The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion

An Interview with Peter Wohlleben, author of a recent book on animal emotions

Posted Jan 17, 2018

After I read Peter Wohlleben's book called The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World, I walked away with a new perspective on the inner lives of a wide variety of flora. Near the beginning of his fascinating and thought-provoking book he writes, "Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them." (pp. 7-8) Because I've had decades-long interest in what some call the "hidden lives of animals," namely what they feel and why, not if, emotions have evolved in a wide range of nonhuman animals (animals), I thought deeply about the possibility of trees feeling pain. While I honestly go back and forth on this possibility, I can't totally discount it either. But, that's another story.

Soon after I read about the emotional lives of trees and the possibility that they are sentient beings, I was asked to write an endorsement for Mr. Wohlleben's sequel called The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion―Surprising Observations of a Hidden World. Similar to its predecessor, this book also is a fascinating read. I noted the use of the word "hidden" in the titles of both books, and while the feelings of trees and other flora remain hidden to me, the emotional lives of other animals do not -- they openly display them in all sorts of ways and it's impossible to argue that they're unfeeling or non-sentient beings

Courtesy of the publishers
Source: Courtesy of the publishers

I wanted to know more about why Mr. Wohlleben wrote his new book, and was pleased he could take the time to answer a few questions. Our interview went as follows:

Why did you write The Inner Life of Animals?

Since I was a little child I kept spiders in glasses, had water turtles in an aquarium on my desk and even hatched an egg so that the chicken thought I was its mother. So animals were my first big love, even earlier than my love of trees. And I never thought of them as one might as machines or robots, but rather wonderful individuals with a soul.

How does it follow up on your very successful book called The Hidden Life of Trees?

Animals are an important part of the forest and nature. For one book, all the little stories were too much, so I decided to make two books out of it -- first the trees, then the animals. 

Can you briefly tell readers how you came to be interested in "inner lives" from the work that you've done for many years and perhaps for other reasons?

I always wondered why nature should have invented two ways that animals work: one for humans and another for all the millions of other species. From my work I have learned that there is only one way that all things work. It's very clear that love, happiness, and other emotions are very common among many animals, and that makes me happy too.

Who is your main audience?

Lay people. Most scientific reports are so full of technical terms that no one likes to read them, although there have been many fantastic observations made in the past decades.

What are your major messages?

The major message is: Have fun with nature! Isn’t it amazing that even trees have to go to the bathroom? Or that ravens have names for one another? 

What are some of the practical implications of your writings in terms how trees and other animals should be treated by humans?

I don’t like to give general advice. I’d prefer to reach the heart, not the brain. What we love we will protect without any new laws or regulations. 

What are some of your current and future projects?

The next book is about the network of nature. We think today that nature is a big machine, and we know that if we cause an action A it will lead to a reaction B. But in reality there is a result C. Examples are cranes, who disturb ham production in Spain; or salmon, who intersect with trees. And burning wood as a climate neutral energy source is a mistake -- forests can handle the climate change much better itself by cooling down and even prompting rain.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

I’d like to have the readers look to the future with optimism. Nature is strong and still full of wonders which enrich our daily lives. We have to recognize that we cannot destroy nature, only our natural habitat. So protection of nature is in reality the protection of ourselves. And with love and an optimistic look to toward the future we are much better able to solve the actual problems.

Thank you, Peter, for taking the time to answer my questions. I agree "protection of nature is in reality the protection of ourselves. And with love and an optimistic look to toward the future we are much better able to solve the actual problems." I fully realize that we are now living in a period called the Anthropocene, often called "the age of humanity." I prefer to call it "the rage of inhumanity" because of the unprecedented damage we are doing to nonhumans and their homes, which of course includes flora.

Recognizing that nonhumans and humans share a wide range of emotions and that because they are sentient beings they suffer when they are mistreated, it's my hope that people around the world will pay careful attention to the harm they cause other animals and will rapidly change their ways. Time is not on our side and being positive and working hard to give other animals the best lives possible has to be high on everyone's agenda as we move into the future. I hope your book and others will be successful in motivating those sorts of changes.

More Posts