REVIEW | The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and Compassion

The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and CompassionSurprising Observations of a Hidden World by Peter Wohlleben

Greystone Books, ISBN: 978-1-77164-301-6, 277 pages

by Julie Morley, for Kosmos Online

Our increasingly disenchanted world with its looming dystopian scenarios makes German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben’s series of enchanted naturalist tales a welcome palliative respite. In his previous little gem, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, the author recounts his tale of inner transformation from traditional forester to devoted ally of the sentient forest ecosystem. The New York Times bestseller charmed nature lovers and taught many skeptics to view nature with new eyes. Wohlleben’s vivid descriptions of the palpably living, breathing, feeling forest, reveal a wondrous landscape full of arboreal communities.

In his second book, The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and CompassionSurprising Observations of a Hidden World, Wohlleben pushes beyond the realm of enchantment, into the charged territory of vital inquiry. He challenges our tendency to reject the obvious, suggesting that humans resist perceiving the interiority of other species because we don’t want to perceive it. Wohlleben insists that recent scientific studies and many personal experiences evidence the undeniable reality of animal sentience, offering the simple but profound observation, “Wherever you look, animals are out there, loving each other, feeling each other’s pain, and enjoying each other’s company.”

In the face of recent grave political threats to biodiversity and animal welfare, Wohlleben sneaks timely and challenging questions into what reminds me of the magical atmosphere of a Nordic folk tale. Isn’t this what stories often do for humanity? We humans have always woven our most critical existential questions into colorful and  meaningful stories. Wohlleben does just that, tucking provocative questions such as, “What is love?”, “What is courage?”, and “Can animals act selflessly?” between poignant and heartwarming anecdotes and scientific evidence of complex relationships and behaviors that indicate a range of sentience that spans the continuum of life. He asks pointedly, “How can we understand something in animals that we can’t even clearly grasp in ourselves?” He eschews neat, tidy answers that seek to reduce the messy complexity of these existential dilemmas. Instead, he welcomes us into his own intimate exploration of the imbricated existential realities of tame and wild animals.

In the spirit of honoring nature’s complexity, Wohlleben challenges our typical compartmentalization of nature. Even those of us close to the work of conservation characterize nature’s diverse lifeforms in terms of “native” and “invasive” or “parasitic” and “beneficial.” We who face everyday battles to protect ecosystems against invasive species must delineate to some degree, but Wohlleben offers us a moment to put down our conceptual flags and view the world differently.

My favorite example of this less compartmentalized, more contextual view of nature describes the existential plight of mother squirrels. In the first chapter, called “Selfless Mother Love,” Wohlleben interpolates the plight of devoted squirrel moms who sacrifice their own well-being for their brood despite dismal survival odds with the gory details of their savage raids on baby birds. After considering both the selfless love of mother squirrel and her fiendishness as hatchling snatcher, he asks pointedly, “Are squirrels good or bad?” To further illustrate his line of inquiry, he presents the heroic vignette of a male tick whose life crescendos in the sacrificial opportunity to mate and reproduce, after which he abruptly dies. Wohlleben compels us to regard the inner life, desires and virtues of even the much-despised tick. He offers simply, “No species is inherently good or bad.” Claims such as this scattered throughout the book may seem unsatisfying to those who crave thorough philosophical treatments, but they strike me as refreshingly unpretentious offerings of proverbial naturalist wisdom.

One critique of Wohlleben’s new book is the supposed lack of scientific credibility to support his anecdotes. I would suggest that we already have our choice of science-based books on animals, from ethologists like Jonathan Balcombe and Frans de Waal to name a few, who write witty and weighty science-driven books about animal sentience and intelligence. The Inner Life of Animals seems more concerned with what cannot be easily proven. Wohlleben points out our flawed tendency toward black and white thinking without being pedantic; rather, he lovingly illustrates the irreducible grey areas of nature’s wily ways through his personal experiences living his life among other species. Wohlleben embodies an intellectual humility and curiosity reminiscent of German Romantic polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who proposed that in order to understand Nature, we must become as “mobile and malleable as Nature herself.” Wohlleben’s enthralling stories offer us an intimate window into his experience of nature’s flexible and mobile intersubjective landscape, and a locus of enchantment from which to understand his inquiry.

Many of his oft-quoted science stories and anecdotes have been heard before by those of us who work in intersecting fields. That said, he crafts an accessible welcome for readers new to these ideas. There must be books that teach through invitation rather than intimidation, and this book is entirely one of invitation. Wohlleben invites the reader to step into diverse “alien worlds” of sensory experience, and to question what this diversity of experience implies in terms of our current human ways of life.

Beyond enticing us with delightful stories of Corvid love, poignant tales of Cervid grief, and hilarious accounts of pungent goat courtship rituals, Wohlleben makes an engaging case for serious attempts at interspecies communication. He suggests that awakening to the animal interiority will benefit not only them, but us—that we might one day reduce biological consumption out of “respect” for other species. He presents the essential idea that as we come to recognize the inner life of animals and their right to happiness, we will, in turn, be happier humans; a simply offered piece of earthy wisdom worthy of our deepest consideration.

About the Author:

Julie Morley is an author, environmental educator and doctoral student at California Institute of Integral Studies. Her topic of inquiry is interspecies intersubjectivity.


Goethe quote: Miller, D. (1995) Goethe: The Selected Works—Scientific Studies, Volume 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press. P.64.