A review of The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson

Reviewed by Sheri Harper

The Moral Lives of Animals
by Dale Peterson
Bloomsbury Press
ISBN: 978-1-59691-424-7, March 15, 2011, 352 pages

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson is an interesting exploration into the lives of animals including occasionally humans i.e. the many interesting researchers he visited in the world, but with many cute and unusual anecdotes about animal behavior mostly mammalian that are sure to amuse the reader as well as inform. Some of the tales come from Jane Goodall’s Chimpanzee Research Center at Gombe Stream while others examine research with bonobos, baboons, gorillas, but also other mammals such as dogs, rats, lions and impalas. My favorite tale shares the story of a young chimpanzee who was being trained in language skills who took a wild dash intent on theft of a goodie. In sharing the tales, Dale Peterson also shows how much he cares for his constant companions, his dogs Smoke and Spike, which should be favorites for any dog lover and shares his experience with dog obedience training.

Dale Peterson takes the unusual angle of examining how evolution has shaped animal behavior in the area of cooperation. He uses research in cell biology to talk about the limbic brain, emotional responses to things like tickling, fear, grief and love. He even delves into cell biology explaining the finding of mirror cells that may be the first evidence that explains how animals are programmed to learn behavior.

Travel lovers should appreciate his tales of adventure finding the many ecosystems where the last remaining populations of a great variety of species have become endangered along with his explanation for how their populations have become reduced. At my visit to Gombe stream we saw how habitat loss has endangered the chimpanzee populations but also found that olive baboon populations have increased in the same area. Dale Peterson’s tales about the differences in behavior can shed some light on the question of moral behavior i.e. behavior that is cooperative, kind, that shows use of possessions, and communication skills and how it has enabled some species to develop their cultures, a concept that many people might find quite unusual. But those who love dogs or have other pets or who’ve been through dog obedience training should already believe in animal emotion and intelligence.

One of the fun features of the Moral Lives of Animals is the use of Moby Dick as a way of showing the differing preconceptions people have about animals, their behavior, their ability to have emotion and think and plan ahead and learn. Dale Peterson’s style is very easy to read and the scientific explanations are provided in natural language as opposed to the duller, more formal prose presented in science journals.

About the reviewer: Sheri Fresonke Harper is a poet and writer. She’s been published in many small journals and is working on her second science fiction novel. See www.sfharper.com