“If you want to turn the world around, you have to turn it upside down.” ~ Canadian indigenous 14-year-old singing at COP21 climate conference
Koko is the gorilla who learned sign language to speak to humans, who met Robin Williams and laughed with him in a tickling contest, who adopted a kitten and mourned when she died. Koko gives an elegantly expressed message to national leaders debating climate change in this short video. She says, “I am gorilla. I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Man Koko love. Earth Koko Love. But man stupid — stupid! Time hurry! Help Earth!”
It is our choice to save or destroy millions of years of evolution, the climate, the rain forests, and life on earth. We depend on this fragile, interwoven and miraculous evolution of other beings.
We must change — the upside down kind of change.
It was timely that last week Kathleen Dunn hosted a show on Wisconsin Public Radio featuring Carl Safina, Ph.D. in ecology, of Stony Brook University. He has just published a book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.”
Safina starts the interview by expressing how a lot of people are threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel very much like we do. He speaks of meeting a woman who has studied elephants for over 40 years. When he asked her how her study helps us understand humanity, she said, “I am interested in elephants.” The lives of other species are not all about us. He realized how shallow the question was. He would go deeper. In fact, he said of all seven books he has written, studying the emotional lives of animals was the experience most totally immersive and captivating.
He really wanted to write about the lives of animals without the influence of humans, but realized he could not give an accurate accounting without acknowledging the pressure of humans and their violence. In every case animals are influenced by us.
Poignantly, Safino said, “We are becoming inconsistent with the existence of everybody on earth. We are reducing the numbers of every other animal on earth. … Elephants and other animals have been living on the planet for millions of years across Asia and Africa. They are running out of room.”
Dunn says, “People are killing them.” This sad cartoon explains more.
Natural deaths of elephants have rarely been witnessed. As an elephant was dying, her elephant friend stayed by her side for days, trying to help her to her feet. She was visited regularly by other family members, and when she died, they returned to mourn, touching her teeth and tusks, the most recognizable parts of her remains.
Safina’s book recounts a female wolf with pups half grown, in Yellowstone in winter. She leaves her pups to fend for themselves for a week when her mate is killed. Safino describes this as mourning — breaking her pattern, leaving to go where there was no food and no prey, very much like someone needing time to oneself to process loss and grief.
He documents a baby humpback whale dying and being washed ashore, and a lighthouse caretaker hearing mournful whale sounds coming in across the ocean.
Safino says, “Perhaps we are not top dog anymore.” Brain technology is teaching us that the neurons and structures of our brains, the hormones, sleep and dream brain activity of humans and other animals are the same.
He makes the case that anthropomorphism, so shunned by scientists, is likely the first guess about animal behavior. If an animal acts curious, playful, frightened, he most likely is! During the program, Dunn asks Safino if anthropomorphism is allowed in academia now. He replies that it is not for those who study animal behavior in contraptions and cages (like animal research here at the UW Primate Center), but for those studying animals in natural environments, it is very obvious.
A caller to the show asked about animal creativity. Safino told an amazing story of a baby dolphin watching a keeper taking a cigarette break, then going to its mother, nursing, and returning to emit a cloud of milk. Obviously the dolphin immitated the visual cloud of smoke with the cloud of milk. Safino says, “When people use one thing to represent another, we call that art.” He cites the preference of birds for mates with prettier plumage or better nest-building skills. He tells of animals sitting together watching beautiful sunsets.
Joe Hutto, a biologist who lived with mule deer for seven years, found the same truth. Deer suffer greatly and mourn when their friends, offspring and mates are killed. They are deeply emotional and bonded. They have feelings and needs and are not just numbers to be managed on the landscape.
What could it mean in 2016 to know other species on this earth are just like us? It could mean ending slaughterhouses, ending hunting and trapping animals for their flesh and skins and heads on walls. It could mean ending the destruction of our oceans. It could mean ending war.
It could open a whole new world of discovery and amazing new friendships.
Safino says, “How many people have the actual experience of raising a wild being? When you do it is astonishing how relational, responsive, and playful they are. How they remember you.” He tells of a tiny squirrel he raised and released and how she would return every day to jump all over him and get tickled.
He said, “It is embarrassing to say it’s surprising. They have always been this way.”
Let 2016 be the year we turn the world around and upside down to keep it spinning with life.
Happy New Year!