Carl Safina Is Certain Your Dog ❤️ You
Ecologist Carl Safina argues that animals – including our beloved Telluride pups – have rich emotional lives. For more please read the story we curated from The New York Times written by Claudia Dreifus following a conversation with Safina.
Carl Safina, 64, an ecologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island and a “MacArthur genius” grant winner, has written nine books about the human connection to the animal world. Coming next spring is “Becoming Wild,” on the culture of animals, and a young adult version of “Beyond Words,” on the capabilities of dogs and wolves.
We spoke over lunch in his Long Island garden, surrounded by his three dogs, some wild squirrels and a group of extremely tame hens. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
When a writer for the Sierra Club’s magazine recently put the words “animal” and “cognition” into Google Scholar, he was directed to almost 200,000 citations published in the past five years. Why the explosion of interest in this scientific area?
I think it’s happened because in recent years we’ve come to know much more about the inner activity of nonhuman minds.
We have tools today that didn’t exist 50 or even 10 years ago. There are researchers putting dogs into M.R.I.’s, and so it’s become possible to watch their brains do things. What we’re learning is that animals do have felt experiences and thus, I think, consciousness.
What’s your definition of consciousness?
To me, consciousness is the thing that feels like something. It’s the sensation of experiencing the input from your sense organs. We’re learning that a lot of animals — dogs, elephants, other primates — have it.
How else has research on animal behavior improved?
Well, until the 1950s and the 1960s, the study of animal behavior wasn’t seen as real science. Until Jane Goodall, Iain Douglas-Hamilton and George Schaller began publishing, there were few studies. They were among the first to watch wild animals for the purpose of describing their behavior. Before, if you wanted to study elephants, you shot them and pulled their molars out to see how old they were.
Thanks to these pioneers, we’ve learned that wild animals do complicated things. Many recognize the individuals around them — even solitary animals, like mountain lions. There usually is a male mountain lion with a large territory who visits a few females inhabiting the territory. The females all know each other. The adjacent males know who their neighbors are.
Who knew that dolphins could recognize each other after a long separation? Yet, scientists report that there was a dolphin in an aquarium who hadn’t seen another captive dolphin in 20 years. When they were reunited, there was immediate recognition.
Frans de Waal’s latest book, “Mama’s Last Hug,” chronicles the emotional deathbed reunion of an aged zoo chimpanzee and primatologist Jan van Hooff, who had worked with her for many years. Though Mama is listless, when Dr. van Hooff approaches her after a long separation, she recognizes him and reaches out to touch him.
Chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants — they’ve all demonstrated signs of recognizing individuals. Videos show that their recognition is not mechanical, not a chemical match with a stored memory bank. It is often accompanied by shows of emotion, which proves to me that the experience is felt.
Has the internet widened our understanding of the animal world?
I’d say so…
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