Signs of Intelligent Life

Ecologist Carl Safina’s evidence that other animals think and feel.


Elephants are widely recognized as having human-like intelligence.

Photo by Flickr/Megan Coughlin

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Anyone who’s ever had a pet has probably sensed a conscious presence behind the animal’s gaze, but the idea persists that other living creatures are motivated solely by instinct, not thoughts and feelings. It’s a concept that ecologist and author Carl Safina roundly rejects in his latest book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. “You have to deeply deny the evidence,” he writes, “to conclude that humans alone are conscious, feeling beings.”

Safina argues that the complex behaviors of wolves, elephants, killer whales, and other nonhuman creatures are far from mindless. Over and over he pokes holes in the idea of human exceptionalism, offering examples of animals who use tools, cooperate, solve problems, and teach each other. The subject is somewhat of a departure for Safina, who writes mostly about conservation issues. Through his discussion of animal cognition he also makes an indirect pitch for saving other species by telling readers “not just what’s at stake, but who is at stake.” In The New York Review of Books Tim Flannery writes that Safina’s book “has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.”

Born in 1955, Safina grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he saw relatively few wild animals. His father raised canaries, however, and their tenement flat was always full of birds and song. When Safina earned a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University, his field research focused on seabirds. In the 1990s he worked to end overfishing, helping to pass new fishing regulations through Congress and leading a successful campaign to ban high-seas drift nets, which caught dolphins, whales, and turtles, as well as fish.

At the tail end of that decade, Safina’s first book, Song for the Blue Ocean, was published. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the enthusiastic reception led Safina to begin writing full time. Since then he has written Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, The View from Lazy Point, and others. He also writes for The New York Times, Audubon, Orion, and Time. In 2011 he hosted the ten-part PBS television series Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina, and last year he gave a ted talk on animal consciousness. He is currently the chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University in New York and the founding president of the nonprofit Safina Center.

Safina spoke to me by phone from his home in Long Island, New York. His tone was playful when he told me anecdotes about the animals he has studied and known, but it turned serious as the conversation moved to the topic of preserving wild animal populations and sharing the planet peacefully with them. He hopes that the stories of animal communication in Beyond Words will convince readers of the necessity of both. “I wanted the animals to make their own case for the validity of their existence,” he says.

Mowe: What is the prevailing scientific position on animal consciousness?

Safina: There are different schools of thought. In the 1970s a book called The Question of Animal Awareness caused a minor uproar in the halls of academia because it argued that many animals are aware of the world around them. I saw that book’s author, zoologist Donald Griffin, give a lecture to a nonacademic audience during that time. He spent an hour presenting evidence for consciousness in various species. The first question from the audience went something like this: “I’m sorry, maybe I missed something. You seem to be trying to

prove that animals are conscious of the world around them. But isn’t that ... obvious?” I’ll never forget that. Despite all we’ve learned about brain science and animal behavior, some still say that we have no way of knowing whether other animals have mental experiences at all.

Mowe: So you believe animals possess consciousness?

Safina: Many do, yes. Bear in mind that the category “animals” includes everything from sponges to killer whales. I doubt that sponges are conscious, and I’m not sure about clams either, or jellyfish. But human beings’ capacity for consciousness evolved from somewhere. We received virtually everything we have from species that preceded us in the evolutionary chain. For example, we have a skeleton that is almost identical to that of our immediate mammalian ancestors. Just because ours is slightly different, we wouldn’t say that we have a skeleton and primates don’t. That would be absurd. It’s the same with consciousness. A lot of philosophers, however, when they define consciousness, think only of human beings.

Mowe: Some define consciousness as the ability to know and understand that we will die.

Safina: That’s silly to me. Children don’t know they will die until somebody explains it to them, yet we wouldn’t say they lack consciousness. And people don’t have one universal concept of death. Some believe that our souls live eternally. Others think that we have lived many times before. So the idea that consciousness is related to our understanding of death is ludicrous.

