Dr. Safina is one of those guys who is way nicer than he needs to be. As an ecologist and conservationist for over 40 years, the man has credentials. He’s won the Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships, book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies, and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals.

In 2003, Safina founded the Blue Ocean Institute and currently serves as it’s president. He also served as vice-president for Marine Conservation at the National Audubon Society and is a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

He named one of the “100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century by Audubon magazine.

If that wasn’t enough, Safina is a literal genius, having won the MacArthur Genius Award in 2000. He is a source of knowledge, and has one of my favorite quotes on conservation.

Still, even with all that, he graciously offered to sit down with me and talk about his expansive career, positives in conservation, and his new book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Family, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace.

Becoming Wild

In his recent work, Safina travels around the world studying other animals and their respective cultures, from chimpanzees in Uganda to Sperm whales in the Caribbean, to Scarlet McCaws in Peru, in an effort to show the connective tissue that binds us all as animals.

Chimpanzee with baby

Chimpanzee with baby, Courtesy of Carl Safina

While exploring these places and cultures, Carl reminds us that we are all animals, and works to clear up the persistent misconception of what makes humans special—if we are indeed special at all that is.

“Love and empathy aren’t what makes us special. In fact, humans are the most extreme of all animals. We are the most creative and the most destructive. We are the most compassionate, and the cruelest—all at the same time.”

Safina writes about how other animals acquire and transfer gained knowledge, especially with new behavior trends. It always starts with innovation, like when a humpback whale slapped it’s tail at the water surface to scare the schools of fish into grouping together. Then, when such ingenious innovation becomes adapted—generally by the younger individuals—and weaves its way into becoming custom, traditions, and, eventually culture. Safina describes the process below—

“So we become equipped with knowledge in at least three ways. There’s genetic inheritance (instinct), trial and error (individual learning), and social learning (customs, traditions, culture). The things we learn socially give us more than just skills. They also give us group identity, conformity, unity—and divisions. Culture.”

So, much like people, many animals rely very heavily on learning what to do from their parents or their elders who have learned it from their parents and their elders. He tells a story of a group of baboons, a species whose males usually spend much of their time fighting for dominance. However, in this one group in particular, all of the dominant adult males died off in an epidemic, and the younger ones that grew up behaved much more passively. And then years later, when the younger generation got older and aged out, the new ones who had come in under that more peaceful regime were more peaceful and weren’t consistently fighting for dominance all the time. Very interesting, and poses the question of what we could learn from the baboons if we weren’t so prideful.

COVID-19 and the Environment

Given the circumstances, it was difficult to not talk about COVID-19, including the negative and positive environmental issues that pandemics create, as well as the not-so-surprising fact that the pandemic occurred at all. Understandably, Safina was not a big fan of wet markets, strongly condemning them for their environmental —and viral— consequences.

“These [wet] markets are now killing millions of people around the world, because they are functioning as test tubes for viruses, viruses that would never be in contact with people, viruses that would never be in contact among species that would never be in contact in the wild like that. Bats and civets would not be jammed up against each other in the wild…”

Image courtesy of Mercy For Animals

But this isn’t an exclusively “far-off” issue. It’s not a “Chinese virus”(could you imagine thinking that, or worse yet, saying it publicly?). Wet markets and US factory farming practices have a lot more in common than many of us care to admit. Safina cautions of the extremely high risks of the current factory farming practices we have in the US, and how the treatment of millions of factory-farmed cows, pigs, and chickens will ultimately impact us.

It’s just a matter of time, as it’s happened before in the past. The bird flu, swine flu, and “mad cow disease”, all of which didn’t come from wild animals, but were rather bred in the terrible conditions associated with factory farming. To make matters worse, the rampant use of antibiotics on farmed animals eventually leads to antibiotic resistance in humans who eat them, and will result in ever-evolving contagions.

“Day after day, year after year in these tight, filthy, miserable conditions, these viruses have innumerable chances to make little evolutionary changes that allow them to jump into human beings. A whole series of epidemics, some of them much more deadly than COVID-19 have occurred in the last 25 or 30 years.”

