BOOKS: Minding Animals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2002:

Minding Animals: Awareness,
Emotions, and Heart by Marc Bekoff
Oxford University Press (198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016),
2002. 230 pages, hardcover. $27.50.

More than 30 years ago Marc Bekoff was the first researcher
to study coyotes in the wild for reasons other than to find more
efficient ways to kill them. His reports about coyote play were
instrumental in reversing the once wholly negative public image of
coyotes. Informed about the care that coyotes take to play fair with
each other, few people other than sheep ranchers could continue to
see them as mere killing machines.

Bekoff has continued to study animal play among countless
other species, discovering some body cues which appear to be almost
universally understood among mammals and even some birds, and
arriving at the idea that play is the ancestral behavior underlying
most advanced social organization. In effect, Bekoff argues that
without play, there could be neither war nor peace, because
play-rituals are the rituals that facilitate enduring alliance–even
when there is no awareness among the “playmates” that their
flag-waving and formal bows may have evolved from the tail-wagging
and play-bows of dogs.
(Our dogs taught our two rescued wild desert burros to
play-bow as soon as they had regular contact.)
All human behavior, emotions, and intellectual activity,
Bekoff holds, evolved from antecedents in other species. Humans may
represent the extremes of an evolutionary continuum, but we are
unique only in having developed more ability than most species to
give our thoughts external form. We are better builders and writers;
we are not necessarily better thinkers in all respects, as play
behavior illustrates. Several other primate species have proved more
adept than most humans at playing some computer games, for instance,
and some Thai elephants have learned the basic rules and objectives
of soccer and polo.
“Studying the evolution of cooperation, fairness, trust,
and social morality goes well beyond traditional science,” Bekoff
contends, “and are among the most exciting and challenging projects
that behavioral scientists and religious scholars face. We need to
rise to the task, not dismiss summarily and unfairly the moral lives
of other animals. Fair is fair,” as even very young coyote pups
seem to recognize.

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