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The Inner Life of Animals


Review by Nancy Brannon

Peter Wohlleben has another “inside look” at the inhabitants of this planet – this time animals. In his other books, he explores The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) and life on the planet more generally in The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things (2017). This book, The Inner Life of Animals, comes between the other two in chronological order, published in 2016. However, the English translations of his books are published by Greystone Books in relationship with the David Suzuki Institute, so my paperback edition was published in 2021. Find more information at:
Wohlleben, a German forester, began publishing popular books about scientific research, ecology, and forest management in 2007. A graduate of forestry school in Rottenburg am Neckar, he has managed a forest of mostly beech trees near Hümmel, Germany for over 20 years. The content of his books is a combination of personal observations and scientific research. He regularly takes people on guided tours through the forest and reading this book is like going on a personal tour with Peter, as he helps us see with more depth the world of sentient animals all around us.

Horse people have a lot insight into the inner life of horses, dogs, and cats, living with them on a daily basis. We often attribute emotions to our domestic animals as we observe and interpret their behaviors. Is this just anthropomorphism, attributing our own emotions onto our domestic animals? In the Epilogue, Wohlleben addresses this question, writing, “When I look at animals, I like to make analogies to people, because I cannot imagine that animals feel so very differently from us…

“The charge is anthropomorphism, i.e., that people who compare animals to humans are unscientific.” But his goal in writing this book “is not to anthropomorphize animals, but to help us understand them better. ...I am suggesting that we infuse our dealings with the living beings with which we share our world with a little more respect.” I believe Temple Grandin would heartily agree. So, on to some of his interesting observations about the emotional life of animals.

Observing his own two horses – two mares – he finds they “have a highly developed sense of fairness …easily observed at feeding time.” This is especially true if one horse requires more feed than the other. Wohlleben created a way for the easy keeper mare to take the same amount of time eating as the other harder keeping mare who gets more feed. Between our two mares, the easy keeper Quarter Horse is always anxious to get to her feed, while the harder keeper Thoroughbred mare is far less concerned about her feed. But when it comes to companionship, the reverse holds. The TB mare is always anxious when her buddy is gone and continues whinnying and looking for her until she returns.

The principle of “justice” among animals can well apply to humans: “every member of a community should be treated equally. If they aren’t, resentment quickly bubbles to the surface and, if this resentment is constantly fed, it can lead to violence,” he writes.

On the contrary, play is a way to foster group cohesion and survival. In the chapter “Just for Fun,” he describes “toboganning crows” who take a lid from a plastic container, carry it to the highest part of a roof, place it on the slope, and then jump on it to slide down. “No sooner does the bird reach the bottom than it goes back up for its next ride.” You have, no doubt, observed play in your animals, too. Wohlleben concludes: “Any playful activity within a group can act as social glue and therefore serve an evolutionary purpose. Energy invested in cohesion promotes groups that are particularly resistant to external threats.”

Do animals feel grief? You bet they do and Wolleben has observed it in the red deer that live in the forest he manages. “Grief helps them say goodbye,” he writes. Over and over he observes a doe returning to the spot where her fawn died and calling for her fawn. “The doe must slowly accept that her child is dead and that she must distance herself from the tiny corpse.” If your dog has lost a buddy, you’ve probably observed the grief and depression that follows from such loss.

In “Hidden Agendas” he observes a crow that is very clever at hiding its food from the observant horse owner. He describes something we can all identify with: the dread of having to go out into a muddy pasture to feed the horses, “especially when a side wind is blowing a persistent drizzle into your face.” But duty calls, as the horses are waiting for their morning ration of grain. The vigilant crow always gets a bit of grain, plus this particular morning it has an acorn. The crow goes to a great deal of trouble to deceive Wohlleben as to where it’s hiding its acorn by poking numerous holes in the ground, but only one hole holds the acorn. The bird had considered what he might have seen and how it could hide the acorn in such a way as Peter would be fooled. But the crow also showed time management in stocking food for future consumption.

In “Communication,” he looks at nonverbal communication – transmitted by means of facial expressions and gestures, easily observable in humans as well as other animals. “Our horse turned out to be capable of relatively nuanced vocalizations. …Most horse owners know that horses communicate a lot using body language,” but he also discovered that “whinnies contain two basic frequencies and can transmit complex information.” He is convinced that there are “also whinnies that express affection.”

He begins the chapter “In the Service of Humanity” with the statement: “most animals used by people lead dismal lives,” referring to those such as pigs and chickens living in “factory farms who are regarded as nothing more than generators of raw material.”

But he counters, “However, there are touching examples of human-animal partnerships that are a joy to behold.” Here he describes the partnerships with log haulers and their horse teams. If you’ve ever observed the draft horses “Kroger” and “Big Star” at the Ames Plantation Heritage Festival and how precisely they are guided by driver Jeff Ferge to maneuver loading logs from the ground onto the log wagon, and then unloading, you can identify with Wohlleben’s description of logging with horses. He describes similar human-animal partnerships with shepherds and their dogs taking pleasure in their work. “They know exactly how to push our emotional buttons,” he writes.

You’ll find many more interesting stories of the emotional side of animals in this book. Chapters are fairly short so you can zip through several at a sitting, or leisurely stroll through the topics, letting each resonate with your own experiences.

Visit Peter Wohlleben’s website at:

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