Saturday, November 3, 2007


Today, as I wandered a field bordering woodland near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, I encountered a rare creature and a commoner. The rarity was a fox sparrow, by no means an endangered species, but one of those birds that most people who share its geographic range will go through life with no clue to its existence. As a bird watcher for over 30 years, I had encountered fox sparrows on perhaps four prior occasions. Through the naked eye, a fox sparrow wouldn’t merit a second glance. A small brown bird flitting furtively in the brush, they are what some might dismiss colloquially as an LBJ. Through binoculars, “little brown job” resolves into a strikingly handsome creature: eye ringed with white, arrow-head spots corn-rowed down a snow-white breast and converging into a central spot, and a robust, bicolored beak. For me at least, a fox sparrow sighting instantly transforms even the most ordinary nature foray into a memorable event.

The commoner, by contrast, was a cricket. A gravid female in her prime, she measured almost an inch, not counting her ovipositor of nearly the same length. She startled as I stepped across a patch of clover-strewn earth. Insects fascinate me about as much as birds, and I sat down to watch. She behaved as any wise one should in the face of potential danger, remaining stock still for at least three minutes. I stayed equally inert, until a wave of her antennae signaled that she was about to resume her activities. Then, this mundane insect, this shiny black creature whose kind I had seen on countless occasions, transformed before my eyes into a rarity. Inspecting a small patch of bare earth, she crawled forward slightly, pushed her abdomen upward, redirected her egg-tube downward and, with visible effort, tried to pierce the substrate. Unable to penetrate, she gave up and crawled to a new spot to try again.

Over the next ten minutes, I watched her make a dozen or more attempts to force eggs into the earth. She appeared successful on one or two tries. Between efforts, she paused to nibble at some clover.

I once watched a locust thrusting a sickle-shaped ovipositor repeatedly at the soil, but had not witnessed similar behavior in a cricket. It was a glimpse at a private moment, and a rarity every bit as significant as the sparrow. Hours later, as I sit in the glow of a wood-fire, I realize that rarity, like beauty, springs not from the prejudice of mere numbers, but from the heart.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dear Editors of "Animal Behaviour"

I’m grateful for your decision to have my book Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan, 2006) reviewed (vol. 73, p 737). However, it was unfortunate that you chose a poultry scientist to review it. Given that I argue ultimately for a more compassionate ethic in our treatment of animals, and that poultry science is invested in the continued exploitation of what is numerically the world’s most abused species, namely the domestic chicken (>300 slaughtered per second in the US alone), Graham Scott’s review wasn’t likely to be positive. Sure enough, he provided a dismissive, insubstantial critique.

Scott dismisses as an assumption my claim that the scientific community is reluctant to acknowledge that animals feel pleasure. How, then, does he account for the complete absence of any books or scholarly journals dedicated to animal pleasure? There are many journals and reams of papers on the equally “private” experience of pain, yet “pleasure” rarely if ever appears in the index of an animal behavior textbook.

Scott sums up my closing chapter as a consideration of “the joie de vivre of animals shown in TV documentaries.” I can only guess that he didn’t read it. Chapter 11 is an attempt to place animal pleasure in a broader moral context, including a discussion of the significance of individuals (species don’t feel things), recent ethological evidence that nature is more virtuous and cooperative than once thought, and the suggestion that ethologists take on the study of animal pleasure (hedonic ethology).

Scott suggests that “the author’s denial that ‘Nature is red in tooth and claw’ relies on the [single paragraph] anecdote that he, a cyclist, enjoys bicycling to and from work in the face of the ‘predator’ cars.” In fact, I spend five pages arguing that our popular portrayals of nature offer a skewed view by focusing on its competitive aspects and its edge-of-seat violent episodes.

Finally, Scott glibly states that I “do not really present good evidence for any of [my] arguments,” and that I have a “tendency to flit between anecdotal examples and poorly supported arguments that lack scientific evidence.” I intentionally sprinkle the book with anecdotes to make it more appealing to “popular science” readers, but that was not done at the expense of reference to scholarly sources, of which more than 300 are cited in the 30 page bibliography.

As a contributor to, long-standing member of, and manuscript reviewer for Animal Behaviour, I was hopeful that Pleasurable Kingdom would be given a better showing. Of course, none of these factors should influence how a book is reviewed. It is the merits of the book itself that are in question. It is as the first book dedicated to a broad subject with enormous potential for future avenues of ethological research that I thought it would be welcomed by Animal Behaviour. Finally, I have no idea if an ABS editor chose a reviewer with strategic intent to undermine my book’s goals, but I do hope it considers selecting reviewers more carefully in future.