BOOKS: How Animals Talk And Other Pleasant Studies of Birds and Beasts

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2006:

How Animals Talk And Other Pleasant Studies of Birds and Beasts
by William J. Long
Bear & Co. (1 Park Street, Rochester, VT
05767), 276 pages, paperback. $18.00.

William J. Long (1867-1952), was a
United Church of Christ minister who became one
of the best-known U.S. authors of nature books of
the early 20th century.
How Animals Talk followed earlier Long
hits including Ways of Woodfolk, Beasts of the
Field, Fowls of the Air, and Secrets of the
Woods. It appeared 12 years after Theodore
Roosevelt, then U.S. President, enduringly
identified Long as the most egregious of the
alleged “nature-fakers,” in remarks amplified by
Roosevelt’s hunting buddy Edward B. Clark, White
House correspondent for the Chicago Evening Post.
Naturalist John Burroughs had already
been attacking Long for propounding “sham natural
history” since 1903, with Roosevelt’s warm
endorsement, but it was Roosevelt’s invention of
the term “nature-faker,” that demolished Long’s
stature well beyond his own lifetime, even
though Long far outlived all of his critics.

In the original and narrowest definition,
a “nature-faker” was an author whose observations
seemed dubious and were unverified by others.
The definition rapidly expanded, as the debate
raged, to include all authors who presumed to
impose anthropomorphic interpretations upon
natural observation, especially interpretations
which supposed that animals might think as humans
do, or have comparable morality.
Long was in distinguished company as a
purported “nature-faker.” Among the others
accused were Ernest Thompson Seton, founder of
the Scouting movement, whose 1903 volume Wild
Animals I Have Known was Burroughs’ first target,
and Jack London, whose White Fang (1905)
attacked dogfighting and pet theft.
All were animal advocates, in their own
understanding of what effective animal advocacy
meant. Roosevelt in particular remains difficult
to categorize, since he was at once openly fond
of living animals, and outspokenly critical of
cruel or unsporting treatment of animals, yet
not averse to killing animals whenever he felt
that the killing could be rationalized.
“Son of an incorporator and charter
trustee of the American Museum of Natural
History,” recounts Gerald Carson in his essay
T.R. & the ‘Nature Fakers,’ “Roosevelt in his
boyhoodŠstudied the songbirds of Long Island,
New York, with nature book and shotgun and took
lessons in taxidermy before he reached his teens.”
Despite his early initiation into hunting
and scientific “sacrifice,” however, Roosevelt
soon developed reservations about killing for
“mere damnable and detestable curiosity,” as
Charles Darwin put it.
“He thought seriously of becoming a
professional biologist,” Carson continues, “but
was put off by the emphasis at Harvard, during
his undergraduate years, upon the laboratory
approach to natural science-the embalming, the
microscopy, and the dissection of tissues and
embryos. It was an uncongenial approach to the
young New Yorker who kept live animals in his own
living quarters.”
Roosevelt eventually compromised between
his personal sense of morality toward animals and
his participation in hunting by promoting the
notions of “fair chase” and “sportsmanship.”
Along with Burroughs and many others, Roosevelt
argued that hunters were best qualified by
concern and experience to restore North American
wildlife from the then-prevailing depletion to
huntable abundance. Roosevelt and friends
developed the “hunter/conservationist” philosophy
of wildlife management which has prevailed ever
Their first political victory consisted
of beating back other animal advocates,
including Long and his readers, who sought to
protect wildlife by banning hunting. Long was
the most prominent naturalist backing a coalition
of humane and religious leadership.
Unlike Long, whose sympathy for animals
was deep and genuine, many of the religious
opponents of hunting were chiefly concerned that
Sunday hunting might threaten church attendance.
Even before Long rose to prominence,
Roosevelt in the mid-1890s helped to buy off
humane opposition to hunting by giving the
American SPCA the New York City animal control
contract and the then-Albany-based American
Humane Association the contract to operate
orphanages for New York state. In exchange for
financial stability and a quasi-governmental
role, the humane organizations retreated from
wildlife advocacy.
Prohibiting Sunday hunting then bought
off the eccelesiasts, allowing New York state to
pioneer the present system of funding wildlife
management through the sale of hunting licenses.
Maintaining the population of hunters thus became
as much a concern of governmental wildlife
management as maintaining wildlife itself.
Among the alleged nature-fakers,
Thompson Seton sought to placate everyone,