Another theory is that consciousness is what allows us to consider the future, but there’s no requirement as to how far into the future we need to think. Tribal people might know they are going to move to another river valley at a certain time of year, but they’re not going to think about where their small children might go to college, or even what they want to do in five years. The distance of our planning horizon doesn’t make us more or less conscious. When you come out from under anesthesia, they don’t wait until you start thinking about your next career move to say you’ve “regained consciousness.” You are conscious because you are once again able to have a sense of your surroundings. If you feel anything or have any sensory experience, that is consciousness.

Mowe: Some trace the idea that nonhuman animals lack consciousness back to 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. What were his views?

Safina: He’s considered the father of modern Western philosophy, and he believed that the mind does not arise from matter but is an immaterial essence separate from the body — a soul. In his view other animals don’t have souls, which makes it all right to do whatever we like to them; we need give them no more consideration than a stone or a carrot. He infamously practiced live dissection on dogs, by the way.

Mowe: What are some scientific breakthroughs in the study of animal behavior and cognition?

Safina: We now understand that all creatures are related by evolution. We are one family. We have learned that an octopus’s ability to use tools is on par with an ape’s; that some birds can think through several steps of problem solving, even though their brains seem tiny relative to those of apes and humans. But the breakthroughs have been slow. It has taken 40 years for science to recognize the social relationships within groups of elephants or wolves or whales.

Mowe: I know you just said that it’s silly to think of the awareness of mortality as a requirement of consciousness, but I wonder: Is there any evidence that nonhuman animals are aware of their own mortality?

Safina: They’re certainly aware of threats. Fear is maybe the oldest, most widely shared emotion. Animals run from danger, and most behave cautiously in their environment. I’m not sure, though, whether they understand that something could kill them and what that means.

Predators must understand death in some operative way, because they have to chase something living, catch it, and kill it. And they have to recognize at some point that they don’t have to keep killing it. They also sometimes kill one another in fights over territory. So although I’m not sure they have a concept of death, I’m also far from sure that they don’t.

Mowe: Are there key differences between humans’ consciousness and that of other animals?

Safina: I think there are key similarities, and what differences exist are of degree, not of kind. For example, many animals have the same five senses, although some may have additional senses that we lack. Some migratory animals, for instance, sense the magnetic field of the earth. And some animals’ senses are more highly developed than ours. Elephants and humans can both smell, but an elephant’s sense of smell is much more acute. Birds’ eyesight is much better than ours. Dogs’ hearing is much more sensitive. But we can all hear. We can all see. We can all smell. So it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind.

One key difference between us and the other animals might be what we can think about and how we can think about it. Our basic mental and emotional experiences, such as the fear response, might be similar to those of other animals, but humans are capable of more-elaborate thoughts. Our language allows us to share those thoughts among individuals and across generations. We might think today of things that happened many years ago. I don’t see why other animals would need to do that, though. They can think of what they want to do next, and they have an idea of that, and we can see proof of this when they get up to go do something. They are thinking about shorter time spans, but they do have thoughts.

We have technological superiority over other animals, but much of that is a rather recent development. For a long time the most complicated technology in human culture was a bow and arrow. There wasn’t anything you would call a machine. We’ve been around for about two hundred thousand years. When you look at cave paintings in Europe, you realize that there were human minds at work all those years ago, using very limited technology. So it’s not this recent technological explosion that makes us human.

Mowe: You mentioned language as a human trait. Aren’t there other species that use language to communicate?

Safina: Yes. Some dolphins seem to be able to convey complicated information to one another through an unknown method. You can give trained dolphins in captivity a command of “Do something you’ve never been taught to do,” and they will execute some intricate jump or spin or flip completely in sync with one another. No one understands how they’re sharing that idea. They might have a language that we’re not able to detect.

Until the last few decades, elephants’ ability to communicate with each other over distances of several miles seemed to be mental telepathy. We didn’t understand that their low frequency vocalizations could travel through the ground and be sensed through another elephant’s feet.

