Carl Safina on Sharing Emotions with Animals: PYP 256

There are days when I grumble about “having” to do this podcast. When there's a lot of editing to be done. When I have to turn my hastily typed (and hugely typo'ed) notes into coherent show notes. When my audio sounds terrible and I have no idea why.

And then there are days like this, when one of my action heroes agrees to be interviewed. And I'm nervous, and fan-boyish, and just about trembling with excitement and privilege.

Carl Safina is the author of, most recently, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. I consumed it on Audible a couple of years ago, and was utterly mesmerized and transformed by the listening. I think it was one of the sneaky factors that pushed me, somewhat against my better judgment, into the Animal Welfare camp of the plant-based movement.

The book describes the author's encounters with three fascinating and endangered animal populations – the elephants of East Africa, the wolves of Yellowstone, and the Orcas of the Pacific Northwest – and the humans who have devoted their lives to studying, documenting, and understanding these magnificent creatures.

The central idea of Beyond Words is that animals have thoughts and feelings, and are in every way the moral equals of human beings. This won't surprise any dog owner, but flies in the face of 200 years of reductionist, materialist science that relegated animals to “it” status: interchangeable units without cognition or consciousness. And that viewpoint is what allows us to commit atrocities such as elephant poaching for tusks, killing wolves for sport, and turning the ocean into a bad neighborhood unable to sustain life.

And ripped straight from Carl's website, here's a little more about this brave and beautiful soul:

Carl Safina’s writing about the living world has won a MacArthur “genius” prize, Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals.

His seabird studies earned a PhD in ecology from Rutgers; he then spent a decade working to ban high-seas drift nets and to overhaul U.S. and international fishing policy.

Safina is the first Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, where he co-chairs the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and runs the not-for-profit Safina Center. He hosted the PBS series Saving the Ocean.

His writing appears in The New York Times, TIME, Audubon, and on the Web at National Geographic News and Views, Literati Magazine, Huffington Post,, and elsewhere. He is author of the classic book, Song for the Blue Ocean. Carl’s seventh book is Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel.

He lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Patricia and their dogs and feathered friends.

In our conversation, we covered:

  • why it's important to know that animals have individual personalities
  • animals have as much claim to existence as humans
  • we have incredible egos with incredible insecurities (“we're capable of being insulted by the natural world”)
  • animals believe only what there's evidence for (“they don't kill each other over ideologies”)
  • science is the greatest thing the human mind has ever created
  • the problem with science is that it's done by people
  • the withering criticism heaped upon Jane Goodall by old male colleagues who had never spent a day in the field
  • the heretical question: asking why animals do what they do
  • “isn't it obvious and inescapable that she protected her baby?”
  • 7-year-old Carl and the homing pigeon epiphany
  • the scientific overreaction to mythology and folk tales about animals
  • the elephants of Amboseli and Samburu – “what they're like when they're being themselves”
  • the nightmarish poaching crisis (a population of 600 elephants, losing one a day to poachers)
  • Echo the elephant and her maternal faith
  • “it took Cynthia Moss 20 years to understand how elephants were cueing on each other”
  • humans share physiology and neurology with animals – why not emotions?
  • killing old elephants: the loss of ancient wisdom
  • the wolves of Yellowstone
  • the superwolf named Twenty-one
  • the true meaning of “alpha male”
  • our hatred for wolves feels like racial hatred
  • the role of hope and inspiration
  • how to get started as a human advocate for animals
  • and much more…


Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment or Talk Back box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.

Talk Back


Beyond Words

The Natural Resources Defense Council

The Center for Biological Diversity

The Amboseli Elephant Trust

The International Anti-Poaching Foundation (founded and led by Plant Yourself guest Damien Mander)

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