Everything You Wanted To Know About The Hidden Life of Animals

Oct 9, 2017 · 11 min read

Through vivid stories of devoted pigs, two-timing magpies, and scheming roosters, the author weaves the latest scientific research into how animals interact with the world alongside his personal experiences in forests and fields. Ravens call their friends by name, rats regret bad choices, and butterflies choose the very best places for their children to grow up. Animals are different from us in ways that amaze — and they are also much closer to us than we ever would have thought.

Roosters that deceive their hens? Mother deer that grieve? Horses that feel shame? Up until just a few years ago, such ideas would have sounded absurd, mere wishful thinking on the part of animal lovers who wanted to feel closer to their charges. I’ve been around animals all my life and I was one of those dreamers. Whether it was the chick in my parents’ garden that picked me out as its mom, the goat at our forest lodge that brightened our days with her contented bleating, or the animals I met on my daily rounds of the woodland I manage, I often wondered what was going on inside their heads. Is it really true, as scientists have long maintained, that people are the only animals capable of enjoying a full range of emotions? Has creation really engineered a unique biological path for us? Are we the only ones guaranteed a life of self-awareness and satisfaction?

If that were the case, this book would be over right now. If human beings were the result of some special biological design, we wouldn’t be able to compare ourselves to other animals. It would make no sense to talk about empathy with them, because we would not be able to even begin to imagine how they felt. Luckily, Nature opted for the economy plan. Evolution “only” modifies and builds on whatever is already available, much like a computer system. And so, just as earlier operating systems still work in Windows 10, the genetic programming of our ancient ancestors still works in us — and in all the other species whose family trees branched off from our lineage in the past few million years. And so, as I see it, there is only one kind of grief, pain, or love. It might sound presumptuous to say that a pig feels things just as we do, but there is a vanishingly small chance that an injury hurts a pig less than it hurts us. “Aha,” the scientists might interject at this point, “but we have no proof.” That’s true, but there never will be any proof. I can’t even prove that you feel the same way as I do. No one can look inside another person and prove that, say, a prick of a pin triggers the same sensation in each one of the seven billion people on this planet. But we are able express our feelings in words, and this ability to share increases the probability that people operate on roughly the same level when it comes to feelings.

So when our dog Maxi polished off a bowl of dumplings in the kitchen and then looked up at us with an innocent expression on her face, she was not behaving like a biological eating machine; she was behaving like the shrewd and endearing little rascal she was. The more often and the more closely I paid attention, the more I noticed our pets and their wild woodland relatives displaying what are supposed to be exclusively human emotions.

And I am not alone in this. More and more researchers are realizing that humans and many animals share things in common. True love among ravens? No question. Squirrels who know the names of their close relatives? That’s been documented for a long time. Wherever you look, animals are out there, loving each other, feeling each other’s pain, and enjoying each other’s company.

Currently, there’s a great deal of scientific research on the inner lives of animals, although it’s usually so narrowly focused and written in such dry, academic language that it hardly makes for gripping reading and, more importantly, rarely leads to a better understanding of the subject. And that is why I would like to act as your interpreter and translate fascinating scientific research into everyday language for you, assemble the individual pieces of the puzzle so you can see the big picture, and sprinkle in a few observations of my own to bring it all to life. I hope this will help you see the animal world around you and the species described in this book, not as mindless automatons driven by an inflexible genetic code, but as stalwart souls and lovable rascals. And that is just what they are, as you will discover for yourself when you take a walk in my neighborhood with my goats, horses, and rabbits, or in the parks and woods where you live. Come on. I’ll show you what I mean.

