Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

Virginia Morell / Crown / 304 pages

Rats enjoy being tickled. They also have an innate wariness of cats—such that an extraneous variable could be introduced to research from the scent of domestic cats, however innocently carried on their caregivers’ or investigators’ clothing. 

In Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, well-known science writer Virginia Morell argues that animals often do not get the proper credit for their emotional and mental ranges. Covering new species with each chapter, the book explores their personalities, feelings and behaviors (unfortunately relying on some studies—including invasive ones—that seem at odds with the author’s call for treating animals with greater respect). 

Did you know that ants teach other ants and work together in teams, earthworms are capable of making decisions, crows make use of tools, and moths can recall living as caterpillars? The terrible grief experienced by elephants and chimpanzees upon the loss of a loved one is well documented. Perhaps less well known is that chimpanzees get a better grade on a particular memory test than do humans, or that dogs have a vocabulary of more than a thousand words.

Humanitarians, particularly those who are keen observers of animals, may see the findings as interesting, but of no great surprise. Nevertheless, many well-educated individuals have failed to acknowledge the abilities and the depth of feelings in animals. This resistance is tied, at least in part, to the fear of how our treatment of animals will have to change—for it is clear that the wide and varied range of animals on this planet are clearly not automatons—far from it. They are complex beings and humans have a tremendous impact on their lives. As Morell notes in her epilogue after describing the suffering caused to animals by people on factory farms and in laboratories, “it seems past time to find better methods for managing these animals when they are used for our needs.”