Excerpt from Animal Wise by Virginia Morell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Animal Wise

The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

by Virginia Morell

Animal Wise
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2013, 304 pages
    Mar 2014, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Christian Tubau

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Print Excerpt

In many ways, it was because of our fi rst very smart dog, Quincie, a mixed-breed collie, that I began thinking about writing this book. When she was a puppy, Quincie liked to carry a pine cone in her mouth on our daily mountain hikes. I don't know why she enjoyed this, but at the trailhead she always searched among the cones and picked out one to take with her. One day, as we hiked up a steep path, she suddenly stopped, set her cone down, and nudged it over the side of the trail with her nose. She watched intently as the pine cone tumbled down the slope, and when it reached a certain momentum raced after it as if she were chasing a rabbit. She had imagined a game, invented it, and she played it almost every time we hiked that trail.

"She has an imagination!" I remember saying to my husband the first time Quincie did this. I was surprised, even though, of course, she also played imaginary games with us, as most dogs do, barking and pretending to be a "mean" dog when we chased her—though all the while she was also wagging her tail and giving us other signs that this was just for fun. My cats, too, delight in chasing balls, fabric mice, feathers or bits of cardboard on a string—all of which they are able to imagine as living prey. But it's not just the movement of the toy they enjoy. What they really seem to want is for me to play the game with them; and they have their methods—a certain cry and way of looking at me—to let me know this is what we should be doing.

So why was I surprised when our pup invented a game? I think because at that time, in the late 1980s—not so very long ago—scientists were still stuck on the question "Do animals have minds?" A cautious search was under way for the answer, and the researchers' caution had spilled over to society at large. In those days, if you suggested that dogs had imaginations or that rats laughed or had some degree of empathy for another's pain, certain other people (and not just scientists) were likely to sneer at you and accuse you of being sentimental and of anthropomorphizing—interpreting an animal's behavior as if the creature were a human dressed up in furs or feathers. My story about Quincie remained that: a story, an anecdote I shared only with close, dog-loving friends. Although I puzzled over Quincie's inventiveness, I didn't know how to interpret her pine cone game or whether to discuss it with the scientists I often interviewed about animals and animal behavior.

Shortly before watching Quincie invent her game, I had another thinking animal experience—this time with a wild animal, an orphaned chimpanzee, and I was in the company of Jane Goodall, the world's most famous ethologist, a scientist who studies animals as they go about their lives in the natural world.

I had traveled to Goodall's study site in Tanzania, Gombe Stream National Park, to interview her for a biography I was writing about her mentor, Louis Leakey, the renowned fossil hunter who had helped launch her study. While at Gombe I hoped to have some time to watch the chimpanzees, and Goodall thought I should as well. She suggested that I join one of her lead researchers, David Gilagiza, a slender Tanzanian who was then collecting data on mother-and-infant relationships. He would be concentrating on Fifi , a much-revered female in the so-called F-family, and her toddler, Fanni, and infant, Flossi.

Nothing—not the books and articles I had read, or the TV specials I'd watched—had prepared me for my first encounter with wild chimpanzees. Gilagiza and I left the park's guesthouse shortly after dawn and hiked up a narrow trail that led away from the misty shores of Lake Tanganyika and into the woods that sheltered the chimpanzees. It was cool and quiet beneath the forest canopy, and we walked at a steady pace, with Gilagiza stopping now and then to point out plants of interest or places the chimpanzees favored.

Excerpted from Animal Wise by Virginia Morell. Copyright © 2013 by Virginia Morell. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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