The Inner Life of Animals

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The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World.

Peter Wohlleben

Translated by Jane Billinghurst

A highlight of Christmas 2017 was the video of a crow tobogganing on a snow-covered shed in Russia. Chris Packham , the English naturalist, showed it on his BBC2 programme Winter’s Weirdest Events. Repeatedly the crow dragged a mayonnaise lid to the apex of the roof before stepping onto it and sliding down to the gutter. Having interviewed a corvid specialist Packham explains that the crow was ‘growing its brain by playing’.

In his book The Inner Life of Animals, German writer, Peter Wohlleben aims to explain scientific research on animal behaviour.

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To the mix he adds his own observations, made during a career in forestry, and incidents with the family pets.   Wohlleben’s earlier book, The Hidden Life of Trees, talks about how trees parent their offspring and communicate with each other.

In a review the Financial Times compared Wohlleben to Paulo Coelho, implying that his approach to ethology (the science of animal behaviour) is similar to Coelho’s brand of cod philosophy. Everyone knows people who seem to love searching for signs that animals are displaying humanlike behaviour. Anthropomorphism is a seductive activity and is popularised by films, TV programmes and You Tube uploads.

Even David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Planet Earth series foreground family activities which remind viewers of their own home lives. It was strangely moving to see the paterfamilias of a sandgrouse family making daily 120 mile round trips to bring water to his chicks. But these birds have evolved feathers which can soak up and retain water so that the young can drink without endangering themselves at a water hole. It’s called survival of the fittest.

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Wohlleben’s examples generally consist of an unscientific sample of one. His interpretations are projected, in most cases, from the mind of the observer, himself. He places the example of the Russian crow in a chapter titled Just for Fun. In Wohlleben’s words the crow ‘clearly’ has ‘mindless fun, and can ‘conjure up happy feelings’ whenever it wants to.

This sort of idea would be fine in Watership Down or Winnie the Pooh but it is utter nonsense in a book that purports to be factual. The words ‘clearly’, ‘mindless fun’,‘conjure’, ‘happy’ and ‘feelings’ are all out of place. It certainly is not clear that the crow is having fun. Even if it were how would anyone know whether the fun was mindless? Crows can no more manipulate their thoughts by conjuring up a memory than they can pull a rabbit out of a hat. Can a crow feel happy? Most scientists do not think that animals can feel emotions.

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When Packham talks about play he means the sort of antics that baby stoats undertake when they are fighting in order to practise being an adult. It’s a subtly different definition of the word, play. Words are weaselly things that must be used precisely in texts that hope to translate academic or scientific language into lay terms.

Wohlleben follows up his section on the crow by writing about his dog Maxi. She would ‘play’ tag with her master but often allowed him almost to catch her, before darting away ‘delighted’. He fesses up saying that the game may not be ‘pointless’ as Maxi may have used it to strengthen her relationship with him. If she were to do this, it would be instinctual behaviour rather than a reasoned choice.

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Image: Reto Klar

The book includes anecdotes which bring a smile of delight to the face of a reader but beyond that the work has no value as ethology.

Works cited

Wohlleben, P. The Inner Life of Animals. Vintage. 2017. Print.

Wohlleben, P.  The Secret Life of Trees. Greystone Books.  2015. Print.

A version of this review was first published on 23rd June 2018 on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

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Adventures of a Young Naturalist

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions

David Attenborough

Unknown.jpegIf there was ever an English treasure who is not Mary Berry, it is David Attenborough. He even saw off Boaty MacBoatface to get his name on a polar science vessel. We all love his dulcet tones as he strides, slightly unsteadily now, over tundra and desert. We chat excitedly around the water cooler about the best or the funniest moments. He seems not to have put a foot wrong in his 91 years.

But, have we been snoozing in the last five decades? Attenborough used to be an animal trapper. He used to ship creatures back to Regent’s Park in unsuitable travelling crates and with inadequate diets. He once had to dig for worms in a tulip bed at Amsterdam airport to feed a starving coatimundi kitten. Hours later he handed it over to London Zoo for lifelong incarceration. He smuggled a bag of scorpions, spiders and snakes into the passenger cabin of an international flight. These activities would not be acceptable in 2017 but in the 1950s they were seen as charming and exciting.

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Filming and recording egrets.  Image: BBC.

Up to 1954 animal programmes on TV consisted of zookeepers bringing more or less vicious animals into brightly lit studios in which they would crouch in a paralysis of fear or try to injure their captors with teeth and claws. So Attenborough and his peers persuaded the BBC and London Zoo to collaborate in funding expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in order to capture and kidnap living creatures. This was the birth of Zoo Quest.

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Attenborough chases a giant anteater.  Image: BBC.

