Tonawanda News

October 13, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: 'Animal Wise' explores animals' feelings

The Tonawanda News

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.

The book’s jacket teases, “Did you know that ants teach, earthworms make decisions, rats love to be tickled, and chimps grieve? Did you know that some dogs have thousand-word vocabularies and that birds practice songs in their sleep?” 

While many Critter Companion readers might find it easy to believe chimpanzees could grieve, what about the animals that are not as closely related to us?

The introduction of the book puts you in Jane Goodall’s Tanzania where the author meets and encounters wild chimpanzees. Later in the book you learn about scientists from Chicago and Germany who test great apes using touch-screen technology. 

 My favorite sections were the first, second and fifth chapters, which were about ants, archer fish and rats.

I probably liked these chapters most of all because I could relate to them and learning the thoughts of such tiny animals seems like a challenge.

The first chapter describes a scientist and his graduate students working to find teaching in non-humans. Just as it seemed like they found teaching in the animal kingdom, other scientists keep changing the definition, to exclude their ant subjects. Zooming in on the ants’ level and reading about how the individual ants slow down their own movements, to modify and teach their ant students was really interesting. It makes me want to have an ant farm again! 

Morell writes about the passion the scientists share and it is inspiring. Two of the scientists, who are married to each other, both study ants and they truly care about their subjects. They even take their subjects home with them and care for them in their garage, which is so filled with ant condos — Petri dishes — that they can’t keep their car inside.

I am sure loyal readers will remember that 57 weeks ago I wrote an article about keeping archer fish as pets. Morell travels to Germany to see firsthand these “sharpshooting” fish not only hit stationary targets, but learn and imitate each other when moving objects are introduced. The best part of this chapter was the reason why the scientist started studying them: They were his pets initially, and later realized their potential ability.

As always I enjoyed the footnotes in each of the chapters, learning the detailed facts about each species or additional studies taking place. I enjoyed the subject matter and the way that it was approached. The author found scientists that did not merely guess what the animals’ thoughts were but rather studied them objectively. And by doing so, opened up our world view of what makes us different from the animal world. I would answer: not much.

“Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures” is available through Crown Publishing Group.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.