attempting to incorporate church-going,
hunter/conservationism, and humane concerns into
the broad-tent ethos of Scouting.
Jack London, while specifying that he
could not defend Long’s extreme interpretations
of animal behavior, moved philosophically toward
proto-animal rights activism. As well as
speaking out memorably for dogs and horses,
London prominently attacked circus animal abuse
just as circuses reached their height of
popularity, shortly before the advent of screen
entertainment began their century-long slow
The nationwide string of Jack London
Clubs begun by second Massachusetts SPCA
president Francis Rowley, with London’s muscular
support, may be viewed as proto-animal rights
groups, and still existed as late as 1963, but
lost their early energy after London killed
himself in 1916, at least partially in despair
over the suffering caused by World War I.
As both Thompson Seton and London were
eminently able to defend themselves, Burroughs
and Roosevelt focused their scorn on Long.
Long, summarized Carson, “not only
described occurrences that no other observers had
been fortunate enough to see, but maintained
that the denizens of the fields and forests
established schools in which they trained their
young for the life struggle ahead of themŠMany of
[his books] were issued at low prices for school
use. The young were thus being corrupted, in
Roosevelt’s view, with consequences as grave as
would be the case if geography classes were
taught that the earth was flat.”
Superficially about biological accuracy,
the “nature-fakers” debate was at heart a debate
about the human presumption of a right to use and
abuse animals, in particular to hunt them–as
Ralph H. Lutts discusses in depth in The Nature
Fakers: Wildlife, Science, and Sentiment
“Long’s most effective response,”
continued Carson, “was to drop the biological
issue and raise the question of President
Roosevelt’s motives. He described Roosevelt as
less the lover of nature than a game butcher who
‘hides behind a tree and kills three bull elks in
succession, leaving their carcasses to rotŠEvery
time he gets near the heart of a wild thing he
puts a bullet through it.”
Long won considerable support, including
from The New York Sun and the British
Humanitarian League, but Roosevelt’s prominence
backed by the scientific authority of Burroughs
and U.S. Biological Survey chief C. Hart Merriam
The debate enduringly established the
public image of hunters as practical, realistic
observers of wildlife, in contrast to the
alleged sentimentality and anthropomorphism of
humanitarians, who favored Long, but were often
ill-equipped to defend him with anything more
than anecdotes and questionable interpretation.
On wildlife, at least, Long was the
scientific voice of the humane movement. If his
arguments failed, there was no one else to take
his place.
How Animals Talk marked Long’s retreat to
writing less for the public than for his most
devoted readers, at the fringe of scientific
respectability, or perhaps a step beyond, even
at a time when the study of para-normal phenomena
had yet to be discredited to the extent that it
was within another decade.
Within Long’s own time, How Animals Talk
was essentially a cult classic. More than 50
years posthumously, many of his most
controversial observations have been confirmed,
and at least some of his once seemingly
far-fetched contentions have been scientifically
Now known, for instance, is that many
birds have far more advanced intelligence in many
aspects of communication and problem-solving than
most mammals; that human behavior generally has
antecedents in animal behavior; that much animal
behavior is learned, not instinctive; and that
many species communicate by a variety of means
that tend to be beyond human perception.
Some animals, including prairie dogs,
appear to communicate in at least the beginnings
of language, with grammar and a vocabulary.
Marc Bekoff, who combines distinguished
scientific achievement with open sympathy for
animal rights activism, acknowledges that
“William Long presages numerous areas that are
‘hot topics’ in the study of animal behavior,”
but Long may have been damned by association when
Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs that Know When
Their Owners Are Coming Home, endorsed How
Animals Talk as “The classic book on animal
Even conceding that Long may not have
invented his observations, as Roosevelt et al
charged, and even accepting that Long was well
ahead of his time in many of his interpretations
of animal behavior, “Extra-ordinary claims
require extraordinary proof.” As a man of
religious faith, Long easily accepted paranormal
explanations for behavior, even when they seemed
to flunk the Occam’s Razor test of being the
simplest explanation for the observed phenomena.
The Bear & Company reissue of How Animals
Talk enables readers to make up their own minds