Still, Safina remains cautiously hopeful about the environment, maintaining that it’s essential for us to revisit how we view nature before we continue. Nature is everywhere, and we are merely its guests. However, Safina knows that the mindset switch ahead won’t be easy, citing that pesticide companies, pharmaceutical companies, agribusinesses, and oil companies have all worked in the exact opposite direction that would be conducive for an effective co-existence.

Interview With Carl Safina

Interview Transcript

DFYB:
All right, so I’m here today with Carl Safina. He’s an ecologist and conservationist for over 40 years and works to inspire and engage others to devote their time and energies to the conservation of wild things and wild places. His writing has won the MacArthur Genius prize, Pugh and Guggenheim fellowships, Book Awards from Lannon, Orion, and the National Academies and the John Burroughs, James Beard. I mean George Rabb medals, I mean, all over the place. Audubon magazine even named Safina: among its “100 most notable conservationists of the 20th century”. In this new recent book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Family, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace, he does a deep dive into three different animals and discuss what makes them unique, but most of all, what connects us all as animals. Thank you so much for your time, Carl. I appreciate it.

Carl Safina:
Yeah, well, it’s a pleasure to be here. It’s really fun.

DFYB:
Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, so I mean, you have such a broad span of work, touching upon animals from tuna, salmon, sharks, sea turtles, macaws, chimpanzees… what common theme has your work shown you amongst animals and more broadly amongst nature in general?

Safina:
Well, the most common theme is that we are living in an absolute miracle. And most of us don’t really see it that way. That’s really that’s really the thing. I mean, everything about life is so incredible. Just Just the idea of all the things that exist throughout the universe. All the elements exists throughout the universe. Light exists throughout the universe, gravity exists throughout the universe. But at the very least, life is an extremely rare thing. In the universe, it may be that we are here alone, it may be that there are other places very, very far separated from one another. But life is a is a very rare thing and what makes living things work is so completely mind boggling. That I mean, it literally is a miracle and when I say literally a miracle, but the laws of physics exist, and are called laws because they exist everywhere in the universe, gravitational attraction is the same everywhere in the universe. The speed of light is the same everywhere in the universe. And entropy, the idea that disorder is constantly increasing is one of the laws of physics. But life goes against the laws of physics in that way. Life makes things more and more orderly, out of chaos, it creates its own order and sets it in living motion. And when you have something that breaks the laws of physics that is called a miracle, that’s the definition of miracle life is a miracle. And that’s the common thing that runs through all of my work and observations and drives me because the longer I’ve been at this in the field observing animals thinking about life, writing about life, studying birds and other creatures, at close range, and the older I get, the more completely unbelievable it all is sometimes we first encounter something and we’re amazed by it and then it gets familiar. But for me, this is happening in reverse, the familiar is becoming mind boggling. And one thing I see in quite a lot of people as they get older, they stop taking things so much for granted. And, and they live with more gratitude, about about life, about their own personal lives, about a lot of things. And I think that, for me, the the amount of appreciation I have for living things, has just really intensified over time. And that intensification seems to actually be accelerating for me. Wow.

DFYB:
Yeah. I mean, you can really tell that appreciation in your most recent book Becoming Wild. Yeah, I mean, you know, you kind of chronicle three different themes within three different types of animals, family within sperm whales, beauty within Scarlet macaws, and peace within chimpanzees. Why did you choose those themes and why did you choose those particular species to represent those themes?

Safina:
Well, really, that book is about culture and non human animals. My last book, Beyond Words was about what animals can think and feel. And I wanted to take a part of the lives of other animals, the cultural part, and look more deeply into that. In other words, thinking and feeling is something that is a very general thing, among many, many, many animals a smaller subset, have culture which I’ll explain what I mean by that word. And so I wanted to dive more deeply into this, I guess more specialized aspect of some animals and I chose to very cultural ones-sperm whales and chimpanzees, and one that was not known to be very cultural, but which I found very fascinating the first time I saw them in the wild and I wanted to return and probe them. And I found plenty when I did that. Now, by culture, what I mean is that the skills, the behaviors and the attractions that you learn from elders, mostly you learn them from your parents, or from others in your social group. They don’t come purely instinctively. And they are not the things that individuals learn by trial and error and become skillful at. They’re the things that you learn from others who have already learned it that have passed down these habits in these traditions. And there are actually many similarities but in in other species, we see things like dialects, we see different skills different ways that families grouped together, just learning what there is to eat, where we happen to live, which is different than what there is to eat, where others of whatever species happen to live. And so, on the one hand culture is less widespread in other species than emotion. But what what kind of started to surprise me is that it’s more widespread than I suspected. So many, many animals rely very heavily on learning what to do, from their parents or their elders who have learned it from their parents and their elders. And some of these cultural habits have existed for many, many thousands of years in a place. So that’s, that’s what the book is about. And that’s why I chose these three species to focus on But as you know, from reading it, there are quite a few other species that may cameo appearances.