It was a hot summer day at my forester’s lodge deep in the woods near Hümmel in the Eifel, a mountain range in Germany. The year was 1996. To cool off, my wife and I had set out a wading pool under a shady tree in the garden. I was sitting in the water with my two children, and we were enjoying juicy slices of watermelon when, all of a sudden, I became aware of a movement out of the corner of my eye. A rusty brown something was scampering toward us, freezing for an instant every now and then as it advanced. “A squirrel!” the children cried in delight. My joy, however, soon turned to deep concern as the squirrel took a few more steps and then keeled over onto its side. It was clearly ill, and after it had taken a few more steps (in our direction!), I noticed a large growth on its neck. It looked as though what we were dealing with here was an animal that was definitely suffering from something and might even be highly infectious. Slowly but surely, it was approaching the pool. I was on the point of gathering up the children and beating a hasty retreat when the menacing advance resolved itself into a touching scene. The lump turned out to be a baby wrapped around its mother’s neck like a furry ruff. The baby’s stranglehold, along with the shimmering heat, meant the squirrel mother could only suck in enough air to take a few steps before falling over sideways, exhausted and gasping for breath.

A squirrel mother cares for her children with selfless devotion. When danger threatens, she carries them to safety in the manner I have just described. She can end up totally spent, because she may have as many as six tiny tots to tote one after the other, each one clasped around her neck. Despite her devotion, the chances of her little ones surviving are low, and about 80 percent die before they are a year old. Although the rusty rascals can avoid most enemies during the day, death stalks them at night while they are sleeping. When darkness falls, predatory pine martens creep through the branches to interrupt the squirrels’ dreams. When the sun shines, the danger comes from agile hawks threading their way through the trees on the lookout for a tasty meal. When a hawk spots a squirrel, a spiral of fear begins. And I mean that literally, for the squirrel tries to escape the hawk by disappearing to the other side of the tree. The hawk banks steeply to follow its prey. In a flash, the squirrel disappears to the other side of the tree again. The hawk follows. Moving at breakneck speed, both animals spiral around the trunk. The nimbler one wins — usually the little mammal.

Winter, however, is more devastating than any predator. To make sure they go into the cold season well prepared, squirrels build drays. They anchor these spherical nests between branches high up in tree crowns and fashion two separate exits with their paws so they can escape any uninvited guests. The nest is made mostly of small twigs, and the interior is cushioned with soft moss that helps conserve heat and provides a comfortable place to sleep. Comfortable? Yes, animals value comfort, too, and squirrels don’t like twigs poking into their backs while they’re trying to sleep any more than we do. A soft moss mattress guarantees a restful night.

From my office window, I regularly see squirrels pulling soft green material from our lawn and carrying it high up into the branches. And I see something else, too. As soon as the acorns and beechnuts tumble to the ground in fall, squirrels gather these nutrient-packed packages, carry them a few yards, and bury them. They hide these food caches to make sure they have food over the winter. Instead of going into true hibernation, they spend most of their winter days dozing. In this state of winter lethargy, they use less energy than usual, but they do not shut down completely like, say, hedgehogs. Every once in a while, a squirrel wakes up and gets hungry. Then it slips down the tree and looks for one of its numerous caches. And it looks, and looks, and looks. At first, it’s funny watching the little animal trying to remember where it’s hidden its food. It burrows a bit here, digs a little there, sitting upright every once in a while as though taking a break to think. But that doesn’t help. The landscape has changed considerably since the fall. The trees and shrubs have lost their leaves, the grass has dried up, and worse, everything might now be covered in cottony white snow. As the frantic squirrel continues its search, my heart goes out to it. Nature is ruthlessly sorting out who will live and who will die. Most of the forgetful squirrels — primarily this year’s young — will not live to see the spring because they will starve to death. Then I find small clumps of beech trees sprouting in the ancient beech preserves. Baby beeches look like emerald-colored butterflies fluttering at the ends of slender stalks and they usually grow alone. They gather in clumps only in places where a squirrel has failed to retrieve the nuts it stashed, often because it simply forgot where they were, with the fatal consequences I have just described.

