Renowned biologist and animal behavior expert Janine Benyus has compiled the ultimate reference guide for zoo lovers with her new book, The Secret Language of Animals. This lovingly researched guide is divided geographically into five sections, from Africa to the poles, and focuses on each area's most watchable animals.
We asked Benyus a few questions about misunderstood animal behaviors and the role of zoos today.
What motivated you to write this book?
All of my books are about people getting outside and interacting with the natural world. I remember reading a statistic that a greater number of people go to zoos than to all sporting events combined. Zoos are how most people connect to the natural world. People only begin to care about something when they get to know it, so conservation begins with affection. If you want to reach a large number of people, you have to go to the zoo going population. An afternoon spent watching an elephant or an otter is a teachable moment. People are curious about what they are witnessing, but they don't always have a zookeeper right there. My question was, could I write a Berlitz guide to zoos and offer the translation skills of a biologist or zookeeper? Something that would give zoogoers the information they needed to really absorb the life of the animal in front of them?
People only begin to care about something when they get to know it, so conservation begins with affection.
When did you become interested in animal behavior?
I grew up in New Jersey, so I just had a backyard, but a backyard was enough of a wilderness for me. Kids just need a little green nearby. I was a budding scientist and spent a lot of time absorbing details, like where woodpeckers made their nests, or where the rabbits would hide out. I got to know the animal families. Here’s where a caterpillar has formed a cocoon and if I come back tomorrow I might be able to see it transform into a butterfly. I’d started following the squirrels in the trees and then the hawks following the squirrels. I would just spend hours of my childhood watching their Wind in the Willows kind of drama.
I actually believe that people are fascinated by science, but they want to read about it in a way that’s enjoyable and immediately relevant.
I also read some formative books as a child, and my favorites were The Wind in the Willows, Shaggy Coat and Hunting with the Microscope. Shaggy Coat was about a family of beavers and it really taught me the joy of observation. My view went from large to small when my Dad went to Edmund Scientific in New Jersey and bought me a microscope. These two books basically translated for me in layman’s terms what these organisms were doing, and it was written in a way that a kid, even 10 or 11-year-olds could grasp and understand it. I thought to myself that I would like to do this for other people—explain how wondrous life is, and let people in on the latest scientific findings. I actually believe that people are fascinated by science, but they want to read about it in a way that’s enjoyable and immediately relevant. They want to know about an ecosystem when they are picnicking in it, and that’s really how field guides should be organized, by habitat. Instead of carrying around a dozen guides—one to birds, one to butterflies and one to mushrooms—you should be able to carry one book and when you went into a marsh, you turn to the chapter on marsh and learn about the plants and animals that you are most likely to see there. So that’s what I did with my Wildlife Watcher’s Guilds to Habitats of the Eastern and Western US. This book has a similar premise about teaching in context. While you are watching the animal—at the zoo, in its habitat-based exhibit—is the best time to see why it has the adaptations it does in order to fit into its place. At the zoo, you can really start to get an insight into the survival values of that physical trait or behavior. Being generous with scientific knowledge to me means translating and giving it to people at the moment they need it and making it really relevant to them.
Have you ever observed an animal behavior that made you laugh out loud?
I was in Yellowstone one winter—a great time to see wolves and wolf packs. They are visible from the road, and you can follow them all day long as they travel the rolling floodplains of the Lamar Valley. On this day, there was a wolf pack feasting on an elk, having a good time and sort of relaxing and just being. At one point, this small, teenage male wolf left the pack unnoticed and went across the road and down to the river. The wolf was all by itself and it decided to play with a buffalo—a huge old bison just trying to sleep. The wolf was trying its best to get the buffalo to play. This is a great example of the kind of highly visible animal behavior that is described in the book. Wolves do what is called a “play bow,” with their front legs outstretched, their head down and their butt up in the air, tail waving. There the pup was, bowing to the bison with this happy smile on his face.
