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Carl Safina's 'Beyond Words': Stories of animal intelligence

Stony Brook University professor Carl Safina, author of

Stony Brook University professor Carl Safina, author of "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel" (Henry Holt, July 2015) Credit: Michael J. Lutch

BEYOND WORDS: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina. Henry Holt & Company, 461 pp., $32.

In the North Pacific, if an orca spots a Weddell seal on an ice floe, it sometimes rallies the pod. The whales will swim away some 150 feet, turn on cue and rush their prey, tails pumping in union. This synchronization forms a wave about three feet high, and, as the mammals dive at the last moment, the "wave breaks over the floe and usually washes the seal into the water," writes naturalist Carl Safina.

Lions hunting on the African savanna "move into 'wing' and 'center' positions, and the wingers stampede prey toward the centers, who lie in ambush," Safina reports. "Individual lions specialize in playing the center or wing, and wing lions specialize in the right or left wing."

After humans reintroduced gray wolves in 1995 into Yellowstone National Park, researchers spent years marveling at this highly social species. "Wolves may not have words," Safina writes. "What they have is: recognition, motivation, emotion, mental images, a mind map of their landscape, a roster of their community, a bank of memories and learned skills, and a catalog of scents with meanings attached as definitions."

Readers keen on the natural world, particularly those cross-species curious, will thrill to dozens of vignettes Safina piles up in his chatty, passionate seventh book. The Long Islander, a professor at Stony Brook University, has won wide accolades for his work in ecology, particularly marine environments. At 60, he is the founder of the Blue Ocean Institute and, like another Carl, the host of a science series on public television, "Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina."

Now with "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," Safina sounds a full-throated cri de coeur against the convention among scientists that puts the interior lives of other creatures out-of-bounds. Animal behaviorists have long worked to prevent anthropomorphism, the transferring of human attributes to the nonhuman.

Safina is not having it, arguing that the fear of anthropomorphism has created its own blind spots. An "elephant nursing her baby is so like us that she might as well be my sister," he declares. Note the deliberate use of "baby," not "calf." The animals are "who," not "it," here. "We've all got the same basic brain" is a notion Safina drives like a rudder through his three main sections: elephants, wolves and whales.

The author is that rare bird: an excellent, lyrical writer with a doctorate in science. He is showing more strain than in earlier books as evidence mounts of a sixth mass extinction, the one caused by us. Even the pope is paying attention.

And so must the readers of "Beyond Words." Behind the delightful stories of animal intelligence come -- like thudding elephants -- long marches through centuries of sustained slaughter for ivory; the bloody, remorseless execution of wolves; the extermination of whales whose scattered descendants may already be doomed. Safina means to gut-punch, and his jabs land.

The result is reading schizophrenia. Amid the parrot grief and chimp protectiveness, Safina jollies us with anecdotes about his own dogs, his parrot, a raccoon his family fosters. He astounds with news that "during domestication, dogs lost as much as 30 percent of their brain size relative to body weight compared with wolves. Pigs, ferrets, about the same; minks, about 20 percent; horses, about 15 percent. Domestic animals gone feral don't regain brain size, showing that the loss is indeed genetic."

Closer to home, humans seem to be down about 10 percent from Neanderthal brain heft, now that we engage in about as much hunting and gathering as your average poodle. Zing.

Meanwhile, dolphins are able to perceive rank among researchers swimming among them. The marine mammals seem to convey annoyance when a human underling transgresses, especially around their young, by directing a sharp slap of a fluke at the human in charge. There are sketchier stories, too -- Safina entitles one chapter "Woo-Woo."

Altogether he tucks 48 chapters into his longest book, plus an introduction and an epilogue. He repeats and exhorts; gives advice on where to send money. He shoehorns in verse from the King James Bible and a quotation from nature writer Peter Matthiessen before page six; hundreds more luminaries wait in the wings.

Still, Safina is worthwhile company, as are the beasts he insists be seen as individuals. "Beyond Words" will enliven dinner conversations, even as readers glance uneasily at their plates, and the diminishing world outside.


EVENT Carl Safina discusses "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 7 p.m., Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington

INFO Free, 631-271-1442,

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