Beyond Words: What Elephants and Whales Think and Feel

By Carl Safina. Roaring Brook Press, 2019. 176 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 10–14.

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Carl Safina, who hosted the PBS series Saving the Ocean, sets out to answer a question: What can deep knowledge of intelligent animals teach us about humanity? Cynthia Moss, whose 40 years of research on African elephants drew the author to her research station in Kenya, responds to that objective by saying she is mostly interested in learning about elephants as elephants.

The first major section of the book deals with elephants: their family ties and matriarchal clan organization, their many ways of communicating feelings and information, and their empathy and touching evidence of grieving the loss of family members. Young elephants, like human children, need protection and education over several years, which is provided by mothers, aunts, older siblings, and cousins. Safina draws the reader’s attention to the threats to these gentle giants from ivory poachers, habitat loss, and climate change.

Orcas (or killer whales), the largest of the dolphins, are the focus of the second section. Safina travels to Puget Sound, where there are many sounds that have been recorded and interpreted, making up much of what scientists know about these animals. They, like the elephants, live in family groups or pods. I learned that in the northern Pacific coastal waters there are two kinds of orcas: “residents” who eat salmon and “transients” who eat mammals such as seals, otters, and small whales.

Each newborn orca is named by its mother with a unique sound, which the child learns to say. When orcas meet, they first exchange names: “Hi! I’m Sandy, and you?” They communicate to work cooperatively. Readers will enjoy the stories of small boats lost in dense fog being guided back to their ports by pods of orcas, and of a hat blown overboard being returned to its owner. They show creativity, compassion, and playfulness.

A challenge facing orcas at one time was capture for human entertainment. That has mostly ended because of caring folks. But changing sea temperatures and the resulting current changes are reducing their food supply, and they are being poisoned by human garbage that makes its way to the ocean. Orca populations are severely threatened worldwide.

Safina concludes: 

We are all so similar under the skin. Four limbs, the same bones, the same organs, the same origins, and lots of shared history. . . . Almost all people who study the behavior of other animals justify their interest by saying that it helps us understand ourselves. It does. But much more important, it helps us understand other animals. We need to know them. And they very much need for us to know them.

Beyond Words is a young reader’s adaptation of a New York Times bestseller, and I put the reading level at grades 5 and up. Nonfiction aimed at middle schoolers is often, like this volume, clearer and more concise than adult nonfiction; you’ll be reading the “best parts version.” I recommend it to anyone longing to look at our world from a less human-centered view. We may come away with a more humble approach to living on this planet.

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