Books: The Dumbo Complex

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Books: The Dumbo Complex
By Miles Harvey

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy (Delacorte Press, $23.95). In what might be considered a most idiosyncratic book, controversial Freud scholar Masson teams up with science writer McCarthy in an attempt to prove that animals are capable of a broad range of emotions. Regaling the reader with an array of anecdotes--from gorillas who sing when their foraging yields auspicious results, to Alaskan buffalo who ice-skate for the pleasure of it, to a pencil-sketching Indian elephant that artist William de Kooning once called "damn talented"--the authors make a convincing case that animals have complex inner lives that are constantly manifesting themselves in our world.

While this is something that "most ordinary people who have direct contact with animals freely concede," some researchers involved in animal-testing escape the recriminations of guilt by believing that their subjects are incapable of suffering.

Yet there are problems with Masson and McCarthy's argument. Because animals can actually feel, they claim, humans have "moral obligations" to halt animal testing, a practice that is "obviously wrong." While asserting that other species--especially primates and other higher mammals, such as dolphins--are even capable of compassion, shame, self-awareness, and possibly a "notion of justice," Masson and McCarthy notably sidestep the question of whether an animal can have a conscience. Is the pain that coyotes inflict on their prey, for instance, "obviously wrong"? Apparently, "moral obligations" are among the sensibilities that belong strictly to the human species. And perhaps it's this provocation in the end--the way the book forces us to agree or disagree--that is its greatest virtue.

Blue Spruce, by David Long (Scribner's, $20). More than a century ago, Horace Greeley encapsulated the mythology of the American West in a single, two-letter word: go. But for the modern-day characters in David Long's stark and sinewy short stories, the Montana countryside symbolizes not movement, but inertia. With roots that go generations deep in small-town soil, these westerners--from bored teenagers to restless thirtysomethings to cynical old-timers--struggle with a sense that their lives are not their own, that they are shackled to the land as well as to the past. Some, such as the wayward son in "Lightning," make peace with the rugged earth. Others, like the disillusioned Downtown Boosters Club president in "The New World," flee, discovering that "you can get to where you can't love anything where you are anymore." Long's study of the ambivalent inheritors of Manifest Destiny is first-rate fiction.

The Company of Wolves, by Peter Steinhart (Alfred A. Knopf, $25). Steinhart, the author of 1994's marvelous Two Eagles, concedes that "the literature of wolves is surprisingly large," including more than 80 popular books on the subject. What makes his work different is its scope and even-handed approach. Steinhart talks to all sides--trappers, environmentalists, ranchers, hunters, and scientists--in an attempt to articulate the forces that nearly drove the wolf out of America and the forces that are currently bringing it back. Ultimately, his book is as much about humankind as it is about wolves, since "no other animal is so like us." Wolves and humans, he notes, have long childhoods, have evolved as hunters, and have strong social bonds and pronounced territorial instincts. Thus, Steinhart argues, our feelings about these animals will always be ambiguous: When we look at wolves we are in some ways contemplating "the visible form of our own darker nature." With national debate raging over the reintroduction of wolves in the Rockies, this book is all the more a must read. What big teeth it has.

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