Other animals don’t have our vocabulary, though. Some use syntax, but not in the complex way we do. Language is more developed in human beings. But some animals can navigate for thousands of miles underwater and return to the river of their birth, or can fly 10,000 miles and return to a nest on an island that’s half a mile wide amid millions of square miles of ocean. That’s vastly superior to what we can do. And if we could do that and other animals couldn’t, we would say we’re superior. But because they do it, we don’t care.

Mowe: So you don’t feel that any species is superior to another?

Safina: That depends. Superior in what way? I wouldn’t say that humans are better than elephants, for example, or vice versa. But elephants do take a lot less out of the world. They experience the world in a more peaceful way. In the 20th century civilized people killed about 150 million other civilized people. That’s not a huge advance over living like an elephant.

One way to see the folly in ranking species is to start by trying to rank groups of humans. Are the rich better than the poor? Are the literate better than the illiterate? Are those of us in Western civilization better than uncontacted tribes in the Amazon? When you ask these questions, you realize that it’s just not appropriate to place living creatures in a hierarchy. Instead we should ask how we can all live together. The Constitution tries to lay out some answers for people in the U.S. — life, liberty, happiness, equality, and so on. Those as to how human beings should try to treat other humans, but to how we should try to treat all species. Consider other species’ treatment of us; most other species are far ahead of humans in respect to these principles. We treat them far worse than they treat us.

Mowe: Are there other traits, besides complexity of language and thought, that make humans unique?

Safina: I think humans are the animal who embodies the most extremes. We can give ourselves credit for being the most technologically talented, the most compassionate, and the most creative, but we also must own that we’re the most destructive, the cruelest, and the most violent. We are all those things simultaneously. We’re the only creature capable of creating global problems, but there is little evidence that we have the collective will to solve the global problems we create. We have developed a huge agricultural enterprise. We have conquered certain diseases. We have changed the course of rivers to suit our needs. But we don’t seem to have gained mastery over our own worst impulses. We continue to fight and kill one another. And what do we fight and kill one another over? Small differences. We hate each other for being different races. And if we live in a place where there’s only one race, we hate each other for belonging to different religions. If we live in a place with only one race and one religion, we kill each other for belonging to different denominations.

Mowe: You’ve said that we kill “because we can.” Can you elaborate?

Safina: The tendency among humans is for the strong to obliterate the weak. Humans have done this with weaker groups of humans — just think of European colonialism — and many human groups have hunted animals to extinction. Often these have been animals humans had been relying on for food. And each year we kill for food billions of animals we raise as prisoners and whose lives are often more terrible than their deaths. Even if we do continue eating animals, we could do much better by them and raise them more humanely. The way people treat animals affects the way they treat people: if you brutalize animals, you are probably hardhearted toward humans, too.

Mowe: We humans tend to put ourselves at the center of the story. What are the consequences of that? Should we strive to stop seeing the world this way?

Safina: The biblical creation story in Western civilization says God made the world for us; we are literally at the center of the universe. That concept doesn’t correspond to reality. In no way are humans at the center of the story of life on earth. We’ve improved our own lot, but for many other species we’re a negative presence. Large animals, in particular, are at their lowest population levels in history because of our incredible destructiveness. We aren’t leaving enough room for many of the creatures who share the world with us. We have a lot of work to do if we don’t want to bankrupt the planet and rob future generations, human and otherwise.

Part of accomplishing that is having the humility to see that this is not our planet to destroy. The idea that the earth was created just for us engenders a dangerous sense of entitlement We need to acknowledge the damage we are doing. Other species manage to exist for millions of years without causing mass extinctions.

Mowe: What’s the best strategy for minimizing harm to the earth and its creatures?

Safina: The best strategy would be to leave them enough room. We continue to crowd other species out of existence and take away the resources they need to live. Given a sizable habitat, they can obviously continue without our interference. They were doing quite well here without us.

Don’t get me wrong, I like civilization. But there are far too many of us. The planet’s just not big enough for this many people — and more — to all have what they want.

