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Carl Safina Talks Critter Culture, Communication and Complexity of Animal Emotions on Skaana

Written by Izzy Almasi 

Have you ever watched an animal in the wild or, perhaps, in a nature documentary and wondered what their life is like? Sure, they live on the same planet as us, breathe the same air, exist under the same sky. But it can feel like they live in another world.

According to renowned ecologist and author, Carl Safina, animals and humans have much in common. It’s actually cultural differences between humans that makes the animal world so similar to our own. “There are a lot of animals that have culture,” Safina told Skaana host, Mark Leiren-Young in a recent Zoom interview. “Culture is the behaviors, the traditions, the habits, the practices, and even the attractions that flow socially. They don’t come purely instinctively. You learn them from a social group.”

Carl Safina is the New York Times bestselling author of Beyond Words, which was adapted into two celebrated children’s books, Song for the Blue Ocean, and, most recently, Becoming Wild. Safina has been featured on NPR, The Colbert Report, and even The Martha Stewart Show. He is the founder of the Safina Centre whose mission is “fusing scientific understanding, emotional connection, and a moral call to action”.

Carl Safina writing underwater in Bonaire

An animal lover from a young age, Safina continues to study- and be astounded by — the complexity of animal culture and communication. When discussing the communication patterns of whales and dolphins Safina said, “It’s a pretty mind boggling thing. If [communication] really happened the way as we observed and described, it means that [whales and dolphins] have a way of saying a lot to each other that we totally don’t understand… They do something that requires detailed communication and we have no idea right now how they’re doing it.”

Not only do animals and people share a reliance on communication to survive, but animals also have ‘careers,’ in order to survive. “I know animals do make a living. What else do they do besides make a living?” says Safina. “Most of the animals we’re talking about are very mobile and they have to go and get their food. So they are making a living.”

Safina is concerned about the scientific community’s resistance to anthropomorphism and how it affects the treatment of free-living animals and conservation. “A rule that says you can’t attribute human thoughts and emotions to non-humans is not scientific. Science is supposed to look at evidence first and then believe what the evidence says. It’s not supposed to tell you ahead of time what you’re allowed to believe,” says Safina. “It’s not a scientific thing to say, ‘You are not allowed to anthropomorphize. You’re not allowed to attribute human thoughts and emotions to other animals.’ Some other animals have thoughts and emotions that are quite similar to ours for reasons that are quite similar to why we have them and how we use them.”

Carl Safina working in Setauket

Above all else, Safina asks people to care about the world around them and to take active steps to make a difference. “The first step is to care, but then you have to translate some caring into some action. Everybody who cares should do something,” he says. “You can’t do everything. You can’t save the world, you can’t solve all the problems. But everybody can do something. Figure out what suits you, what seems amenable to your personality. or your budget, or whatever it is. Everybody can do something.”

To listen to the full interview please visit Skaana at Spotifywww.skaana.orgApple Podcasts, or Stitcher and visit Carl Safina’s website and the Safina Centre’s website for more information about his work and mission and check out Becoming Wild.

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