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King: 'Being with Animals'

In the beginning, long before humans began herding and hunting and turning wild wolves into domestic dogs, our relationship to animals could be summed up with a single word.

“Prey,” Barbara King says simply.

“We always had to be very aware of the animals in our world. Before we were eating them and tracking them, they were eating us,” she explained. “There’s really excellent paleoanthropology evidence showing holes in skulls and marks on bones. We were taken…and we were eaten.”

 Being with Animals: Why We Are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World is King’s latest book. In it, she traces human involvement with animals from the days in which our ancestors figured out how to bite the biters to modern times, in which we endow animals with human-like rights and imbue athletic teams with animal-like virtues.

The book, released Jan. 26, attracted considerable advance notice. The same week that the book was released, King discussed Being with Animals (and took calls) on the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio. She also was interviewed for National Geographic Weekend.

King is Chancellor Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary. She has studied primates in the wild in Africa and in zoos, and written about proto-religious impulses revealed in the archaeology of hominids. She’s also an animal lover, working with her husband to care for a number of homeless cats near their home in Gloucester. One of her favorite vacation activities is watching buffalo groups in Yellowstone Park. Being with Animals is a product of the Barbara King who is a thoughtful scientist as well as a dedicated animal-welfare advocate.

“We don’t often stop to think about how animals are so saturating our lives. We name sports teams after them, we read books to our kids about animals. We go to national parks to see animals and we just surround ourselves with animals,” she said in an interview shortly before Being with Animals was released. “The question is why? What I hope to do is to get people thinking a little bit about how the past still affects the present.”

King points out early in the book that we are animals ourselves, noting “It’s only for simplicity’s sake that I write as if humans and animals are somehow separate categories.” Throughout Being with Animals, King stresses the importance of animals to the development of what we’ve come to refer to as “culture” and how our ancestors’ relationship with their fellow fauna served to drive evolution: “Our species, Homo sapiens, became human by being with animals,” she writes.

“I think that natural selection would have paid a premium for paying attention to what animals are doing,” King said. “So, animals affected our movements. They affected the shaping of our brain. They affected the shaping of our senses. And that very soon became mutual.”

Being with Animals begins with the evolutionary processes through which our ancestors switched places on the food chain—becoming the diner more often than the dinner—but the book takes off when King starts to discuss the symbolic incorporation of animals into human life.

“Already, by 35,000 years ago, we have these amazing cave paintings that are not just of animals, but of animal-human hybrids,” she explained. “People are changing how they react to other animals, and that is affecting how they think about the world. These kinds of relationships continue to this day. That’s the most fascinating thing.”

The book traces the development of humankind’s symbolic and emotional intertwining with animals from prehistory—the days of the prehistoric European cave painters and of mysterious, compelling human-animal co-burials—to the anthropomorphic characters that have populated our literature, cartoons and movies from Aesop’s Fables to modern times. As an example, King writes of her fondness for the “Frog and Toad” series of children’s books by Arnold Lobel and says that copies are her default gift to new babies.

Being with Animals also addresses interspecies communication. An experienced observer of apes and monkeys in the wild and in zoos, the author include her own experiences working to understand communications among non-human primates. King is the author of a number of other books, including Evolving God, which explores expressions of empathy among primates that she believes are at the root of religious expression.

Her latest book contains a chapter, “Articulate Apes and Emotional Elephants,” which includes tips for anyone introduced into gorilla society at one of the world’s better zoos. (It’s bad form not to greet the silverback first. Adding a “pleasure rumble” after saying hello is polite; the more forbearing among the apes probably will overlook your outlandish accent.) But serious ape watchers should be prepared for anything from an abrupt crash-the-bars charge to being the target of thrown objects that King describes from unhappy experience as “products of his own body.” Apes also can startle humans in ways that are just the opposite of aggression. The chapter recounts an incident in which a female gorilla expressed “not only curiosity, but sexual interest” in a zoo visitor, a man who was then serving as a William & Mary dean.

“Here I was, putting the person who was more or less my boss into a situation of being flirted with by an ape!,” King writes. The gorilla even gave the dean (not identified by name) a small piece of bamboo, what any human would recognize as a token of affection. “To my great relief, the dean found all this amusing and even touching. He kept the bamboo as a memento.” 

As what King refers to as “the attunement between animals and people” develops, it stays unaltered on many levels. Many people today are, in accordance with their wishes, buried along with their beloved pets, just as people were thousands of years ago. Even today, our most basic relationship with animals continues: Animals are still killing people.

“I don’t want to imply that there was a stage in which we were prey and then we became not prey,” King said. “There are large numbers of people today who still are prey.”