The most fortunate coincidence on the planet is that the best way of easing the population problem is to correct the biggest social injustice in the world, which is how women are treated. If you look at the countries that have a flat or declining population rate, those are also the countries where women have access to education, financial stability, and family-planning technology. It’s a happy coincidence that we can fix two major worldwide problems with one solution: equal rights for women.

Mowe: Chimps and bonobos are our closest evolutionary relatives. How are they like us, and how are they different?

Safina: They’re our closest living relatives. Many closer ones, including several other species in our genus Homo, went extinct. Chimpanzees and bonobos are actually quite different from each other socially. There seem to be more parallels between chimpanzees and humans. Chimps use a wider array of tools. Their societies are male dominated, and different groups will attack and sometimes kill each other over territorial disputes. The most dominant males will try to monopolize the fertile females, which ensures that the genes for dominating behaviors are passed on. Young chimps are playful and share with each other, but as they grow older, they display more jealousy, ambition, and aggression.

Bonobos, in a way, are like chimps who never grow up. The adults play with each other, frolicking and grooming and even flirting. They often engage in sexual play, which appears to release tension and promote cooperation. In one experiment, bonobos were able to use play — and foreplay — to work together to open a treat-filled box, whereas chimps faced with the same task couldn’t stop fighting among themselves and failed. Female bonobos rule the roost and maintain the peace, frequently using sex to settle disputes, and bonobo males tend to father equivalent numbers of children.

We don’t know how the differences between chimps and bonobos arose. They share a common ancestor, but at one point the formation of the Congo River isolated them, and the two groups diverged. But why did one evolve the sort of female-dominated society we see among bonobos? So far, it’s a mystery.

Mowe: While we are talking, I’m looking over at my dog, who is asleep, and her legs are twitching. Do you know whether animals dream?

Safina: I recently saw a presentation about experiments in which humans and other animals such as cats and rats were wired up while sleeping. It showed that when people are dreaming, their brains display certain activation patterns, and the other animals had the same patterns. So, yes, they are dreaming.

Mowe: What’s the history of humans’ relationship with dogs?

Safina: Dogs are domesticated wolves. The communicative postures we see dogs take — the crouching invitation to play; the submissive rolling onto their backs; the tails between their legs — are common wolf behaviors, too. Their domestication occurred about 15,000 years ago. Different dog breeds — greyhounds, mastiffs, dachshunds — look very different from wolves, and from each other, but these huge outward differences arise from minuscule genetic discrepancies. So little has changed genetically between wolves and domestic dogs that scientists no longer classify them as separate species.

You might imagine that stone-age humans actively domesticated dogs by adopting wolf pups as pets, but it now appears that wolves took the lead by beginning to scrounge food from tribes of humans. The least skittish wolves were able to get closest, and they got the most food, which increased their survival rate, enabling them to have more offspring, who inherited their relative calm and friendliness toward humans. Over the course of centuries, wolves domesticated themselves.

Mowe: What don’t most of us know about wolves?

Safina: That they live in nuclear families and are exceptionally devoted to them, more so than many people. I’ve never heard of a male wolf leaving his mate and children.

Mowe: Why do some people hate wolves? How dangerous are they?

Safina: People hate wolves mainly because they have been taught to hate wolves. It’s like hating people from other races. Native peoples in the Americas have always respected and admired wolves. As far as I can tell, only two people have ever been attacked by wolves in North America. Wolves fear humans, and they rightly see us as a threat, not as prey. In Yellowstone National Park, in the two decades following their reintroduction, wolves have often encountered backpackers and campers. They flee from those people.

Mowe: While we’re on the topic of animal domestication, what is “domestication syndrome”?

Safina: Charles Darwin discussed selective breeding in domestic animals in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species. Though he didn’t know about genetics, he observed that selective breeding often modified traits that breeders weren’t attempting to alter. We now know that these traits are bundled on the same genes that the breeders did select for. So as breeders created animals that were friendlier and more submissive, those same genes also gave them floppy ears and curling tails, variable color and texture of hair and fur, and flatter faces and smaller teeth, for example. These traits come with a genetic predisposition for friendliness that humans have often selected for in domesticating breeds. Those traits together are part of “domestication syndrome.”

