In his newest book, Beyond Words, Carl Safina says, “Science usually asks ‘it’ questions about animals. Where does it live, what does it eat, what does it do when danger threatens. But, always forbidden is the one question that might open the door: Who?”
Beyond Words is Safina’s quest to explore ‘Who are you?’ The NY Times Bestseller focuses on three species: elephant, wolf and whale.
Why these three?
“Many animals have intricate social lives that make them a ‘who’ not an ‘it.’ There are a few examples of these kinds of creatures where individuals have been known long enough by researchers. I chose the flagship herbivore, carnivore, and marine creature, highly social species for whom a lot is known and whose relationship with humans is rocky as well. Apes and ravens were on the short list. Though there are three focal species, there are actually dozens of species mentioned in the book,” explains Safina.
While Jane Goodall’s discovery of tool use by chimpanzees forced humans to redefine what it means to be human, Safina highlights emotions, cooperation, understanding, and humor in animals forcing us again to re-evaluate the separation we assume between humans and animals.
A wild elephant communicating with a whale, dolphins sensing death, playing tricks on trainers, and calling each other by name, killer whales who find us entertaining, and who rescue dogs, wolves playing a game of pretend or dying on their own terms; there are many such stories in Beyond Words.
As Safina shows us “Living diversity is astonishing, but as you peel layers of difference, you encounter similarities more stunning.” And, it seems that non-humans understand this concept better than we do. “Their displays of compassion, forgiveness, and contact are especially humbling after all they have suffered at the hands of us humans.”
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Interview by Lori Robinson with Carl Safina about Beyond Words
Lori: It sounds like you had many wonderful experiences with all three species while researching and writing this book. What was your most profound experience and how did it change you and your perception of animals?
Safina: Elephants. They are so wonderful and peaceful and so easy to watch for hours. I could not imagine being without them ever again. But seeing them poached, and the orphans…it broke my heart. The wolves were also extremely interesting and deeply moving. The orcas are almost too incredible for words, but a lot of their life happens out of sight.
Lori: Are you optimistic about the future of elephants, wolves and whales?
Safina: Optimistic? Generally, yes. But elephants face gigantic problems from poaching and just too many people crowding them out. Wolves face ingrained lethal hatred. The whales are having problems with toxics and food shortages where I mainly studied them but they are doing much better elsewhere.
Lori: What needs to happen for humans to stop the current rate of extinction we are causing?
Safina: Human population growth must stop. Then it must decline. If you look at countries where it’s declining, it’s where women have gained full citizenship in the last 50 years. Where women can go to school, vote, and own businesses and property, they start saving the world without even thinking about it. It solves the biggest problem in the world and the biggest injustice within humankind.
Lori: Is there one message you would like readers to take away from reading Beyond Words?
Safina: All life is family.
In Beyond Words Safina writes, “We are so similar under the skin. Four limbs, the same bones, the same organs, the same origins, and lots of shared history. And between first breath and final gasp, we endeavor toward a common quest: to live, to raise our young, to find space enough for our lives, to survive the confronting dangers, to do what it takes, to the best of our abilities, to live out the mystery and opportunity of finding ourselves somehow in existence.
Safina tells me he is proud that Beyond Words “landed the message I wanted it to land.” Many people have told Safina the book gives them permission to believe what they’ve always felt about other animals. “It is helping a lot of people see other animals more for who they really are, who we are here with on Earth.”
Beyond Words is a wonderful gift for anyone who cares about animals. I have added it to the other books on ‘my favorite books’ list for wildlife enthusiasts.
Remember every time you use Saving Wild’s Amazon link to buy Beyond Words (or any products) from Amazon a percentage of your purchase will automatically go to the top NGO’s saving wildlife across the globe.