DFYB:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you’ve studied so many. And yeah, I mean, so you know, there’s a lot of generational learning that goes on with animals with these species in particular, there’s also a lot of locational learning that you talk about in the book. So killer whales, or sperm whales, or chimpanzees from this subset of an area don’t behave the exact same way as their brothers and sisters, you know, not too far away. And the danger is when you lose that generational learning, or when you lose that specific locational learning, that could be gone for a very long time, if not forever.

Safina:
Yes. And even in, even in very practical terms, when people have tried to reintroduce animals back to places where that species has been wiped out in a region or in a locality. Often the mortality is either unbelievably high, or it simply doesn’t work because there’s nobody there to learn from where is the food in summer? Where do we go in winter? What are the paths that we can take? They have no idea where they are. It’s called reintroduction, but it’s not terribly different from just abandoning animals in a place and driving away. In at least one case a thing called the Thick-billed parrot, they simply couldn’t learn where food was and the reintroduction attempts just didn’t work. In other cases, bighorn sheep and some others, they didn’t work in some areas, or the death rate was something like 80% for a number of years until the survivors eventually figured out what to do. In all of those situations, young animals would simply learn it automatically from their elders. Culture, answers a question that is very simple and the question is “how do we live here in this place”, and that that sometimes is completely dependent on where the place is. What is good food here? What is poisonous food here? Where is it? Where do we go if there’s a drought? Other times it’s totally arbitrary with with humans, a lot of our culture is totally arbitrary. What language we learn is totally arbitrary. The capacity to learn a language in the human senses completely genetic. We’re able to learn all language but what language we learn is totally dependent on where we grow up and who we grow up with. There’s nothing fixed about it, there’s nothing better about it in one place than another. And that’s true of a lot of human culture. We you know, the ways we dress and the ways we look, they look good to us. That’s why we do it other people, their dressing their looks, they look funny to us. But it’s the reverse is obviously true. You just get used to doing things the way you do it where you’re doing it. And that’s really what a lot of culture is. But for other species, a lot of cultures is much more practical and much, much closer tied to actual survival.

DFYB:
Yeah, and, you know, you mentioned this could occur over a couple of thousand years. But this learning could also occur pretty quickly. I think you I think was either sperm whales or killer whales. You talked about some time in the 80s or maybe early 90s when one of them was first reported to slap their tail on the on the water.

Safina:
That was humpback whales.

DFYB:
Yeah, that was humpback. Okay, I was wrong on both counts. But it was something that was recently discovered that they did, or at least this one in particular did. And then you know, there’s more and more reports of more and more doing them so they can learn it relatively quickly, I assume providing, you know, depending on the animal.

Safina:
Well, it varies innovation is just fairly rare. And that’s mostly because what, what has worked in a place for centuries or millennia is not necessarily something that it’s smart to start fooling around with. So, you know, if you know what you can eat, that is not poisonous. It doesn’t pay a lot—since you already have food and you know, it’s okay—it doesn’t pay a lot to do a lot of experimenting, it might not turn out well. So, innovation is not very common. And when it does happen, it tends to spread slowly and it tends to spread only among the young and think about this is one of the parallels with humans, innovations tend to spread much more easily in the young. I mean any technology thing. Whatever it is, young people tend to take it up quickly. Many old people don’t want to deal with it or takes them a long time or they’re really slow at it. You see the exact same thing and other in other animals, that the whale that did the slapping to make the prey fish tighten up their schools, so they were more vulnerable to a whale rushing through the school with their mouth open, that spread mostly to young whales that that whale was associated with. And we see that with with some innovations of foraging techniques and birds and some other things. It’s mostly the young it’s mostly young females, because males are a little more obsessed with their social status and contests over their social status even at a young age.

