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 by Virginia Morell X
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell
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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

The Gombe forest seemed like paradise. Blue butterflies the size of my hand fluttered among the flowers and ferns lining the path, while a tinkling stream sparkled below the trail. I was just about to ask Gilagiza where in these happy woods we would find Fifi when two dark, furry shapes— chimpanzees!—suddenly raced past us. The second one paused just long enough to slap my legs. "That was Frodo, Fifi 's son," Gilagiza said, a worried look on his face. "You must watch out for him!"

Frodo, then in his late teens, would eventually become Gombe's dominant male. But when I met him, he was simply an ambitious and frustrated adolescent working his way up the chimpanzee social ladder. Frodo wasn't the smartest or most diplomatic of chimpanzees, but he was strong, and as part of his climb to power he had already beaten up most of the females. Lately he'd begun testing his prowess against human females. He had attacked some of the women researchers—even Goodall—and I should do my best to stay out of his way, Gilagiza said. I nodded, although I wasn't sure how to keep an eye out for this particular chimpanzee. I'd barely caught a glimpse of him and didn't know what I should do if I encountered him again. I also wondered if he would remember me. And if he did, would he try again to impress the other males by hitting me? Were chimpanzees capable of that kind of plotting and planning?

I fell in behind Gilagiza and stayed close—as female chimps often do, joining males that may protect them from other male attackers.

Frodo was my first encounter with a wild chimpanzee, and I wasn't sure what to make of what had happened—or of him. Despite all that I'd read, I had not expected to so quickly meet a thinking chimpanzee. To see that type of behavior, I thought, required weeks and months, even years, of careful watching and note taking. Frodo's slap opened up a host of questions for which I had no answers. Over the next few days, my questions only grew as we spent time watching the chimpanzees, most of whom seemed to ignore us. But that didn't mean that we were like rocks or bushes to them.

Once Gilagiza and I sat near two chimps who were busily stripping the leaves from long, skinny twigs—making tools. When they'd readied these instruments, the chimps took turns dipping them into a small crevice in the earthy mound of a termites' nest and deftly extracting the insects—which they then nibbled as we would peanuts or potato chips. Goodall's studies had shown that this termite fishing requires experience, dexterity, and skill. Why didn't the chimpanzees merely spend their days collecting easy-to-gather fruits? That would be the sensible, machinelike response for any animal hunting food in the wild. I'd rarely thought about how food might taste to wild animals, yet here were two chimpanzees smacking their lips with delight. Could it be that they bothered to fi sh for termites because they enjoyed this snack? Why wouldn't animals seek out pleasure and fun, just as we do?

On another morning, we watched from a greater distance as two male chimpanzees (neither of them Frodo) brawled through the woods, screaming and slapping at each other. They puffed up their hair to supersize their bodies and uprooted small trees that they shook at each other like spears. I wasn't sure who won or lost this match, but at the end, their wrath spent, one held out his hand to the other—a gesture so easily understood that Gilagiza didn't bother to explain. The two chimps briefly touched, while whimpering, and went their separate ways. Gilagiza didn't know what they had been fighting about, but at the end they patched up their quarrel, just as we do when we know it's better to remain friends with someone than to have an enemy.

We also spent time every day with Fifi 's family, usually in picnic like settings under shady fig trees. To my dismay, Frodo, who was Fifi 's eldest son, was often with them, but he never looked my way. Had he forgotten our first encounter, or was there no need to put on a show in his family's presence? Whatever the reason, he seemed an entirely different chimpanzee. He feasted quietly with his mother on the sweet fruits or sat with his back to her so she could groom him, while the young Flossi, pink-faced and bright-eyed, swung and tumbled among the vines, as playful as any toddler. We spied on Fifi 's family at dusk, too, as they gathered in the treetops and bent the twigs and boughs into leafy beds for the night, then snuggled in together—yet another scene that needed no translating.

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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