“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
-Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead
Late last year, at the same time the Presidential election results shook the nation, the majestic Laysan albatross started returning to Kaua‘i. They dropped their spatula-like feet and touched land after months of knowing only air and wind and a wet, watery world. As of November 8th, six had returned to the colony I monitor, here to meet up with their partners and start the creation of another generation of majestic flyers. I knew a bit of history about five of them. I knew this because of the bands around their legs. Read more →
My thick, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, defines “personality” as “the quality or state of being a person and not an abstraction, thing, or lower being: the fact of being a individual person: personal existence or entity: capacity for the choices, experiences, and liabilities of an individual person.”
There are six varying definitions of the word.
Another one: “the complex characteristics that distinguishes a particular individual or individualizes or characterizes him in his relationships with others.”
But what about Hawaiian monk seals?
Last week, I went to monitor a two-day-old Hawaiian monk seal pup. When I got to the beach, the pup was poking its mother in her neck, her back, her broad hips, everywhere, it seemed, except the magic spot that released nourishment to see this pup to weaning. At one point, the pup rolled over onto its back, losing its young muscle control, tail flippers fluttering in the air. There, it seemed to discover its pectoral flippers, flapping them as if the marine mammal were thinking it might take flight. And, then, with a stream of urine flowing from its mid-section—more specifically its penile opening—the infant revealed its sex. A boy.
From behind the cover of some bushes, I uttered, “Little kolohe,” the Hawaiian word for “mischievous” or “rascal.”
Later, I would post on Facebook that he was quite the personality, much more energetic than other monk seal pups of his age that I’ve monitored.
In the confines of the cardboard covers of my dictionary, I am guessing Phillip Babcock Gove, Ph. D., and his editorial staff would not include monk seals in their definition of “personality.” Or dogs. Or cats. But those of us with pets would argue that pets have personalities in the sense that they have characteristics that distinguish them from others of their species.
My dog Nickel surely does. Personality drips off her the way water flies off her coat after a swim in the ocean and a good shake of her body. Take the way she responds to a boring carrot when offered to her. Versus the exciting peanut. Or the way she stops dead in her tracks on a walk when I turn left and she wants to go right. She’ll drop her head, stiffen her legs, and lean backwards, meeting every exertion of mine with an opposing force of her own. Plus, there’s the look she gives me when she wants to sit in my lap.
My dictionary holds a 1961 copyright. The publisher boasts that the dictionary carries the reputation of a company that got its start in 1831, about the same time scientists were performing animal vivisection—experimental surgeries and dissections on live animals without the use of anesthesia. Views on animals have changed much since this time, just as the words in the dictionary have, as well.
Fifty-five years ago this month, Jane Goodall stepped into the wilds of Africa and started her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees. A few years later, when she submitted an article for publication in a scientific journal, its editor kicked the paper back to her, because she’d done something verboten in scientific research at the time—she named her research subjects and referred to them as “she” and “he” instead of “it.” She refused to make the requested changes, and the paper was published anyway.
In May, the government of New Zealand passed The Animal Welfare Amendment Bill providing animals with legal status as sentient beings and, in effect, acknowledging animals are not objects or things but living creatures capable of experiencing emotions.
Last week, a new book published by Carl Safina—Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel—in which he emphatically and eloquently presents an updated perspective on animals: Animals are not the unthinking, unfeeling automatons considered by some of history’s most famous philosophers, including Rene Descartes. Animals may not speak English, but they communicate. They love. They suffer. The play. They connive. They grieve.
One of the many things Carl’s new book impresses upon me is that animals are not so different from us and—this is important—we are not so different from animals.
“Species differ—but are often not very different,” he writes. Only humans have human minds. But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons. Of course, we can see elephants’ skeletons. We can’t see their minds. But we can see their nervous systems, and we observe the workings of minds in the logic and limits of behaviors. From skeletons to brains, the principle is the same, and if we were to assume anything, it might be that minds, too, exist on a sliding scale.”
When I looked at the monk seal and called him kolohe, I was committing a sin against science, one that has long been labeled, “anthropomorphism,” or the attribution of human characteristics onto an animal.