I was watching him through the spotting scope and the buffalo was ignoring the pup, pretending to sleep. The wolf kept getting closer and closer and began yapping and play bowing. All of a sudden this buffalo had had enough, and it just stood up—and they’re amazingly fast, buffalo, even though they have so much bulk—and he just towered over this little wolf. The wolf leapt into high gear, running like one of those funny cat videos on YouTube, around and around in circles before racing away to safety. Several hundred feet downriver, he finally sat down to catch his breath. Slowly, I watched his demeanor change again as he realized, oh my god, I’m not with my pack. He looked incredibly forlorn, and there, taking up the whole of my viewfinder, he lifted his head and started to howl for his pack. I didn’t hear any response at first, maybe because his parents wanted to make him suffer a little bit. Finally, they called back to him from across the valley and he figured out where they were and went scuttling up back to them. It was quite the reunion.
I think every now and then, it’s good to turn the tables, to have humans stay in the cage and let the animals have the space. To me, that’s the proper relation.
How have zoos evolved over the years? Are there any additional changes you would hope to see implemented?
In modern zoos, zookeepers try to create natural conditions in the exhibits through “habitat enrichment.” Zookeepers will hide food in branches, for instance, or give the animals nest materials that they can build with. But there’s a limit because of the limited space. I really love the safari parks in which people stay in their cars while the animals get to roam. I love this idea more than little enclosures for a couple of reasons. A safari park allows animals to get to know their habitat and perform more natural behaviors—you can see them do things like exploring, mating and marking their territory. When they’re able to get their own food every now and then, to catch a prey animal for instance, that’s when we as visitors really start to see their true grace and prowess. I think every now and then, it’s good to turn the tables, to have humans stay in the cage and let the animals have the space. To me, that’s the proper relation.
Are there some zoos that you’re specifically thinking of?
Well, there’s the San Diego Wildlife Park, which is absolutely tremendous. The zoo has not only the largest animal collection, but also the largest plant collection. What many don’t realize is that what you see at the most zoos—the front of the house—is just the tip of the iceberg. What zoos are doing behind the scenes is serving as an ark, preserving the genetic material of these creatures and trying to keep the species viable. Zoos are trying to pull species through these evolutionary knotholes that occur when species become very rare in the wild. In reality, the endangered species benefit from having their genetic material mapped, and for them, the “frozen sperm zoo” becomes as important as the living zoo. Zoos track the genetics of their collection and are vigilant about mixing that genetic material and keeping those organisms fresh genetically. The ultimate goal, if possible, is to release individuals into healthy habitats and naturalize them again. These sperm zoos are the last resort, pulling certain species from the brink of extinction. They’re like a modern day Noah’s Ark.
I am hoping for the day when humans are sharing more of our spaces with these organisms, so we’re able to reduce the habitat fragmentation, put the habitats back together, and bring the animals back to these habitats because animals are an essential part of preserving any habitat. For instance, in the rainforest, so many of the species of plants are dependent on animals eating the fruits and then dropping and planting the seeds. Sometimes the animals and the plants are in such a close mutual relationship that without the organism you’re not going to have the plant anymore. There’s a small rat called an Agouti that lives in Brazil and other parts of the Amazon. Agoutis are the only species able to open the hard outer casing of the Brazil nut, the skull-like packaging that holds multiple nuts. Agoutis have a specialized tooth and claw setup that breaks open the case. They eat some nuts and leave some nuts, and without the nuts they “plant” we wouldn’t have Brazil nut trees anymore. No agouti, no Brazil nuts; it’s that important to put organisms back in their habitats.
Many abnormal behaviors surface when animals are kept in captivity. What is a commonly misunderstood, captivity-induced behavior? Is there a way it could be corrected?
When you see a polar bear swimming at the zoo, you may notice something strange and repetitive. You may see them swim back and forth and back and forth, and this is called a stylized, pacing behavior, which is not really a natural behavior; it’s more neurotic than natural. Instead of the polar bear doing what it would normally do—swim long, long distances—it has to curtail its swimming. Animal behaviorists in zoos are really trying to prevent animals from engaging in those types of behaviors and it takes a lot of habitat enrichment to do that, so that’s one example of a sad consequence.
I’m working on a new book about ubiquitous phenomenon in the natural world, patterns that researchers are just starting to piece together. These patterns repeat everywhere, in all five kingdoms and all around the world. When you ask, “what do all organisms have in common?” you get interesting answers—clues about earth-friendly chemistries, energy saving structures [and] cooperative networks—things that have lasted and that work well. Together these “best practices” are like a manual for how to live on this planet over the long haul.