Because domesticated animals are fed, sheltered, and protected from danger, they no longer have to survive by being alert to their environment. If you look at a cow, it appears docile and not ready to run at short notice. That’s because docility in domestic animals leads to a better chance of survival in confinement. As humans developed agriculture and settlements and raised livestock, we, too, settled into lives with fewer threats and hazards. Living on farms made us, in essence, farm animals. Like wolves, we domesticated ourselves.

Mowe: In one of your TED talks you told an anecdote about the Gulf oil spill: a dolphin who was spewing oil from his blowhole seemed to seek help from a friend of yours.

Safina: My friend was a fishing guide and was trying to maintain his business during the disaster. He was out fishing, and a dolphin came up to his boat with a lot of oil on its skin and sputtering from its blowhole. My friend felt the dolphin was asking for help. The sad part is, even though humans had caused the problem, he was in no position to assist the stricken dolphin.

There are many stories of animals asking humans for help. I recently saw a YouTube video of some people scuba diving in Hawai’i. A dolphin comes over and swims next to them, and one of the divers notices a hook in its flipper. While the diver tries to get the hook out, the dolphin just lies there. At one point the dolphin returns to the surface to breathe and then comes right back. Finally the diver uses pliers to remove the hook, and the dolphin leaves. The dolphin clearly knew that people were capable of helping it.

I also know somebody who studies manta rays. She says that on several occasions she’s had manta rays tangled in fishing nets come over to her and wait to be freed. Think about the implications of that behavior: they have to realize that we are capable of recognizing their plight and doing something about it. Would a dolphin go to a sea turtle and wait for it to take a hook out of its flipper? My guess is no. The dolphin probably approached the divers because it understood something about human intelligence. But how would it make that assessment? I just don’t know. That’s where it dissolves into mystery for me.

Mowe: You devote a section of your book to stories about apparent “animal telepathy.” What are the most convincing cases?

Safina: There’s one about a scientist who was asking a killer whale’s trainer how she taught the whale to do tricks, and the trainer invited the scientist to come back the following Monday and watch them work on a new trick: She would teach the whale to swim around the pool while slapping its dorsal fin on the surface — something she’d never taught them to do. As they were talking, the whale in the pool started performing that very trick. How in the world is that possible? Did it understand English? The trainer said, “That’s whales for you; they can read your mind.”

Another spooky story is about Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project. For many years the dolphins would greet her and her fellow researchers when their boat arrived, but one day the dolphins wouldn’t come near and were acting skittish. Then somebody discovered that a person who had gone below deck to take a nap had died. How would the dolphins know that one of the humans on the boat was dead? Why would they care?

Because I’m a scientist, my impulse always is to come up with an explanation, but sometimes the most scientific thing you can say is “I don’t know.”

Mowe: But you do believe in some form of interspecies communication?

Safina: If communication means that a receiver understands a message from a sender, then, yes, we see this all the time. Many animals are sensitive to the alarm calls of other species, the survival value of which is obvious. A few animals actually specialize in interspecies communication: Birds known as honeyguides guide honey badgers and humans to beehives. Dolphins have been known to herd fish and signal fishermen where to cast their nets. Dogs often communicate basic desires to us.

Mowe: Humans have been called “the tool-making animal,” but other animals also use tools. What does this tell us?

Safina: A tool can be anything you employ to accomplish a task. Some birds will use a thorn to get at insects, for instance. Chimps might use a stone to smash open nuts. Elephants scratch themselves with sticks. Most animal tools are simple, with no moving parts, but the same could be said of human tools for tens of thousands of years. So, as I said about most differences between us and other animals, it’s a matter of degree, not of kind. We might pity them for not using more or better tools, but they might pity us for being utterly helpless without our technology.

Mowe: Does brain size determine intelligence?

Safina: Not exactly. If you measure intelligence in terms of problem-solving ability, animals with relatively larger brains are more intelligent than similar species with smaller brains. Ravens, for instance, are good at problem solving and have large brains for a bird of their size. But a raven is also about as good at problem solving as a chimpanzee, who has a much larger brain.