I find the red squirrel to be a prime example of how we sort animals into categories. Their dark button eyes are adorable, their soft fur is a beautiful reddish color (there are also some that are brownish black), and they pose no threat to humans. In spring, young trees sprout from their forgotten food caches, so you could say they help establish new woodlands. In short, we are kindly disposed toward them. We avoid thinking about their favorite food: baby birds. From my office window at the lodge, I am also privy to their predatory raids. When a squirrel scales a tree in spring, consternation reigns in the small colony of fieldfares that raise their young in the old pines along the driveway. The little birds, which are related to thrushes, flutter around the trees, chittering and chattering, trying to drive off the intruder. Squirrels are the birds’ deadly enemies, because the little mammals calmly help themselves to one downy chick after another. Even nesting cavities offer the baby birds only limited protection. Armed with long, sharp claws at the end of slender paws, squirrels can fish even supposedly well-protected nestlings out of the tree hollows where they are hiding.

So are squirrels bad or are they good? Neither. A quirk of Nature ensures that they arouse our protective instincts, and so we experience positive emotions when we see them. This has nothing to do them being good or useful. And on the flip side of the coin, their habit of killing the songbirds we also love doesn’t mean they are bad either. The squirrels are hungry and must feed their young, which depend on nourishing milk from their mother. We would be thrilled if squirrels met their need for protein by gorging themselves on the caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly. If they did this, our emotional balance sheet would come out 100 percent in the squirrels’ favor, because these pests are a nuisance in our vegetable gardens. But caterpillars are also young animals, and in this case they grow up to be butterflies. And just because the caterpillars happen to like the plants we have earmarked for our dinner doesn’t mean that killing butterfly babies counts as a net benefit for the natural world. The squirrels, meanwhile, are not the slightest bit interested in what we think of them. They are too busy surviving and, while they are at it, making the most of life.

But back to maternal love in these little red rascals. Are they really capable of experiencing this emotion? A love so strong that a squirrel mother places a higher value on the lives of her offspring than she does on her own? Isn’t it just a case of a spike in the hormones coursing through the squirrel’s veins that triggers preprogrammed protective behavior? Science has a tendency to reduce biological processes to involuntary mechanics, so, before painting such a dispassionate picture of squirrels and other animals, let’s take a look at maternal love in our own species. What happens in a human mother’s body when she holds an infant in her arms? Is maternal love innate? Science would say, yes and no. Maternal love itself is not innate, but the conditions necessary for developing this love are.

Shortly before a child is born, the hormone oxytocin flows through the mother’s system, which helps her develop a strong bond with her child. In addition, large quantities of endorphins are released, which dull pain and reduce anxiety. This cocktail of hormones remains in the mother’s bloodstream after the birth of her child, ensuring that the baby is welcomed into the world by a mother who is relaxed and in a positive mood. Nursing stimulates further production of oxytocin, and the mother-child bond intensifies. The same thing happens in many animals, including the goats my family and I keep at our forest lodge (goat mothers also produce oxytocin).

A mother goat starts getting acquainted with her kids when she licks off the mucus that covers her babies after birth. The clean-up process intensifies their bond, and as the mother goat bleats softly to her children, her offspring reply in thin, reedy voices, and the vocal signatures are imprinted in both mother and kids.

Things do not go well if something goes awry at clean-up time. When a mother goat in our small herd is ready to give birth, we put her in a stall of her own so she can deliver her kids in peace. There is a small gap under the door of the stall, and once during a birth, a particularly small kid slipped out under it. By the time we noticed the mishap, precious time had passed, and the mucus covering the kid had already dried. The result? Despite our best efforts, the mother goat refused to accept her baby. The time to trigger mother love had passed.

Something similar can happen with people. If a human mother in hospital is separated from her newborn baby for an extended period of time, the maternal bond becomes more difficult to establish. The situation is not as dramatic as with goats, because people are not totally dependent on hormones and can learn how to love. If people were like goats, adoptions would never work out, because adoptive mothers often meet their children years after their birth. Adoption, therefore, is the best opportunity we have for investigating whether maternal love is more than just an instinctive reflex and something that can be learned. But before we tackle this question, I would like to shine some light on instincts and how they work.

Excerpted from The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben printed from the FREE Buzz Books 2017 with permission of Greystone. For more information and to download all of the excerpts, go to Buzz Books.Excerpt

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