What ele­phants, whales and other an­i­mals think about.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY SU­SAN SHEE­HAN book­world@wash­post.com Su­san Shee­han won the Pulitzer Prize in gen­eral non­fic­tion for her book “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?”

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

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