Mowe: Do nonhuman animals have “personalities”?

Safina: If we define personality as having different reactions than others to the same situation or stimulus, then yes. In all species where personality has been looked for, some individuals are bold, others shy; some are aggressive, others timid.

Mowe: Do nonhuman animals have a sense of humor?

Safina: Many certainly engage in activities whose only immediate payoff is a good time. People who have dogs can easily attest to how much fun they have with the give-and-take of charging and retreating. Some birds play, especially parrots and members of the crow family. I have a reptile-expert friend who says tortoises play. Elephants sometimes walk funny or put plants on their head and act silly, apparently just to amuse themselves and each other. Apes play practical jokes on each other and on zookeepers, such as waiting for just the right moment to spray water on someone and then seeming quite pleased with themselves.

Mowe: Is there any evidence of nonhuman animals experiencing mental illness or depression?

Safina: I don’t know of any in wild animals. Perhaps their free-living state doesn’t provide the sort of problems that trigger mental illness. I would imagine that, just as some people are born with developmental problems in the brain, it must happen to animals, but oddly I’ve never heard about a mentally disabled dog or horse.

Certainly dogs can become depressed if they’re abused and living under poor conditions. And you can induce anxiety in animals as far down the evolutionary ladder as crayfish. I’ve read about studies in which crayfish were shocked every time they came out, and they started to exhibit symptoms of anxiety. And then the researchers gave them an anxiety drug used to treat humans, and the crayfish began exploring again.

I’ve also heard of killer whales who seem to have committed suicide. There was one in captivity who bashed against the side of the pool enough times to kill himself. Clearly this is not the kind of behavior you would see in free-living killer whales.

Mowe: Do nonhuman animals exhibit empathy?

Safina: Empathy is simply the ability to match moods with one’s companions: If you are sad, my empathy makes me feel sad. If you startle, I feel frightened. Contagious fear is an ancient form of empathy shared by many animals. You can see it easily in bird flocks.

Sympathy is when you feel for another, but you don’t experience the same feeling. If your friend’s grandmother has passed away, you feel bad for your friend, but you don’t experience the same grief. Dogs, apes, elephants, and other species appear to show sympathy. They will also try to help when help is needed. I would call that compassion.

Mowe: Do other species grieve?

Safina: Animals who form strong bonds clearly miss their deceased companions or family members. They might show it by spending time with the corpse or going off their feeding schedule. We had an inseparable pair of ducks at our home, and when the male died, the female called and called and looked and looked for him for days.

Mowe: How did growing up in a city influence your desire to know and connect with the natural world?

Safina: I always had a tremendous affinity for animals. They just seemed incredibly interesting to me. And I’ll tell you, if you’re a kid in Brooklyn, you don’t take animals for granted; any animal seems exotic. One summer night my family had the windows open, and a bird flew into the kitchen. It was this strange bird — not a pigeon or a sparrow. I had never seen anything like it. It had these spots all over its breast. My father looked in an old bird guide and determined that it was a thrush. Its appearance out of the wide night hinted to me at an enormous world out there, mysteriously on the move.

When I was around 9, we went to the Catskill Mountains, and I finally saw blue jays and chipmunks and forests. It was riveting to me. Being from the city, I had never seen a tree that hadn’t been planted by a human. So I did not take nature for granted. It seemed wondrous. It still does.

Mowe: What about national parks? Do they help provide habitat?

Safina: Yes, but they’re too small for large animals to maintain viable populations in them. Most of the large mammals in Yellowstone leave during the brutally cold winter and head to lower elevations for food outside the park, where they run into hunters. Consider that the whole West and Midwest was once home to 60 million bison; then look at the size of Yellowstone, a pitiful postage stamp in the corner of Wyoming that you can drive across in a couple of hours.

Mowe: Where is animal behavioral science going? In the book you say that some animal behaviorists still deny that, when a dog scratches at the door, it means he wants to go outside.