DFYB:
And we’ll get into that for sure.

Safina:
Yeah. So it’s mostly young females who, who will adopt the new things. And the older generation who doesn’t have the new innovations, they eventually they just die out. And the younger ones grow up and then begin teaching their young ones. As a matter of course, how to do what was a new thing becomes a tradition.

DFYB:
Yeah, at that point that innovation becomes a tradition and a culture. Yeah. Can you chat a little bit about like, the three types of learning so you mentioned in the book, there are three there’s, instinct, individual learning, and then these customs, tradition, and culture we’ve been talking about a little bit. Can you distinguish between them?

Safina:
Instinct is something you just do that you don’t have to be taught to do. It’s a little, a little harder with humans to know exactly what’s purely instinctive but social smiling seems to be purely instinctive with infants, fear screaming, and laughing seem to be completely instinctive. And those things happen everywhere. People, you know, they don’t vary culture to culture. People do that, everywhere. We’re raising some new baby chickens, and the first time I let them out outside the very, very first time, they just started scratching in the dirt. Now they’re not being raised around an adult who’s teaching them to do that. So somehow, scratching in the dirt seems instinctive for chickens, and they immediately started finding food which reinforced their instinct and they were learning that skill. They were learning that skill, then on their own, individually, even though they were in a group, they were, they were all kind of learning it on their own, and then they were watching each other, if somebody found something good, they’d get chased. And so they were starting to learn all of that stuff. It started instinctively, it became a matter of sort of trial and error learning. And and then I don’t know how much social learning was involved with that kind of thing. But the learning that is cultural are the things that you simply would not know how to do. If you didn’t see and follow an adult who is doing it or actually be taught by one of your parents how to do it. That has a lot to do with feeding techniques, migration corridors, those kinds of things. There are some wolves for instance, that can handle bison, which are gigantic, and most wolves do not know how to kill bison. So a few of them have learned that. Where have they learned that? They’ve learned it because they’re basically the only wolves that live where in the winter, the only thing that doesn’t leave is the bison. So they either have to learn how to kill them or starve, basically, so they learn how to kill them. But a lot of wolves have no idea how to attack something that huge, it’s not a skill that they have. Same thing with, with Orca whales, what they learn to eat they they learn those skills from their parents. So Orca whales actually do active teaching, they often bring prey to young ones and let it go. Some dolphins do the same thing, cheetahs do the same thing. So that’s, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

DFYB:
So when reading the book, I noticed that instead of using the term “animals”, you start off by using the terms like “other than human beings” or “non-human individuals”. It seems like you’re doing that in order to close the gap between us—humans—and animals, even though we are animals, so it seems like you’re doing that actively and doing that consciously. What impact has decades of reductionist science had on how we view and therefore how we treat animals, or “other than human beings”, I should say?

Safina:
Well, in one sense, I’m a fan of reductionist science because everything we know about molecular world and chemistry and all of that stuff, I mean, reductionist science is very, very powerful. I think the problem with our relationship with animals has actually nothing at all to do with science. I think it’s the fact that we don’t know who animals are, but that we have beliefs and values that are totally resistant to the science. What is the science tell us? It tells us that we are all organically related. And it tells us that humans are animals. So if I say to you, if I say to you, animals and humans are pretty similar. That kind of makes sense. But if I say to you, animals and dogs are pretty similar, you would think I made a mistake or you hadn’t heard me correctly. But the fact is, dogs are animals and humans are animals. So just to say animals and dogs are pretty similar. Sounds weird to us. But but it’s as weird to say, humans and animals are pretty similar because humans are animals, dogs are animals. How could we be pretty similar to what we are? It’s, we have this concept of us as though there are two categories humans and the rest of everything that lives in the world that’s not scientific and it’s not accurate. Everything is on a range. There are things that humans do that other animal don’t do. There are things that dogs do that other animals don’t do, that elephants do, that dolphins do. Most, most species are special in their own way. That’s why they are species, there’s something special and unique about them. There are a lot of things unique about humans. But many of the things that we think only humans can do, or only humans possess, actually there, there is some of that in some other animals. So everything in the living world is on a range. It’s not these categories. And and it certainly is not humans, and animals because humans are animals. So to say it’s simply accurately it’s humans and other animals.