Carl says, “Certainly projecting feelings onto other animals can lead to us misunderstanding their motivations. But denying that they have any motivations guarantees that we’ll misunderstand it”
Pretending animals don’t have feelings was bad science, according to Carl. “Peculiarly, many behaviorists—who are biologists—chose to overlook the core process of biology: each newer thing is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed from earlier models. We inherited them.”
In truth, we inhabit the same world, all us animals. And, in my opinion, in a world where 50-year-old elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks, wolves are shot the moment they step foot outside the boundaries of a national park—not for their teeth or pelts or anything except misguided notions—and killer whales are trapped in 180-foot–long pens when they will swim up to 75 miles a day in the wild, anything that brings humans closer to their non-human cousins, albeit a walk in the words, an African safari, or a book is a good thing, a vital thing, a requirement for the survival of all—humans and non-humans alike. Because I have found the more interest we have in something, the more we understand it, the more respect we have for it, and the better care we’ll take of it.
I’ll never forget the night I sat in an auditorium and watched a slide show by nature photographer Susan Middleton. The image she flashed on screen of a dead Laysan albatross with a belly full of plastic has never left me. It propelled me to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to assist in census research. It led me to survey albatross courtship, breeding, and chick rearing for six years now. It inspired my refusal of single-serving plastic bottles of water and soda and juice.
In Carl’s new book, he takes a deep dive into the emotional and thinking lives of, primarily, elephants, wolves, and killer whales. He shares the known science and his and other biologists’ personal stories about the animals they research, including those things science has yet to explain.
As a result, let me warn you right now: I have a new albatross. I don’t mean a burden or a curse as popular culture thinks of an albatross, but an omen of good as the presence of an albatross following a ship originally signified. Because I consider it good that my new animal fascination, after reading Carl’s book, is the killer whale.
I mean, their basic social unit is a close-knit, stable family—with both daughters and sons remain with the mother for her life. Their society is matriarchal, possibly explaining why females live decades after their childbearing years are over—into their 70s and 80s—playing a crucial role in their family’s survival, adult children included. Adolescent females help care for the family’s young. They hunt cooperatively and methodically to take down prey even larger than they are but often share food, giving it to another member of their family before eating themselves. Killer whales possess a culture that they pass down to their young, be it their pod’s specific hunting strategies or their pod’s distinct set of vocalizing calls. Too, killer whales have spindle neurons in their brains, once thought to be unique to humans. For animals with 28- to 32-foot bodies and four-inch teeth, they are rather peaceful among their own kind, even those of other families and pods. What’s more, no free-living killer whale has ever killed a human. You read that correctly.
Carl writes, “What doesn’t make sense is: gigantic mega-brained predators patterned like pirate flags who eat everything from sea otters to blue whales and spend hours batting thousand-pound sea lions into the air specifically to beat them up before drowning and shredding them; who wash seals off ice and crush porpoises and slurp swimming deer and moose—indeed, seemingly any mammal they come across in the water; yet who have never so much as upended a single kayak and who appear—maybe—to bring lost dogs home.”
Killer whales may even enjoy a bit of music.
“Argentina is one of the places where killer whales sometimes burst through the surf to drag sea lions right off the beaches,” Carl writes. “You see a video of this and you think it would be insanity to stroll near the shoreline. Yet when park ranger Roberto Bubas stepped into the water and played his harmonica, the same individual killer whales would form a ring around him like puppies. They’d rally playfully around his kayak and come as, by names he gave them, he called to them.”
I mean, really, how cool are killer whales?
The other thing about killer whales, and other animals, Carl says, is they have personalities. Maybe Webster’s needs to redefine the word “personality” in light of today’s view of animals. Or, better yet, create a new word altogether. Carl suggests, “individuality.” But I’m thinking there’s a better word. Something less clinical than individuality with its hard syllables. Something with more, well, personality. Or, maybe, we just need to change the definition of “person.” Whoa! Now, there’s a can of worms;-)
In the mean time, I’ll just say that young Hawaiian monk seal pup: He’s a character.
