Book Review: Being with Animals, by Barbara J. King

Yesterday anthropologist Barbara J. King appeared on CBS Sunday Morning as part of a segment discussing unlikely animal friendships. (For example, Tarra, the elephant, and her BFF Bella, the dog.) As luck would have it, I’d just finished her book Being with Animals which explores how humans and animals have co-evolved to the point where that relationship defines us.

“Part of the reason we, today, are so attracted and attuned to animals is that we are locked together, as we have always been locked together, in a shared journey that spans past, present and future,” King writes. In this well-researched and well-written exploration of what it means to be with animals, King takes us from prehistoric man’s cave drawings of rhinoceros and zebras to present day findings of Kanzi, the bonobo, who not only can put together simple sentences using a picture board, but can understand the spoken word and a dog named Jaytee who can predict when his owner is coming home.

She starts in Chauvet Cave in southern France, discovered in 1994, which contains paintings dating from 30,000 B.C., some of the oldest known in the world. (All of which are much better than my recent still life.)  According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made.”

Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In other words, the cave drawings are art as a means to generate emotion. But why? King asks, “Why did people paint animals in such overwhelming abundance, yet choose to record their own images hardly at all?” The animals in the drawings are “symbolizing something more.” Were they revered and worshiped? Were they used in religious-type ceremonies? We can theorize, but may never know for sure.

King weaves research, stories and examples to illustrate her points on animal empathy, defining animal intelligence, and the spiritual lives of animals in a lively and thought-provoking manner. She doesn’t shy away from a loaded question people have been asking probably since those artists drew in Chauvet Cave: do animals have souls? Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas have offered their own ideas on the subject. Modern day theories abound from author Jon Katz to biologist Marc Beckoff to primatologist Jane Goodall to minister Gary Kowalski to behaviorist Temple Grandin. To her credit, King doesn’t attempt to answer the question (how to answer the unanswerable?), but offers opinions from the world’s spiritual leaders. You all know that I’m on board with any author who references the Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman.

That’s all to say that the biggest takeaway from Being with Animals is that animals are individuals. King notes that their behavior is not hard-wired and often depends on experiences. It’s a great message to send to readers – to accept each animal on its own terms. Perhaps, she believes, humans can learn to treat each other as individuals by having compassionate interactions with animals…and that can “unlock our compassion, our best selves.”

Coming soon: a Q&A with author Barbara J. King…

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7 comments

  1. What an interesting post. Isn’t it great when you finish reading a book, and then suddenly the author pops up in some other medium, with an aim to provide additional insight?

    To me, the answer to the “Do animals have souls” question is obvious. Anyone who has ever spent time with a dog can tell you how sensitive and empathetic they can be.

    1. I found the segment on Kanzi the bonobo so interesting. He understands many spoken words of English. Barbara relates the time she met him and said, “I brought you a present. It’s in my pocket.” He looked at her pocket and picked out the symbol for “egg” from his board. The present was a ball, but prettly close in my book. We assume a lot of things about animal intelligence but you know what happens when you assume.

      Of course, I completely agree about animals and souls.

  2. Oh my, this is so fit for the conversation I had with my husband last night! Being the farm-raised man that he is, he has different expectations for animals than I do.

    When Milo, our 4 lb Yorkie, didn’t go into his little bed last night on command (he does this every night, as he runs to the bedroom in hopes of sleeping on our bed), my husband felt really irritated having to chase him across the house to put him away (makes me laugh now).

    The statement, to accept each animal on its own terms reminded me of last night. Milo is not going to change, and his quirky disobedience is pretty endearing. He is teaching us a lot about patience.

    1. That’s so funny that your Yorkie’s name is Milo. I know another Milo Yorkie!

      Oh boy! I’ve learned a lot of patience from Reggie. Every single day!

      Someone once told me to put myself in the Reggie’s shoes (or paws as the case may be). Can you imagine if someone was speaking to me in rapid Chinese? It would be so confusing. That’s why he must feel like when I say things like: leavitputthatdownit’sgrosswhatareyoudoingstopthatrightnow.
      LOL!

  3. Thanks for posting about this book. Definitely the kind of thing I’m interested in. Don’t know if you’ve ever read “The Tribe of Tiger” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (another anthropologist!) about “cats and their culture”? It’s on my list of topics I still want to post about.

    1. Thanks for recommending The Tribe of Tiger. It looks really interesting. I’ll have to pick this one up. I see it’s by the same author who wrote The Social Lives of Dogs.

      Looking forward to your post about it.

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