about Long, without reference to the
“nature-fakers” controversy.
The language is unaltered from the 1919
edition, affording a charming window into a
bygone era.
How Animals Talk is believed to have been
the first book to seriously explore the
possibility of telepathic communication among
animals, which at the time might have seemed to
be a relatively reasonable hypothesis. The
discoveries that bats use radar, dolphins use
sonar, and elephants and great whales use
low-frequency sound were all decades away, for
example, along with the possibility that these
animals use their ultra-sonic and sub-sonic
abilities to communicate as well as to evaluate
the world around them. Yet, even though how
animals communicated seemed in 1919 to be deeply
mysterious, even Roosevelt et al had no doubt
that they do communicate by various means.
“Whether you search the wood or the city
or the universe, the only interesting thing you
will ever find anywhere is the thrill and mystery
of awakening life,” wrote Long. “That the
animal is alive, and alive in a way you ought to
be but are not, is the last and most fascinating
discovery you are likely to make in nature’s
As Long pointed out, it is not good
enough to make an ornithology of mere feathers,
or to accept without reservation what scientists
have to say. For true understanding, it is
necessary to observe animals in their own
Writing at a time when even many of the
most common North American wildlife species had
largely vanished from the vicinity of human
habitation, Long introduced his readers to
birds, deer, bears and foxes, emphasizing
seeing them in everyday life without awareness of
being watched.
Only through ethological observation, Long
argued, can we truly appreciate telepathy among
animals. But Long wrote ten years before Konrad
Lorenz even began his studies of greylag geese,
long before Lorenz invented the term “ethology.”
“Every wild creature is finely ‘sensible’
in the true meaning of the word, his
sensitiveness being due to the fact that there is
nothing dead or even asleep in nature; the
natural animal or the natural man is from head to
foot wholly alive and awake,” Long contended.
“This because every atom of him or every cell,
as a biologist might insist, is of itself
sentient and has the faculty of perception.”
This, in two sentences, summarizes the
difficulty of accepting Long at face value as an
influential and prescient nature writer. He was
ahead of his time in understanding the premise of
ecology: that natural environments as a whole
function much like individual living organisms.
Yet Long was at odds with science in asserting
that even cells with no perceptive organs are
“sentient,” capable of perception.
Yet there was thought behind Long’s
assertions. The discovery of DNA, a year after
Long’s death, provided a much simpler
explanation for some of the processes that Long
deduced must exist at the cellular level. Long
was less “wrong” than ahead of science in
observation and intuition, and not content to
await scientific discovery in his zeal to share
appreciation of the sacredness of life.
Long argued that there are three marked
differences between humans and animals. First,
he believed, animals retain a spirit of play
throughout life, which he felt that humans had
largely lost. In this, Long inverted the usual
belief of post-Darwinian natural observers,
before Bekoff’s pioneering studies of animal
play, that animals are wholly focused on
“survival of the fittest.”
More conventionally, Long asserted that
animals live in their sensations, and are happy,
while humans dwell mostly in thoughts and
postpone happiness for the future. Animals,
Long believed, are fully alive at every moment,
while humans are only alive “the day before
These are essentially theological
beliefs, echoing some Biblical passages as well
as teachings of Buddhism and other eastern
religions–but the notion that the process of
evolving into modern humanity involved a fall
from grace is as all-pervasive in
environmentalism as in self-aware religious
If Theodore Roosevelt had not been
addicted as he was to hunting, and less closely
aligned with Burroughs and Merriam in his quest
to persuade Congress to preserve natural habitat,
he and Long might have found common ground in
their qualms about studying nature by “collecting
more skins or skulls.”
Accused Long, addressing the scientists
who emphasized taxonomy above ethology, “You
have unconsciously placed destruction above
fulfillment, stark death above the beautiful
mystery of life, and in so doing we estrange
ourselves from meeting on any common ground of
Though Long made mistakes in reaching
beyond what could be credibly documented in his
own time, How Animals Talk is a wonderful book
about understanding and recognizing the mysteries
of our natural world.
–Bev Pervan & Merritt Clifton

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.