BOOKS: Schaller & Bekoff

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2007:

A Naturalist & Other Beasts: Tales From A Life In The Field
by George B. Schaller
Sierra Club Books (85 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105), 2007.
272 pages, hardcover. $24.95.

The Emotional Lives of Animals
by Marc Bekoff
New World Library (14 Pamaron Way, Novato, CA 94949), 2007.
214 pages, hardcover. $23.95.

“I was fortunate to have been part of the golden age of
wildlife studies, from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century,
when many large mammals–even such familiar and spectacular ones as
the elephant and jaguar–for the first time became the focus of
intensive research,” writes George Schaller.
Schaller also had the good fortune to be hired in 1956 as a
field biologist for the New York Zoological Society, and to work his
way up as it grew into the Wildlife Conservation Society, for which
he is now vice president and director of field operations.

Born in 1933, when Konrad Lorenz had barely begun to
differentiate ethology from other approaches to studying animals,
Schaller began his work at a time when behaviorism dominated
scientific thinking about how animals think and feel.
Anthropomorph-ism, or projecting human attributes into animal
behavior, was a scientific cardinal sin.
Ethology was coming into vogue. Wildlife photography, film
making, and the advent of television early in Schaller’s career
developed new public interest in studying animals in their natural
habitat. That meant more funding for field research, and a much
larger audience for discoveries.
By the middle of Schaller’s career, the audience for
wildlife documentaries had matured into the greater part of the donor
base and voting constituency for wildlife conservation, previously a
poor relative of managing wildlife to be hunted and fished.
The 19 essays forming A Naturalist & Other Beasts are
individually a combination of wildlife observation and travelogue.
Cumul-atively, they are a series of snapshots in the evolution of
the ethics of research, parallel to growing recognition that animal
behavior exists, just as Charles Darwin postulated, in a continuum
with our own.
Schaller seems to have mostly avoided the debate over what
discoveries about animal intelligence mean–or should mean–to how
humans treat animals. He left challenging the taboo against
anthropomorphism to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and left raising
the major ethical questions to Donald Griffin, a much older
scientist with formidable credentials in traditional laboratory
Schaller insightfully discusses conflicts of values involved
in conservation, but his chief discussion of ethical duties toward
individual animals is in an author’s note appended to his chapter
about observing Himalayan snow leopards. On the third of Schaller’s
treks to the Himal-ayas, he was accompanied by the author Peter
Matthiessen, who based The Snow Leopard (1973) on their journey.
“I was, and still am, ambivalent about providing a snow
leopard with live bait,” Schaller writes. “I checked the goats
twice a day to make certain that they remained fed and watered and
were not distressed; they lacked only companionship. I could have
offered dead baits, as it still done by hunters for lions and
leopards, but that would have caused the death of goats needlessly.
Most of the live goats were not discovered by a snow leopard in the
few days they were tied out, and their was little chance that a cat
would find a goat carcass before it was stripped by vultures.
Furthermore, my heart is with the rare markhor, not the locust-like
domestic goat. Each meal of a domestic goat eaten by a snow leopard
saved the life of a markhor.”
Between staking out goats to attract leopards, Schaller and
Matthiessen bunked at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, but whatever
they learned about reverence for all life does not seem to have
trumped ideas about species conservation that assign greater moral
value to scarcity, rather than the capacity to suffer.
Marc Bekoff, 12 years younger than Schaller, nine years
younger than Goodall, initially did similar field studies, but
eventually moved from documenting what animals do to analyzing how
and why. Often partnering with Goodall in recent projects, Bekoff
tends to be identified with a much younger generation of scientists,
ethicists, and activists.
“Basically, I am an animal rights advocate/activist with deep
concerns about all animals, plants, bodies of water, the air we
breathe, outer space, and inanimate landscapes,” Bekoff wrote in a
recent autobiographical statement. “I am a vitalist and see and feel
life in everything, animate and inanimate…I am a vegetarian. I eat
a few animal products minimally, and strive to eliminate all animal
products as time goes on. My reasons for vegetarianism are ethical
and not health related,” although Bekoff–even in his sixties–is a
formidable bicyclist and runner.
The Emotional Lives of Animals, already perhaps Bekoff’s
most influential book, is less entertaining than Schaller’s
anecdotes, more argumentative, copiously footnoted, and addresses
much that Schaller might have seen, and in some cases even
documented, without actually perceiving.
“The plural of anecdote,” Bekoff often argues, “is data.”
His dispute with the scientific establishment is with a
self-protective scientific tendency to selectively and sometimes
unconsciously exclude from analysis any observations that may call
into question key presumptions about why and how the studies are
being done in the first place.
For example, Bekoff would point out that Schaller’s
ambivalence about staking out the goats is a behavioral observation.
Why was Schaller uneasy? Why does he feel compelled to rationalize
the ethics of his action? Why does he retreat behind an argument
based on scarcity, which if extended one step farther would suggest
that since humans are more numerous than goats, Schaller himself
might have made the most appropriate leopard bait?
Schaller’s feelings were an emotional response. Scientists
trained to exclude their emotional responses from their observations
tend to miss much information. In Schaller’s case, his feelings
about staking out the goats might have furnished far more material
for study than his few glimpses of snow leopards–if he had allowed
himself to pursue that line of thought.
The Emotional Lives of Animals explains, basically, that we
know animals have feelings similar to ours for many reasons, not
least that we often respond to the feelings that animals project,
and are rewarded by responses similar to what ours would be if the
roles were reversed.

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