DFYB:
I like the way that you made that distinction throughout the book. So when talking about sperm whales, you mentioned that after the 9-11 attacks, when global shipping was paused, the level of cortisol in whales, which is, you know, a chemical that arises when something is stressed, the level of cortisol in the whales plummeted, meaning that routine ship trafficking was causing the whales intense stress. How do you feel about what’s happening now? I mean, obviously, we’re in the middle of COVID-19. What are the positive stories that are gonna come out of this, whether it’s with whales or just with the environment in general?

Safina:
Yeah, I don’t know what will come out of this one of the one of the great features of this COVID event is that nobody knows what’s going to happen. So that’s, that’s a tremendous source of stress and anxiety for us humans. Sadly, it’s true that almost everything humans do works against almost every other animal that’s trying to be alive in the world and the fact that we’re all staying inside and not going out where right now is giving a lot of things a bit of a breather. And it’s letting the air clean up and it’s lessening the water pollution and all of those kinds of things. Will we learn anything from this, there are lessons to learn, you know, we’re learning that we don’t have to run all over the place. It’s, it’s nice to be at home more consistently, we can do a lot of our work from home, we can meet a lot of the people we need to meet and talk to, from home. And, you know, maybe we can take that and some of the other accommodations that would aid coexistence with us in the future. I don’t know if that will happen. A lot of people really just want to get back to normal. And, you know, normal was only a few weeks ago. So we’re learning a new way of living that is throttling down a bit and in some ways I think is more relaxing and less full of anxiety, even for us people, but it’s also being experienced that way by other animals. I’ve heard from a few friends who live in the city. I’m near New York City. I’m about 50 miles from New York City. I’ve learned I’ve heard from a few friends that they’re saying the bird songs are incredibly loud this spring. The reality of it is, they’re not any more loud than they were last year. You can hear them now. And you know, that’s, that’s nice. It would be good if we could take some of these things into the future. This is not the way I would want to learn those kinds of lessons. There are a lot of other things we could have done. Rather than have a pandemic and have people suffering and dying and losing their entire income. Suddenly these are all terrible things is there’s nothing about it. That makes me happy at all. But there are some lessons in it. And there are some silver linings. And although all of my friends feel a lot of anxiety, I would say all of my friends also realize there are some silver linings here.

DFYB:
Yeah, absolutely. We can choose to look at it a number of different ways, but as long as we can understand that, while there is a lot of pain and suffering going on, there are some positives that hopefully will come out of this and hopefully we’ll you know, it’s debatable whether they’ll become a new way of living but hopefully we’ll at least establish, an appreciation for nature and understanding or at least a new resurgence in certain species or in the overall health. So in the book you discuss how chimps might be violent, but they also show compassion, sympathy, empathy, and altruism. I’m wondering if you can talk about instances where they and other species show these types of behavior?

Safina:
Well, there are, there are animals that live in structured social groups. And what I mean by that is that there are hierarchies there is dominance or leadership, which are two different things. And that the individuals all know each other. So, and there are a lot of other groups where they don’t know each other huge herds of wildebeest probably don’t know other individuals there. They just travel in big groups. I think that would certainly be true of some of the great schooling ocean fish, salmon, or herring, that may travel in schools of millions of individuals. I doubt that they have any long term relationships or know each other. But in other words, animals, the individuals absolutely matter and who they are with individually absolutely matters. And in those cases, often what you see is that if somebody is in distress, others come to their aid, they they try to chase away or attack a predator. Sometimes they absolutely move toward danger. In in the book, there are stories about sperm whales being attacked by orcas or otherwise called killer whales. And because they can make sounds that can be heard for miles, other sperm whales from as far as seven miles away, came to their aid to try to thwart the attack. Now, if you want to stay safe, you just you know, shelter in place, right, those sperm whale seven miles away. They didn’t have to come but they came to To the most dangerous place in the nearby ocean to try to help those whales that were under attack. Similarly with chimpanzees. Other chimps sometimes come if, if one that they know in their social group in their community is being attacked by a leopard or, or by strangers at the border with another community, they will rush in and often put themselves in danger and sometimes get killed defending somebody else who is under attack.