In Guyana carnivores and omnivores were in worse peril than herbivores since the latter often consume only one specific plant, one that cannot easily be supplied in the UK. These species, mercifully, had to be filmed in situ and then released back into their natural habitat.

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Thus the three-toed sloth, with a baby in her left armpit, escaped with nothing worse than the humiliation of being unwrapped from her branch and filmed using her evolutionarily adapted limbs, not for hanging, but instead for hauling herself clumsily along the ground, like a fish out of water. Hilarious footage.

Less fortunate was a manatee. This enormous sea mammal was slung into a water lorry before being immersed in a ‘canvas swimming bath on one of the decks of the ship’. She ended up all alone in a ‘crystal clear pool’ in a London aquarium far, far away from the muddy Guyanese river estuary whence she came.

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But it would be unfair to criticise the youthful Attenborough. He was of his time. The three Zoo Quest books included in this volume have been out of print for many years and it is only now that they are republished, presumably in time for Christmas sales as well as to run alongside the Blue Planet II series.

It is honourable that Attenborough does not attempt to whitewash or rewrite what was done in the quest for knowledge and understanding. In spite of the terror and suffering undergone by some of his specimens it cannot be doubted that curators at London Zoo learnt more about conservation. And the television-viewing public began to appreciate how wildlife interacts with humans and habitat. It was the dawn of the Attenborough franchise.

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Attenborough and his tiny team of peers were brave and indefatigable. They dealt with endless and frustrating bureaucracy as they sought permission and permits for their antics. Struggling with tiny budgets and skeleton numbers they endured extreme discomfort and sometimes danger. Their equipment was almost always inadequate and often broken. They lived on their wits.

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Attenborough holds a 12′ python. Image: BBC.

In Indonesia, determined to capture a large python, Attenborough explained to a group of Javanese volunteers how to manage its head, tail and intervening coils. At the end of the lesson everyone melted into the forest except a boy and an old man. On arrival at the location Attenborough leapt into a tree, sawed off the branch around which the snake curled and gave the order for immediate capture. As snake and branch crashed to the ground his companions froze in horror leaving our hero to manage both ends of the 12ft snake and stuff them into a bag.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03rv2r8/player

The context for these adventures is provided by summaries of the political, economic and geographical qualities of the regions visited.

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Attenborough records and plays back local colour.  Image: BBC.

Film and sound tapes were used to record the routines and rituals of the indigenous peoples. Some villagers donated their own pets to Attenborough’s itinerant menagerie whilst others mounted expeditions to collect desirable specimens. One such received four cigarettes for a gourd full of common or garden millipedes. These were later released back into the forest.  But transactions in coloured glass beads or salt cakes resulted in an ever-growing pile of inhabited cages destined for base camp and onwards across the ocean.

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On the gun-runner’s boat to Komodo. Image: BBC.

The search for the Komodo dragon was challenging. The beasts themselves were easily tempted by the smell of rotting goat. They were filmed and one was lured into a cage. But in the run-up Attenborough and two friends were becalmed at sea with a gunrunner. Later whilst the expeditionaries were away from camp this man tried to recruit Komodans to travel onwards with the party and relieve Attenborough et al of their worldly goods and the BBC of its equipment.

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At sea with a baby orang-utan. Image: BBC.

The episode does not end happily. Although the Indonesian authorities allow the export of a baby bear, a young orang-utan, pythons, civets, birds and so on, the dragon itself is interned. His fate is left unexplained but it seems unlikely that he was returned to his natural home. Attenborough acknowledges that even had the large lizard reached a haven in London he would ‘never have appeared to anyone else as he did to us that day on Komodo when we turned round to see him a few feet away, majestic and magnificent in his own forest’. Exactly so.

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The third and final destination is Paraguay. South America, like Australia, retains some surviving species from past geological ages because at one point they became detached from other continents. Although South America is currently reattached to the north it still retains the armadillos, anteaters, sloths and opossum of the age of the Edentates.

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Attenborough displays an armadillo in the Zoo Quest studio.  Image: BBC.

Attenborough brought 14 armadillos back to England including four different species. But the Giant Armadillo eluded him in spite of herculean efforts. The first one he ever saw had reached London Zoo by way of a Birmingham rare animal dealer who had bought him in Guyana. According to his keeper and Attenborough the antediluvian creature, ‘ambling up and down his den’ is ‘nice’.

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Attenborough with an armadillo in the wild.  Image: BBC.

The colour film negatives were never shown on TV as it was then a black and white medium but extracts, including the python hunt, have recently been shown on BBC4. Some clips are available on the network’s webpage interspersed with commentary by Sir David himself. It’s moving to watch the 26 year old cavorting about whilst the nonagenarian knight of the realm amusedly critiques his younger self.

Works cited

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03ttl3p/player

Attenborough, D. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions. Two Roads. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend supplement of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.