Wild Rituals

Caitlin O’Connell / Chronicle Prism / 264 pages

Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves is an entertaining and educational book by Dr. Caitlin O’Connell, an elephant scientist and behavioral ecologist. O’Connell’s premise is that humans can learn from animals to improve the way we interact with each other. She describes animal rituals involving demonstrations of affection, anger, love, shyness, embarrassment, pity, grief, and other emotions and shows how animal behaviors and emotions mirror those of humans. But O’Connell expands on this comparison to explain how we can look to animals for guidance on how to interact in order to grow intellectually and understand each other and our environment better. She uses examples from her specialty—elephants she has studied in Etosha, Namibia, for 30 years—and from other animals, including whales, apes, zebras, fish, lions, flamingos, and even Galapagos tortoises. 

Moving, engaging, and sometimes humorous animal behaviors are examined in a variety of situations. O’Connell recounts, for instance, a young male zebra greeting ritual around a watering hole, where they vocalize, then nuzzle, wrap necks, and nip before displaying exaggerated chewing behavior and teeth baring, culminating in a ceremonial mass defecation on the recent excretion of the herd’s dominant male. O’Connell describes highly coordinated group activities, from giant tarpon fish working together to enclose anchovies before a feast, to humpback whales organizing to create bubble circles in Alaska to corral salmon, herring, and other fish. She discusses Caribbean flamingo courting rituals—which she likens to square dancing in humans—whereby entire flocks engage in synchronized marches, beaks upright, until they pair off, with the most elegant and upright males first (thus perpetuating the “elegant strutting” gene). She reflects on animal grieving rituals that are often very similar to those of humans—especially so in our close relative, the chimpanzee. 

Elephants feature throughout the book, from vocalizations to denote the very human “let’s go” rally cry, to unspoken rituals where olfactory senses are key to communications. Wild Rituals is a fluid read, filled with personal stories and examples of human and animal behaviors witnessed during O’Connell’s travels and studies across several continents. 

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