How The Hen House Turns: Reviewing A Review

How the Hen House Turns
By CAROLYN (CARY) NEEPER Ph.D.
Reviewing a Review

Recently, The Week magazine reviewed a book by Carl Safina. The title expresses the underlying passion driving the Hen House stories, so I’m taking the opportunity to mention it here, before I continue with Turkey’s history.

“Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” was called “a gem” by Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today. The reviewer from The Week goes on to say that the book spurns “…the conventional wisdom that scientists should not anthropomorphize.” I agree, but I haven’t read a scientist who does. Most of us humans can easily distinguish between Bugs Bunny and the real thing.

However, like Safina, I believe that we can’t understand animals unless we study them in their natural habitats. This goes for domestic animals also—hence the Hen House stories. The natural habitat for farm animals is in some kind of human farm. (There is nothing natural about factory farming.)

 Safina says he has seen “joy, anger, jealousy, love, and grief.”  Animals “…have their own thoughts and moods and motives.” He attacks our human “…misguided belief in [our] exceptionalism.” To the contrary, I’d make the case that we have grown beyond that old concept. It doesn’t take rocket science to observe that we resemble animals in many aspects, that biology is an incredible (yes) continuum of nested, complex biochemical systems.

Frans deWaal’s work broke the ice in 1996 with studies published in books like Good Natured (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996). Before his work, professional animal behaviorists could not expect to publish words like “empathy” when referring to chimps and other non-humans.

While packing to move to California, I re-read several books published in the 1970s that used forbidden words describing emotions in hundreds of anecdotal stories. The authors knew they would be attacked for anthropomorphizing, but they were convinced that those stories realistically described animal behavior. They believed without apology that behavior they observed resembled the emotions we experience.

I wish I had kept those old, tattered books. Perhaps a Google search will turn up a few. Meanwhile, the huge “hares” I’ve seen running across these California hills have an amazing resemblance to a famous cartoon character I have loved. Some are at least half as tall as I am.

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