Ape, chicken, cow, dog, pig, rat, sheep, snake, beast. Each of these words has a distinct connotation, none of them positive. The fact is, though, that no animal behavior can compete with the aggressive and destructive violence exhibited by humans on a regular basis. Animal advocate Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has published numerous bestsellers about the rich emotional lives of animals. In his latest thought-provoking book, Beasts, Masson turns his attention to humans, posing the questions: who are the real beasts, why, and what can we do about it? We asked Masson—who lives in New Zealand with his family—a few questions about the book.
How did the idea for Beasts come about?
It occurred to me that we easily recognize animal superiority when it comes to strength, or even some emotions (grief in elephants, for example), but have not commented very much on an even more important fact: Animals are less aggressive than humans.
What’s one of the most surprising things you discovered—about humans or another species—while researching the book?
While in the 20th century humans killed about 200,000,000 other humans, during that same period, as far as we know, no orca killed a single orca in the wild.
Is there a particular (biological or societal) factor that you feel is the most responsible for our inclination toward aggression or violence?
Yes, education. We learn war; we are not destined to it, no matter what Obama says. War did not begin with the first human, as Obama claimed in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Which derogatory animal insult (ape, chicken, cow, snake) that humans lobby at one another do you feel is the most ironic—why?
“Beast,” simply because it is so common, and so off the mark. Humans are the only real beasts.
What do you think is the most common misconception about animal (non-human) aggression?
Nature as red in tooth and claw. It is not. Ninety percent of all mammals are vegetarians.
The book focuses on the worst of human behaviors: war, hatred, killing, exploitation. Is there a bright side?
Yes, indeed there is: We are the only species that creates hospitals for sick members of another species. We have schools of veterinary medicine, that, in theory (alas, rarely in practice) are there not to exploit other animals, but only to help them.
What do you want people to take away from reading the book?
We need to seriously rethink our attitude toward nonhuman animals. Should we eat them (no); should we exploit them in zoos or circuses (no); should we use them for fur or milk or eggs (no)? If we keep them in our homes (cats and dogs,) we should recognize the great honor they accord us.
(Author photo by Corina Koning)