The Inner Life of Animals

Peter Wohlleben / Greystone Books / 272 pages

In The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion— Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, author Peter Wohlleben expertly blends anecdote, personal observation, scientific conclusion, and inference from physiology and behavior to show us that a wide variety of animals experience a broad range of thoughts and feelings, many of which are very similar to our own. For example:

Animals lie. To protect their precious winter nut caches from theft by other squirrels, squirrels will only pretend to bury something when other squirrels are watching.

Animals behave altruistically. Vampire bats who return to the cave well fed will share their meal with other bats who may not have fared so well. Amazingly, the bats keep score, and those who have been more generous in sharing are the first to be looked after when they, too, run into a string of bad luck.

Animals express gratitude. Four-year-old human Gaby was a messy eater but crows in her yard were only too happy to help clean up. When Gabi got older, she began sharing her lunch with the crows as she walked to the bus stop, and then began feeding them daily at a backyard feeder. Shortly afterwards, crows began bringing her gifts: bits of glass, broken jewelry, screws. This largesse extended to a camera lens cap that Gaby’s mother had lost—one day, it showed up on the bird feeder.

And more—you’ll learn why it doesn’t always pay to be the head deer in a herd, how bees share information about pollen sources, and what could induce a marten to destroy a car.

Wohlleben is the manager of a woodland in Germany and thus has firsthand knowledge of the working of ecosystems and of the importance of animals and insects we might consider pests. Wasps, for example, are a boon to gardeners because they eat worms that feast on cabbages. But lest we romanticize the natural order of a functioning ecosystem, Wohlleben reminds us that “what we understand as a finely tuned balance between prey and predators is in reality a harsh struggle with many losers.”

The Inner Life of Animals is an engaging read and a layperson’s guide to the nascent science of animal cognition. As an aside, some readers may balk at occasional lapses into too-precious language—for example, describing baby animals as “tykes” (although that may be chalked up to an awkward translation from the original German). On a more serious note, the invasive nature of some of the scientific experiments described in the book is troubling. Nevertheless, there is an overall sense of awe engendered by this book. One cannot help but walk away thinking we have more in common with the other animals on this planet than we have differences.

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