are threatening with extinction at an ever-faster clip.
The first section of “Beyond Words” is devoted primarily to Cynthia Moss, who arrived in Kenya more than 40 years ago and has remained to observe the elephants in Amboseli National Park. Safina predisposes us to reading about the world’s largest living land mammals with his initial description of them. “The skin as they moved, wrinkled with time and wear, batiked with the walk of ages, as if they lived within the creased maps of the lives they’d traveled. Travelers across landscapes, and through timescapes. The skin moving like swishing corduroy, textured and rough but sensitive to the slightest touch. The grind of their cobblestone molars as, sheaf by sheaf and mouthful by mouthful, they acquired the world.”
Safina quickly asks Moss what he thinks is the big question: What has a lifetime of watching elephants taught you about humanity? Her answer, a major theme of the book: “I’m
interested in them as elephants. Comparing elephants to people — I don’t find it helpful. I find it much more interesting trying to understand an animal as itself.”
As PBS viewers of “Nova” and “Nature” already realize, the basic unit of elephant society is a female and her children. Usually the oldest female is the matriarch, “the prime holder of living history and knowledge.” The matriarch sets the tone for the family. Two or more families with friendly feelings for one another are called a “bond group.” According to Safina, each elephant in Amboseli probably knows every other adult in the population. “When researchers played the recorded call of an absent family member or bond-group member, elephants returned the call and moved toward the sound. Played a recording of an elephant outside their bond group, they didn’t react noticeably. But when played calls of total strangers, they bunched defensively, raising their trunks to smell.”
The author offers dozens of additional examples of elephant intelligence and compassion. They are devoted mothers (in elephant herds, no child is left behind) and caring friends. Moss has glimpsed elephants who have fed others who cannot use their trunks. But none of this protects them against poachers. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Kenya’s elephant population fell from about 167,000 to 16,000, mostly as a consequence of ivory’s financial allure.
Safina shifts the scene from Kenya’s game reserves to Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. “Wolves. Nearly a mile away but clear enough in the telescope, half a dozen big, long-legged archetypal dogs — primal yet so familiar looking — are trotting into the valley. Floating down with an easy unhurried motion, they eat distance at unexpected speed ... minute by minute, they grow closer.”
We are introduced to the alpha wolf-watcher, Rick McIntyre, a career National Park Service ranger, who was offered a once-in-alifetime opportunity to observe wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone in 1995, 70 years after their extermination. He has followed wolves for two decades. “No misses. No matter the blizzards of winter, nor crowds of summer; no matter anything else in the world.” He has had his eyes on wild wolves for more hours than any other human ever has, quite possibly more than any living creature that isn’t a wolf. He can glance through a telescope at a wolf on a ridge and recite its life. The elephants have names, the wolves numbers, but, Safina insists, an elephant is never an it, an elephant is always a who, and so it is with wolves, because they “reveal themselves as individuals, with relationships and personalities. A wolf is a ‘who.’ ”
“Little Red Riding Hood” has given wolves a bum rap. McIntyre and other wolf-watchers dispel our misconceptions. A wolf pack is just a family. What we call a pack is, at its most basic, a breeding pair plus their pups. They travel, they kill (they can bring down elks), “and they are social— very social.” In recent years, when wolves, which don’t comprehend park boundaries, ventured out of Yellowstone, they were shot by hunters. Westerners would rather be the ones to kill elk, yet wolves surpass Wyoming’s hunters in keeping nature’s balance. During the years no wolves yowled in Yellowstone, it was not elk heaven. “There is no peace for prey in a land without predators,” another renowned Yellowstone wolf-watcher tells Safina. “There are only alternate sufferings.” Either predation or starvation makes elks die, and starvation causes more widespread and prolonged suffering.
As Safina writes: “Famished elk and deer so thoroughly scrounged Yellowstone’s willows and aspen seedlings that everything from fish to birds had their lives reordered. No wolves meant too many elk; too many elk meant almost no food for beavers, which meant almost no beaver-ponds for fish. . . . As elk fear wolves, one might say that trees and rivers fear elk.”
The last section of “Beyond Words” is devoted to killer whales, or orcas, in particular those residing in the vicinity of San Juan Island in Washington state, where Ken Balcomb has been documenting the population and behavior of these fish-eating whales since 1976. They are matriarchal and comparable to elephants in brainpower and memory — and for the decline in their numbers. Captured by the thousands since 1950 and further reduced by massive overfishing of salmon, the killer whale population in his area is down to only 80.
Safina, with the assistance of current-day Jane Goodalls, makes an eloquent case for our continuing to live with the mammals they love. He convinces us that if we do not significantly change our values and enforce national and international laws, which all too often are repealed when they run afoul of special-interest groups, we will speed the end of amazing animals and bankrupt our world.
Kenya’s elephant population fell from about 167,000 in the mid-1970s to 16,000 in the mid-1980s amid a flourishing ivory trade.
Humpback whales sing for hours while courting. Their songs, differing from ocean to ocean, have sold millions of recordings, suggesting we share an aesthetic with whales.
BEYOND WORDS What Animals Think and Feel By Carl Safina Henry Holt. 461 pp. $32