Carnivore Minds: Who These Fearsome Animals Really Are

By G.A. Bradshaw

Yale University Press, 2017; 368 pages; $35.00

To talk of animal minds used to be verboten in serious scientific circles, but the strict behaviorist streak in ethology has softened in recent decades. Systematic observations by Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal, among others, imply that our primate cousins can plan, consider the consequences of actions, and, like humans, experience joy, love, and loss. In this thoughtful and provocative extension of that theme, psychologist and environmentalist G.A. Bradshaw claims the same legitimacy for the inner lives of many other creatures, especially those which are popularly feared as cold, instinct-driven predators.

Bradshaw cites recent studies showing the similar neurological structure and chemistry of all complex animals. It follows that these creatures share with humans congruent mental functions, differing in form, perhaps, but not in function. Is it inconceivable that the male rattlesnake who coils around a female companion recently killed by a car is expressing grief or despair, even if he cannot utter words of lament? “Observations that were scoffed at or dismissed as mere anecdotes,” the author maintains, “are, if they are consistent with what neuropsychology predicts, legitimate data” for the study of animal psychology.

There are plenty of such mindopening anecdotes to draw on, many from observers at wildlife refuges. There’s a photo of Canadian bear expert Charlie Russell lounging lakeside with a massive grizzly. There’s an interview with Bob Freer and his wife Barbara, who have lived with two male alligators, Lazy and Godzilla, for twenty-eight years. Lazy, Freer tells the author, “After a swim…would usually come right back in the house and lie down by my feet next to my chair. He’d stay there as long has he could.” Diver Fred Buyle tells of swimming into a group of sperm whales he had been studying for years, and discovering a newborn baby, with a piece of umbilical cord still attached, floating among them. “The mother started to push the baby in my direction…accepting us, inviting us humans to join in the family celebration.”

The lessons learned, overall, are not only that animals need to be understood as sharing congruent thoughts and emotions, but that they need to be seen as individuals, whose personalities can be shaped by experience as strongly as by instinct. So many of these predators, Bradshaw notes, are under constant stress by hunters, wildlife managers, and encroaching habitat destruction, that what we see as savage behavior is perhaps a pathological response to trauma. Tilikum, the orca that killed three humans at Sea World, was acting like a sufferer of PTSD, striking out destructively in anger at being in a painful situation. (In an earlier book, Elephants on the Edge, Bradshaw has documented the psychological toll that stress has on elephants.)

If predators, like primates, have so much in common with us, perhaps we will in time come to view grizzlies, gators, pumas, and white sharks not as dangerous and invasive, but as part of nature that modern civilization must learn to accommodate without resorting to violence. “The carnivore myth is growing thin, and the public shows a weariness for killing,” Bradshaw writes. A peaceable kingdom may be much more remote than she thinks, but this book is a powerful argument for moving in that direction.