DFYB:
In the book, you wrote about how sperm whales united and they kind of like circled the wagons around each other and protected one another. Which seems like killer whales really seem like a big kind of a pain for the sperm whales.

Safina:
Well, in most cases, sperm whales, mutual defense, actually, dpes defeat the attack of the killer whales and and prevent them from killing anybody. In one case in the book where the attack was devastating and probably killed the whole group of I think it was nine sperm whales who were very, very, very badly injured by the end of the attack and one was clearly dead at that time and they were eating it and all the others were so badly injured that the scientists thought they may or probably died. They appeared to be young adults without an elder with them, who may have shown them how to how to react more effectively to killer whale attack. But before that observation, scientists seemed to, well scientists thought that sperm whales probably were not vulnerable to killer whales because of their mutual defense.

DFYB:
Right. Yeah, they can hold their own for sure. But I do remember that passage in the book where, yeah, a lot of them at their demise. So going back to the chimps, and this was kind of what we’re talking about earlier, you contrast chimps with bonobos, which are pretty much identical or very, very similar. But explaining that a bonobos are way more peaceful, they’re a lot more relaxed than their brethren chimpanzees. And the big distinction you make in there was, hey, bonobos have a matriarch in the society, whereas chimps have a patriarch. You kind of talk about other species that react that way or that way as well and having much more peaceful existence. I mean, that that’s a really interesting thread that I want you to chat about.

Safina:
Yeah, so the most dominant animal in the bonobo society is always a female and the most dominant individualist chimpanzees is always male. And humans, it’s a bit of a mixed but we’re clearly more male dominated. And males tend to fight for dominance. And they tend to assert dominance violently. And if they’re bigger and stronger and and their main game is violence, then they get to be the most dominant one. But there are quite a few other species where the most dominant individual is always female. And they involve things like elephants, killer whales, sperm whales, lemurs, wolves, to a certain extent the dominance is really just equal among the male and the female in the wolf family, but the female tends to make more of the decisions about when we’re going to move on, when we’re going to rest, when we’re going to hunt. Those those species, they get their dominance, because as elder individuals, they just get respect for the knowledge that they have, and the example that they set, based on the knowledge that they have, they don’t fight about it. So, you know, the the ones that the ones that fight and the ones that can turn violent within their own community are notably chimpanzees and human beings.

DFYB:
Yeah. And chimps are, you know, we share 98% of our genetic code with chimpanzees. And we were talking about this before the call, but I just got back from I mean, just but a few months ago, in November, I got back from Uganda with my honeymoon with my wife. And when we first started approaching the chimps, you could hear him before you could see them, and you could hear him from a long ways and they were super loud. My heart was pounding. I can’t tell if it was an aggressive tone or not, but it felt aggressive. It felt intense. And the entire time I was, you know, I was concerned. I felt like, you know, we saw the gorillas, we’ve been to Africa a few times. That was one of the few times I felt, you know, potentially in jeopardy. Because of, you know, stories I’d heard and reading right before.

Safina:
Well, the chances of a chimpanzee attacking a person are almost zero but, they, uh, there’s no comparison with the level of violence and hostile interaction between gorillas, which which have almost none, yeah, chimpanzees for which it’s a way of life. But there is one thing about chimps, all the screaming and all the intensity that they do, may not seem as intense to them. In other words, you know, we may be misinterpreting how upset they are by the level of screaming It may be that to them, you know, it’s just, they’re just normally loud. And they’re used to it. And it’s not as big a deal as it sounds. But but it is, without a doubt, the lead into the most dominant individual within chimp who is a male and the male got there by fighting his way to dominance. Yeah. And that that’s that’s almost always the case. That being said, it doesn’t have to be that way. Because there’s an interesting case where a group of baboons, who are usually the same way there’s there is males fighting for dominance. This one group that was very, very closely studied. All of the all of the dominant adult males died off in an epidemic. And the younger ones that grew up just didn’t do it that way. And then years later, when they aged out, the new ones that had come in under that more peaceful regime were more peaceful, they had learned a new, better, more peaceful way of being that did not involve so much violence or fighting for dominance all the time. And there are chimpanzees in West Africa, who are about as mellow with each other as our bonobos. And interestingly, the scientist I was with in Uganda, where I wrote about all these struggles for dominance and all the all the constant screaming and the displaying and everything, she recently went to the other population on across the continent in West Africa, and even though she’s known about this for a long time, and she studies chimps for a living, it was the first time she had seen it, and she she kind of couldn’t believe how mellow those chimpanzees were. So why are they that way? Nobody knows. But the but the young ones grow up that way because the elders are that way, and that’s their culture.