A month ago, when I was in Kalaupapa on Molokai, I spotted some dolphins swimming in the bay outside our kitchen window and called out, “Spinners.”
Spinner dolphins are not listed as threatened or endangered by the Endangered Species Act. Because they forage far offshore at night and rest in sandy-bottom, near-shore bays during the day, they are, in certain places, a fairly common sight in Hawaii.
But the two biologists with whom I’d spent my weekend both jumped up from the table and raced outside, one grabbing a pair of binoculars on the way.
Combined these two biologists, who have spent months on end in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, have probably seen more endangered wildlife than I will ever tally in my lifetime. And, yet, when I say, “Spinners,” they jump to their feet to watch these common dolphins.
Their reaction feels familiar.
In May, when I was in Missouri visiting my family, we couldn’t drive down this one particular road without my father slowing the vehicle and my mother saying, “Watch for deer.”
I’ve grown up watching for deer—from the windows of cars and houses and, once, from the hidden confines of a deer blind with my grandfather. (Grandmother had a rule: No shooting deer that roamed into the yard. In the case of venison, Grandpa had to leave the farm to put food on the table. And that day I accompanied him? I brought a book.)
But fifty years of vigilant deer watching is not enough. Neither is seventy-five, as is the case with my mother. Sure, when we’re driving, we watch for deer for safety reasons. But the real reason is the same as what drove my biologist friends out of their chairs and outside: For the joy of watching wildlife.
Animals have a magnetic pull on my family.
When a red-tailed hawk started picking off bunnies in the neighborhood, my full-grown adult brother spent last summer keeping an eye on one rabbit, in particular. When it reappeared the first time this spring while I was visiting, my dad called, “Look, it’s Kirk’s rabbit,” and my brother (and the rest of us) ran for the window.
Here, on Kauai, my friend and fellow albatross watcher Hob texts me every November. “Have you seen any yet?” she asks. And when I do see my first Laysan albatross of the season, I text, “They’re back.”
This past albatross nesting season, Cornell University stationed a bird cam on one particular Laysan albatross nest. The camera went live on the very day the chick, named Kaloakulua, emerged from her calcium enclosure.
Nearly two million people—my mother included—in nearly 200 countries watched Kaloakulua grow up.
When I returned home to Kauai after my spring visit, my mom would text me when one of Kaloakulua’s parents returned with food. She’d text when George the Rooster appeared on camera. She’d text when no bird was on camera. She’d text when it was raining. She’d text to make less than favorable comments about Kaloakulua’s looks as her fuzzy down grew out in a Bozo-like pattern.
“If you can’t text anything nice, don’t text anything at all,” I responded, a twist on my favorite aphorism of my father’s that I remember from childhood.
A small group of us followed Kaloakulua’s life from behind the metaphorical wheel of the camera’s controls. And by follow, I mean we trained the camera on her–zooming in on her bill when it developed the minutest of lesions known as Avian pox. Panning to catch her father’s landing after a multi-day foraging trip at sea. Watching to see if Kaloakulua developed a limp after a special geolocator that will track her route at sea was attached to her leg.
So, after 148 days of watching, the day she fledged was bittersweet. We were thrilled that she flew above the sea to the far horizon, her home for the next three to five years. We breathed a collective sigh of relief that she’d avoided the many threats to her life that presented themselves throughout the nearly five months of her life on land—the cats, the dog (who just this week was adopted from the local shelter), the golf-ball-sized plastic something that Kaloakulua’s mother almost fed her. And who knows what else that happened just off camera or in the dark when we couldn’t see.
But we were also sad to see her go.
It’s appropriate that I’m writing this on what we Americans call our Independence Day, even though Kaloakulua’s day of freedom that saw her hop off a rock wall and sail for the far horizon took place on June 24, 2014.
Kaloakulua walked off camera the day she flew for the very first time. But, just like the grace that watched over her the entire 148 days of her life to that point, some kind people staying in a nearby house captured her independence day on video.
Now, we have to watch for three to five years before Kaloakulua will return to land. And when she does, I am sure her helicopter aunties will grab their binoculars and rush to see her. I can only imagine the fireworks of joy we’ll express.