episodio 8

Carl Safina: «Love and other feelings play an important role in the social life of non-human animals»

Interview with Carl Safina, American biologist and writer, full professor at Stony Brook University in New York and founder of a foundation dedicated to the protection of animals and biodiversity. The meeting during the sixth episode of MeetKodami, the series of videos in which the protagonists are people who, through their experience, embody the essence of our Manifesto. This time we talk about the great values such as love, friendship and mourning that other species also experience in their own way like us humans.

23 Giugno 2021
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Friendship, love, joy, selflessness. Love, then, as the greatest of feelings and social bonds made up of family relationships and affinity, from empathy and up to pain for the loss of a loved one. Does this kind of values are shared also by non human animals? We have wrote about these issues on Kodami from different points of view, trying to explain the world as a dog, a cat and many non-domestic animals do. We have discovered, day after day, that other living species share with us humans, in their own way of course, some important and complex emotions ​​that are commonly thought to characterize only our species. To understand even more deeply how, from the dog to the whale, the chimpanzee and other species, the behavior of non-human animals is also dictated by emotions and feelings, we talked to Carl Safina. The American biologist and writer, full professor at Stony Brook University of New York and a great popularizer through its foundation dedicated to the protection of animals and biodiversity, tells us of his experience in the sixth episode of MeetKodami.

How similar are the emotions of other species to ours?

We don't know how even another person what really feels and we don't know how another animal really feels, but love and other feelings play an important role in the social life, especially of mammals: this is now also evident for science. Everything in life is a continuum. There is not a single moment, there is something here and something there to live in every moment. And the emotions we feel yes, they are shared by other species.

Let's make a distinction, do all living things have feelings?

When we say animals, we actually think of dogs, cats and even cows for example. But animals are also insects. Animals are also corals and sponges. So I don't think a sponge has a "love" for her children while I am sure that many mammals have deep emotional bonds that we can define "love". Yet in general I would speak of a sense of loyalty that pervades living beings: they can be, for example, defensive and protect their home or their "people". And when we finally talk about love, I always say … what does love look like? It can have different meanings depending on who lives it.

Let's try a journey into feelings and values ​​then. Let's start with the animals closest to us…

We certainly share many similar emotions with cats and dogs. First let's talk about them, yes, because after all many people don't have direct experience with any animal in such a daily way. Dogs have strong emotional bonds with us and with each other. They have great emotions: they can be excited, happy, sad or depressed. Love is shown by the desire to be close to a loved one, for example, and we often see that our dog like to be close to us. So in our home every night, our dogs come up to our bedroom and we have little beds for them on the floor. Well, they can sleep anywhere in the house: if they wanted to they could lie on the couch all night there. There are plenty of comfortable places for them, but they come up to be near us and we don't feed them there or give them any kind of a treat or a reward for being with us. It is a precise choice and at that moment we can all realize how they show their love and the desire to be close to us. And that's what human love feels like.

Let's go to the "wild world" or, paraphrasing the title of your latest book ("Becoming wild") let's try to understand how wild animals live in terms of feelings, beginning from the first most important bond for us humans: the family

Yes, in my most recent book I looked very closely at several species: sperm whales, big parrots called macaws, chimpanzees and whales that have a strong sense of family. Speaking of shared values, whales are wonderful animals and the family is matriarchal: the females remain with their mother, sisters and aunts for life. It also happens to elephants, actually: females have very close family ties and males wander around. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, have a strong sense of group identity, but not a sense of family, aside from the very strong mother-child bond that lasts throughout life. The macaws have a completely different relational life: couples form very strong bonds and many people who have them as pets know that these emotional and deep bonds are usually aimed at only one person, which makes it a problem if they live together with multiple humans. The reason why the book is called "Become wild" is  that what is needed to live in nature is not only and always something spontaneous or instinctive but often a subject must learn what to do and learn it as we do from our mother, our family and our social groups.

Is friendship a "sacred value" for other species as well?

Yes, some species have bonds that we could call friendships in which only certain individuals or certain families get along well or enjoy being with each other more than would be necessary in terms of survival alone. Elephants and sperm whales are like this: they have only a few individuals or some other families they prefer to "hang out" with. And they have no real reason other than to be together for the pleasure of sharing life with those they prefer.

Speaking of the importance of others in our lives, grief is an experience that is devastating for us humans. Does it happen to other species too?

Let's start from why we humans suffer so much when someone dies. We know that it feels very upsetting, but what is it that we are upset about? We are upset because an individual who was very important in our life is not there anymore. And that's why we have this emotional response too. So yes, we can see in many other animals that when an individual that is important to them vanishes or dies, or even if maybe they don't see  the dead body: they respond to it in an emotional way. They often don't do the normal things they usually do: for several days, for example, they won't eat or go to the same place. If the body is missing, they will make sounds to call the missing subject, a clear sign that they are looking for him or her. They have in mind who they no longer see and if they find the body, they may hang around near it for a long time. This is observable in the behavior of elephants, for example: they will hang around for days looking for the member they no longer see next to them. When a baby elephant loses its mother, even if there are humans available to take care of it, it sometimes "dies": it dies from the emotional pain of not having its parent next to it and not from a physical lack. Therefore, if someone looked at us as we observe an animal they would say "a human being feels pain for a few days for the death of another beloved individual". Well, that's what we can see in other animals as well. And I think that maybe they think about it even longer: everyone has their own times of realization of the mourning that has happened.

After so many years observing the animal world, do you think that species called homo sapiens has changed for good or bad in its relationship with other forms of life?

I believe we did it both ways. We understood that we have much more information about other animals and many more people have approached them with a correct sensitivity towards other species. On the other hand, in the last twenty years if we look at what is really happening to the animals we have been very bad: almost every single wild species has the lowest population level ever recorded in its history. Furthermore, our way of raising animals has become the intensive one: reality in which they live miserable lives and existence in those places is worse than how we make them die. I think we are actually more human in killing them than in letting them live. So it's a strange mix: on the one hand we have some people who know and care a lot more and on the other hand animal populations are declining and billions of animals are dying because of us. So here is that a magazine like Kodami can help to make a difference: it's important because we need a lot more understanding and a lot more compassion among ourselves too and it's time to extend our compassion to other species. We would be a lot better to one another as well.

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Diana Letizia
Direttrice editoriale
Giornalista professionista e scrittrice. Laureata in Giurisprudenza, specializzata in Etologia canina al dipartimento di Biologia dell’Università Federico II di Napoli e riabilitatrice e istruttrice cinofila con approccio Cognitivo-Zooantropologico (master conseguito al dipartimento di Medicina Veterinaria dell’Università di Parma). Sono nata a Napoli nel 1974 e ho incontrato Frisk nel 2015. Grazie a lui, un meticcio siciliano, cresciuto a Genova e napoletano d’adozione ho iniziato a guardare il mondo anche attraverso l’osservazione delle altre specie. Kodami è il luogo in cui ho trovato il mio ecosistema: giornalismo e etologia nel segno di un’informazione ad alta qualità di contenuti.
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