Do animals feel pain? Do they have a sense of self? Are they aware of their lives? For anyone who’s spent time with an animal — a beloved cat, dog, bird — the answer is yes, of course.
Carl Safina most definitely agrees. But the ecologist, who’s spent his life studying animal behavior, says you may be surprised to know that not everyone agrees — or understands the implications of what it means to say animals experience emotions, have shared languages and culture, and feel pain. That’s because the study of animal behavior is a relatively new field. It’s so new in fact that many of the pioneers — like primatologist Jane Goodall and zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton — are today.
And of course, there’s Safina, who grew up in Brooklyn raising and watching homing pigeons in a coop filled with stacked old wooden crates in his backyard. He’s released a new book this year called Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace that explores what culture means to animals. After studying sperm whales in the Caribbean, macaws in the Amazon of Peru and chimpanzees in Uganda, Safina explains how they’re not so different from humans — they share a common language, teach their young how to survive in unique environments and form social groups. Like those pigeons from his childhood.
“The pigeons would decide who they were going to marry, who they would mate with. Sometimes they would squabble over which apartment they wanted, and there would be some competition for it. And they would then make their nest and lay their eggs and then care for their babies,” he says in an interview for CNET’s I’m So Obsessed podcast series.
“Right across the yard, we lived in a tenement building, which was basically a stack of boxes where the humans in there had decided who they were going to marry. And they made their own nests. And sometimes they competed for which apartment they would get,” he adds. “The adults left for part of every day. And then they came back and had supper and fed their babies and then they went to bed for the night. So the parallels in the broad outlines of life for many different animals have always been something that I just naturally saw. … Life is very similar for many living things.”
I spoke with Safina — endowed professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, a MacArthur genius awardee and the author of more than 10 books — about what we can learn about ourselves from studying animals. We talked about how a number of people have told him this past year that, living in a, they noticed how loud the birds were this past spring. He’s quick to tell me the birds are as loud as they ever were — it’s just quieter now. He’s not at all surprised that during the pandemic, as towns and cities are less frequented by humans, animals have entered those spaces.
“The fact that humans are throttling back a lot shows what happens with the rest of the world and therefore is an indication of the amount of pressure that we’re always putting on the rest of the living world,” he says. The birds “weren’t louder than usual. They were just heard better than usual. And one of the reasons they were heard was there was a lot less noise. But the other was, people were home more and people were paying more attention to their neighborhoods, their homes, their gardens, their families. I think paying attention to beauty and paying attention to love are the two things we should be paying attention to.”
Safina, 65, also told me about his obsessions. There’s the female owl he helped rescue and named Alfie — short for Alfalfa, “because she’s a little rascal” — who built her nest in his backyard, found a mate and hatched three owlets that he and his wife collectively call The Who. He’s also concerned about the future, given that we’re in what he says is a “mass extinction crisis” and that almost every other animal in the world is at the lowest population level they’ve been at in thousands of years.
“I am obsessed with the prospects for life on Earth to continue. There are just literally millions of other species, and we are very hard on them,” he says.
“They are as much of this planet as are we. And what’s happening with them is of enormous concern. I’m doing what I can, and along with many, many colleagues in my profession of being an ecologist and a conservationist, trying to maintain the living diversity of this planet and the beauty. I think that an action is right when it adds compassion and beauty to the world, and it’s wrong when it adds pain and ugliness.”
Listen in to my entire conversation with Safina on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. You can also subscribe to I’m So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, Patrick Holland or I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about work, career and current obsessions.