DFYB:
Right? Yeah. There you go. Bring it all back to culture. Yeah, it definitely is. Yeah, it definitely is interesting, like you drew the parallel between an Italian family or something that, they could be raising their voice, but then five minutes later, everyone’s passing bread at the table. So it is hard for us to go and interpret what they’re talking about. Especially me, I have no idea.

Safina:
It’s hard to know how much stress they feel when there’s so much screaming. You do see, a lot of times you do see, females take their babies and run away. They don’t want to be there, so they do feel some stress and there is some risk of getting caught up in it. But whether they feel it as intensely as it sounds to us, is unclear, but, but they are very emotional creatures. And they do fight. So yeah, some of that, you know, some of that is not fooling.

DFYB:
I’m sure I was personifying a lot of it. But they had made for an interesting trip for sure.

So you tremendously helped popularize the term “overfishing”. What was the discovery or set of discoveries that caused you to, you know, really essentially coin the term and how we trended since that term was invented?

Safina:
I don’t I didn’t coin that term. That term has been around for a while, it may be that a lot more people know about it if if they’ve read something, a lot of things I’ve written about it because I’ve written a lot about it. But why did I write about it and why did I get involved in trying to combat overfishing? Overfishing is when you fish so hard that the fish cannot replace themselves by breeding. The population goes down and down and gets eventually or fairly rapidly depleted. The fish becomes scarce. People start going out of business if they’re involved in commercial fishing. If they’re involved in recreational fishing, the fishing just gets terrible. I saw and experienced all of that, because I used to really do a lot of fishing and I still go fishing, I still enjoy it. It’s still a big part of where my own diet comes from. And I’ve seen both sides of it. I’ve seen the rapid depletion of fish that were very abundant. And I’ve also seen as a result of some of the things that we fought for and won, laws and policy changes that resulted in very depleted fish recovering, in a couple of cases recovering two numbers that I never would have imagined ever existed before, which, you know, gives you some idea about how little idea we have about the abundance that existed before the industrial age.

DFYB:
What would be an example of that, of something that’s recovered so much that it’s surprised you?

Safina:
An example of that is a fish called menhaden, that’s a Native American term for a herring-like fish that lives on the East coast. And when I was a kid, I I once saw a school of them that was about a mile long I estimated, which to me was mind bogglingly huge. Most of them are, most of them are like, you know, a quarter acre or something. Like that, and when I say I see them, they have a habit of being at the surface where you can see the whole school swimming around and they pack very, very densely. And I used to fish around them a lot, because many other kinds of fish eat them, so if you go to where they are, you can catch the other kinds of fish. So I saw them get further depleted. I had heard that they were once very abundant. I knew that they had been very depleted before I was on the scene. And you know yet when I was a kid, as I said, I saw a school that was about a mile long. And then I saw them get really pretty scarce as a result of totally unlimited overfishing that was just driving them down and down and down and down. Now I happen to have a beach house and a place where you can see the remains of three former small scale factories where these fish were processed. And of course, they all went out of business because they put themselves out of business by catching too much. In that area, I didn’t see any of these fish from the mid 1980s until about 2010 or so. In 2012, I think it was some limits were put on the catch. And in the last few years, the recovery rate of those fish has been so mind boggling that last year and they they’ve been tending to huddle up against the beaches because the humpback whales have found that in the summertime you can basically chase these things into shallow water right outside the surf zone of Long Island and just crash through them and spend the whole summer eating that way. So last summer somebody told me that they had seen about a dozen whales at one particular beach that’s that’s a lot of whales to see from shore on Long Island. So the next morning early, I got in my car I was going to go down to that beach but I decided to check a few other beaches on the way because that beach was about 20 miles from where I live. But there’s another beach only about two miles from where I live. So I checked the one that was two miles, I checked the one that was five miles, I checked the one that was 10, and I checked the one that was 20. So that’s about 15 miles at every place. I checked. Those menhaden schools were there, and I saw either humpback whales or dolphins right from shore just in a few minutes. So then the day after that, I took my boat. Now I had made no stops. I was stopping several miles apart even though it was a span of about 15 miles. I don’t know what was in those miles. I didn’t stop. But I took my boat around the eastern point of Long Island and started driving west on the south shore of Long Island. I picked up those schools within about the first two miles after rounding the point. I drove for 20 miles, with those schools being basically not broken one continuous 20 mile long school with a humpback whale about every mile and a half. And I stopped and turned around where I had started in my car. In other words, I knew that those schools went another 15 miles from from the 20 miles I had gone so there was at least a school of fish there that was around 30 miles long. I never would have imagined that they could do that or that they could exist in those numbers. It was completely mind boggling. And it is changing the entire ocean because the whales are right along the beach, dolphins that we never basically never saw before, they’re a common sight now.

