Wise and woolly

The American working farm collie who answers to Buckaroo let out a loud bark to announce strangers had entered the comfortable home.

"Yes, we know somebody is in the house, Buck," Virginia Morell quietly tells the well-groomed pooch.

Buckaroo and Nini, a calico cat, share the historic house with Morell and her husband, Michael McRae, both writers and world travelers who have made Ashland their home base for a quarter of a century.

Morell may not know precisely what is on Buckaroo's mind, but she can hazard a good guess.

She is the author of "Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures," which is being formally released Feb. 26. The book sells for $26.

The 291-page hardback published by New York-based Crown Publishers takes the reader around the globe to learn from noted scientists such as Jane Goodall who have spent their careers studying animal behavior.

The book is chock full of scientific evidence that rats giggle when their tummies are tickled, that crows develop their own tools, that elephants mourn and some dogs have a thousand-word vocabulary.

Morell will discuss her book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Southern Oregon University in Ashland as part of a fundraiser for the Jackson County Library Foundation.

"In the 20th century, there was this denial that animals had emotions other than anger or fear," Morell says. "You would never suggest that an animal might be disappointed or loves you."

If you did, you were accused of being sentimental or anthropomorphizing — attributing human thought to animals, she says.

"They would say you were projecting all these different things," she says. "Yet if you watch dogs' faces, they are extremely expressive."

She is quick to observe that biologist Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, cites the expressions of dogs and their behavior in his book "On the Expressions of Emotions in Man and the Animals."

"It was always one of the first examples he turned to to compare and show there was some kind of an evolutionary continuity," she says. "There are biological reasons for our expressions. They have a history to them. That's the best way to think about it."

There is no doubt dogs are master face readers when it comes to humans, she says.

"Buck will sit there and study our faces," she says. "He's learning all our expressions and corresponding emotions."

Indeed, he perks up when McRae, 66, a former editor with Outside magazine, stands up to take him outside to the yard for a romp. McRae is author of the 2002 book "The Siege of Shangri-La: The Quest for Tibet's Sacred Hidden Paradise."

Nini is a no-show until halfway through the interview, when she darts out of a room, apparently en route to the kitchen for a snack.

"Nini means 'what's her name' in Swahili," Morell says as the feline slips around the corner.

Morell, 63, was reared in Ontario, Calif., where her family kept a few hairy creatures around the house, including a dog named Penny.

"I remember doing a Girl Scout project on caring for your dog and pets," she says. "I taught Penny tricks for the project.

"I loved Dr. Doolittle when I was little," she adds. "We all had that fantasy of talking to the animals."

However, as a science and natural history writer, she doesn't write about fantasy. Her previous books include "Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings" and "Blue Nile: Ethiopia's River of Magic and Mystery." She also co-wrote with Richard Leakey the book "Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa's Natural Treasures." She also writes for National Geographic, Science and Smithsonian magazines.

After she wrote a lengthy article on animal minds for the National Geographic magazine, she began looking for material for a book on how animals think.

"I was looking for scientists who had done something very new and unexpected," she says of those who study animals large and small.

Such as Nigel Franks, who stirred up a scientific storm with his finding that ants teach other ants.

"I tried to find things that surprised me," she says.

Or Stefan Schuster, a neuroscientist at the University of Bayreuth in Germany who has discovered the sophisticated mental abilities of archerfish.

"The researchers I met, they truly, truly want to know what it is to be that animal," she says. "They don't want to do it by projecting themselves inside that animal. They just want to know what is inside that brain and how that mind works."

What she discovered is that animals have cognitive abilities, from feelings to self-awareness.

"I think many of us have this idea that animals are kind of bumbling around in the wilderness, not really aware of themselves or their surroundings," she says. "But, if you think about it, it would be a very tough way to make a living if you were just drifting through life.

"I think at some fundamental level their experience in the world is not going to be that dissimilar from ours in the sense they have families and offspring and like to play," she adds.

She acknowledges it is difficult for people to look at a fish with its immobile face to come to the conclusion it is feeling anything. Yet she notes that many provide parental care, communicate with each other, build homes and compete for mates.

"Animals have places to go and things to do," she says.

Writing the book changed the way she looks at animals.

"The idea of going fishing again, to pull a trout out of the water, I don't know how much joy there will be in it for me anymore," she says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Share This Story