Tonawanda News

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October 13, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: 'Animal Wise' explores animals' feelings

Tonawanda News — To be fair, I was going into this book a little leery. 

As a professional zoo animal trainer I know that constructs are not helpful. Constructs are words that we use to label the animals we work with (e.g. dominant, aggressive, sweet). They don’t get you anywhere, they are circular. You will find yourself in a rut, if you try to change behavior by listing all of the labels associated with that animal.

Dr. Susan Friedman, a psychology professor at Utah State University, says an animal doesn’t approach because it’s sweet; it’s called sweet because it approaches. Another example is an animal doesn’t bite because it’s dominant; instead, it’s called dominant because it bites.

I though, like behavior, am not one-dimensional. I wanted to give the book “Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures” by Virginia Morell a chance. Afterall, my mother recommended a long time ago that I write about animals’ feelings. 

In addition to training animals for a living, I also have many critter companions at home. When I talk as if I were my cat Julian I use a high-pitched, innocent, child-like voice and end all my sentences with “meow.” I may pretend I know what my pets are thinking, but I am just making it up. Giving animals human characteristics is fun and all, but is it accurate or more importantly worthwhile? How do we really know what their thoughts or emotions are?

Measurability is the way we know the truth. It is the most fundamental theme of science. If it can be measured, there can be facts and with facts comes knowledge. Luckily, the book “Animal Wise” is about the facts.

Written by a contributor to National Geographic, Science and Smithsonian, author Morell does a great job transplanting the reader to the field or lab to learn how scientists not merely interpret behavior but scientifically measure it. Morell’s detailed writing style including her description of the researchers’ Kelly green zoo polo or their battered straw hat covering their red hair and blue eyes, or the sanitary stainless steel cage used for training sessions allow you to better immerse yourself in her story.

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