Checking In on the Culture of Macaws, Sperm Whales and Chimpanzees

Checking In on the Culture of Macaws, Sperm Whales and Chimpanzees

How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
By Carl Safina

Recently, in communities under quarantine or stay-at-home orders, residents have looked out their windows to find wild animals that usually stay on the fringes of the city or emerge only at night suddenly appearing in daylight in the middle of the street. The reason is us: Human activity disturbs animals. Even our presence — simply observing, as bird-watchers, or field biologists, or nature-loving hikers — changes their behavior.

The ecologist Carl Safina (author of “Beyond Words” and “Song for the Blue Ocean”) is no agnostic observer. He sees humans as destroying the world for nonhuman animals, to say nothing of destroying the animals themselves, and would like us to stop, please. The question for him, and for anyone with this conviction, is: Short of quarantining the human race, what’s the best way to do this?

Fifty years ago, the biologist Robert Payne first eavesdropped on a humpback whale community and heard whale song. He spread the word about their ethereal, beautiful forms of communication, and the world looked at whales differently. Since that time, whaling has sharply declined. Today, many advocates for animals appeal to species’ cognitive abilities to argue for their better treatment. They’re so smart or humanlike, the argument goes, we should be treating them better. Such is the vestige of the scala naturae that has awarded all lives a certain value — with humans on top, of course.

In “Becoming Wild,” Safina hedges his bet on that approach. The book revolves around his visits with three scientists studying animals in the field: sperm whales in the Caribbean, chimpanzees in Uganda and macaws in the Amazon of Peru. Along the way, he repeatedly emphasizes that the profundity of what he’s seeing is that each species has a culture. Members learn from one another, pass down traditions — a navigation route, a toolmaking skill, even a parrot’s dialect — in a way that was once thought to be fundamentally human. There is something to that. Safina describes a bellicose troop of baboons that lost its most aggressive males to a spate of tuberculosis; a decade on, the troop was a peaceful one, full of males who had grown up without aggressive role models. For similar reasons, reintroducing endangered parrots to the wild has failed spectacularly: Without the social knowledge that is ordinarily transmitted from parents or the group, the returners are doomed.

Whether these are airtight examples of “culture” is debated. But by living among the animals, in their world, Safina and the field scientists he visits show us something else, something too often overlooked in research and in conservation: who the animals are, and how they live. Though researchers study “species,” this category is less interesting than thinking in terms of families and communities, each making its way at a particular pace and in a particular place. More compelling than facts about species are tales of individuals — characters, with personality — living among peers or kin. So it’s the stories of Safina’s days with these animals that move us: the distinctive rhythms of the whales’ “vertical lives” (they travel from surface to depths to hunt, and sleep vertically); the social complexities of chimpanzee life; the sometime silliness of macaw life, as when the birds “goof off” together, hanging upside down.

“To truly comprehend any creature — including people — you must watch them live on their own terms,” Safina writes. To find the whales, researchers drop a hydrophone into the water and listen through the zillion sounds of the ocean for the distinctive sonar clicks or characteristic codas, group names, of sperm whales, then head in their direction where the whales may be a mile below, or not there at all. It goes on like this for days, sometimes without finding one — and these are the expert whale-finders. The difficulty in merely locating them is an apt metaphor for the profound distance we have from these animals’ worlds, from an understanding of them that is anywhere near complete.

The paradox of trying to get others to appreciate wild animals’ lives is that often we have to simply let them be: not cage them, hunt them, gawk at them. The ideal way to observe animals is to see them through the words of others, frankly — which is what Safina lets us do.

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