JUST LIKE AN ANIMAL by Maurice Burton


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Do rats guide blind companions and elephants mourn their dead? British zoologist Maurice Burton, a veteran animal watcher, approaches these and other questions of ""higher-order behavior"" with a healthy skepticism. Urging the need for ""extreme caution"" in investigating such stories, he suggests that untrained observers have both preempted the professionals--insisting that hedgehogs drink cows' milk--and muddled the issues by anthropomorphizing or misreading behavior. Accordingly, when he stumbles upon reports of compassionate, grieving, or heroic animals, he checks out sources--newspapers are notoriously unreliable--and sees the behavior in a larger context. For example, a vixen burying her fox cub is not performing a ceremonial gesture to the dead: foxes, which are carnivorous, routinely cover surplus carrion for future meals. Burton refutes many prevalent beliefs; he also painstakingly explores all possibilities and acknowledges that an individual animal may diverge from normal species behavior and that normal behavior can be reversed by circumstances such as illness or extreme danger. There are trustworthy reports of animals pining away from grief, showing ""auntie"" behavior, or fetching help for the incapacitated; many are unusual rather than routine, but some animals definitely do exhibit epimeletic (careful) behavior--jackdaws regularly share food, cats and dogs can display ""affection."" A consistently intriguing book which rejects flimsy evidence and does away with Disneyesque misconceptions.

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 1979
Publisher: Scribners