Safina: That sort of denial doesn’t have any future. We know too much now about what animals really do in their lives. We have amateurs with video cameras piling up anecdotal evidence. The next two or three generations of professionals out in the field will really begin to make wild animals’ acquaintance — if we leave these creatures enough room to continue to exist.

And that is in question. In my lifetime, as the human population has doubled, African lion populations have declined by 75 percent. For large mammals — and most birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes — population levels are at their lowest in millions of years because of habitat destruction and hunting. Many species are missing from huge swaths of their former range, which has been transformed by human settlement.

Elephants have been pushed out of about 90 percent of their African range and are probably at 1 percent of their

Roman-era population. Their numbers have plummeted more recently from about 1.3 million in 1980 to about half a million today. A poacher kills an African elephant every 15 minutes to obtain ivory for the Chinese market. Elephants cannot remain on earth under that level of assault. Most poaching is done by poor people who sell the ivory to crime syndicates, but some is done by governments to fund war and genocide.

Mowe: Do international laws protecting endangered species not work?

Safina: The main law is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. For a few years it banned the sale of ivory altogether, and the ban worked, and elephants began recovering. But then politicians started creating exemptions and quotas, and that opened the floodgates for fraud and crime.

Mowe: Earlier you mentioned how the book of Genesis shaped Western people’s sensibilities about animals. Do you have any religious beliefs?

Safina: I was raised Catholic, so I know what it’s like to believe fervently, but I don’t believe in the existence of a disembodied intelligence in the universe. I don’t believe that there is anything to pray to. I don’t think that we have lived before or will live on after we die. I don’t believe that there are spirits influencing us — no ghosts, no demons, no devils, no gods. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe any of it.

What feels most religious to me now is the sense of being connected to the rest of the world. We are all part of the family of life. We are able to sense tremendous beauty and to feel tremendous love. We can experience every moment as miraculous. That is, in fact, how I often feel. The religious feeling is the sense of being connected to something larger, more powerful, and mysterious in the world and beyond, something from the deep past that will continue into the far future. I get that from the living world.

Mowe: In Beyond Words you tell of profound experiences that others have had with animals. Have you had similarly profound connections with animals yourself?

Safina: I haven’t had the kind of remarkable encounters I describe in the book, such as a chimpanzee inquiring about a woman’s miscarriage or an elephant dying in someone’s arms. But I used to practice falconry. I used to catch wild hawks and train them and hunt with them. I’ve watched a lot of freeliving animals for long periods of time — especially the seabirds called terns. I’ve observed them interacting with one another in their colonies and feeding their chicks.

In Alaska I once watched a mother grizzly digging for clams with her three small cubs, about a mile away across a mudflat. Then a male bear appeared in the distance. Male grizzlies sometimes kill cubs, and the mother moved to avoid the male, with her cubs almost running to keep up. She came all the way over to where my companions and I were sitting on big driftwood logs. Then she came onto the same log I was sitting on. A mother grizzly with her cubs is supposedly very dangerous, but in this case she seemed to feel that she and her cubs were safer among humans than out in the open with that male bear. She was concerned about him but relaxed about me, and I was not afraid.

I’ve raised some wild animals: a couple of raccoons, a squirrel who still visits us most days. We bottle-weaned her last year, and she comes back often. And I’ve had several dogs who’ve become family members.

Somebody asked me recently, “How do you know that an animal can think and feel?” I tried to sort through all the science I’ve read to find the best answer. Then it occurred to me: my dog. When my dog gets up and comes over to me and rolls over on her back for me to pet her, it shows that she thought about how good it would feel to have her belly rubbed and knew that I would understand her request and do that for her. She knows who I am and that we are friends and that she can expose her belly to me in complete confidence. And she can anticipate the pleasure that will come when I rub her belly. I don’t think the evidence needs to be more complicated than that.

Sam Mowe’s writing regularly appears in Spirituality & Health and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He and his dog, Jules, a deaf pit-bull mix who dreams when she sleeps, split their time between the Hudson Valley and New York City. Reprinted from The Sun (August 2016), an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than 40 years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human.