I have I have neighbors there that are, they’re 90 years old now and about 10 years ago we saw dolphins in the bay and they said they had never seen dolphins in the bay. But now those dolphins are in the bay every single year. So the recovery is rearranging the whole ocean. And it’s it’s, it’s, it’s it’s food for lots of other fish and whales and dolphins. So it’s really fantastic.

DFYB:
Yeah, it’s definitely incredible news. And knowing you know, there’s a lot of negative, as you were saying most news in the environmental realm is negative right now, it feels like anything we do seems to have a negative impact on the environment. But it does seem like America in general is pretty good at putting some restrictions on fishing. And, you know, that obviously impacts fishermen who rely on the oceans themselves, but because of it we’re also seeing a resurgence.

Safina:
Those fishermen were mostly putting themselves out of business by the early 1990s and the restrictions that have allowed the fish to recover, have allowed fishing to recover and become profitable again. In many cases, so it wasn’t for nothing that restrictions on fishing were required. It was because there was going to be almost nothing left and people were going out of business right and left. So that’s why those restrictions were necessary. And they’ve worked and the US is the leader. And the US has more recovering fish populations than any other country in the world.

DFYB:
Which is so promising. Yeah. So you’ve done a lot of work, you know, with conserving sharks and tuna. In your mind, what do we do for sharks and for tuna, that was done for you know, the save the whale moving into the 70s and 80s, like how can we value sharks for their ecosystem services rather than just for harvestable meat, and sometimes as a tourist attraction?

Safina:
Well, that’s hard because I think it I think it bumps up against the limits of the human mind to feel empathy and compassion and to see that all all living things, make our world alive and beautiful. All living things have an equal claim to existence as we do. They are here we are here. We all belong equally to the planet. And that these other creatures are also fantastic and fascinating in their own way. So the problem is that we mostly relate to human beings and that means that we best relate to those things that are more like us. Why, where we’re, we’re more amenable to mammals because we are mammals. And the less like us they seem, the harder it is for a lot of people to empathize with them. I think though, I mean, a few years ago, people thought that killer whales would take any opportunity to swallow a person. The reality is, they never do that no, no person has ever been hurt by a free living killer whale. And the same was true of sperm whales. People thought, oh my god, you know that this is the largest animal with teeth, they could easily just go person down and they would do that if they ever got the chance, but they’re very shy and often, I mean, it’s only been about 25 years that anybody got in the water with a mask and snorkeled with sperm whales. Mostly they leave because they’re shy. Sometimes they approach if they’re curious, what they what they never do is show any aggression at all. It doesn’t occur to them to be aggressive to people, they have no reason to be aggressive to people. People thought that sharks were always dangerous. Sharks can be dangerous, automobiles can be dangerous. But there are many times when sharks are not dangerous and automobiles are also not dangerous. I’ve been in the water many times with sharks, and mostly they ignore you. Sometimes they’re a little curious. Once that I can remember. They were a little too curious. And I didn’t feel too comfortable. And those sharks were small, actually. The ones that seemed a little too serious and they were swimming very fast, partly because they were small. It may be that they were not really any more aggressive than any of the other large sharks that I’ve been around, just sort of swim along. They, they look at you, and they continue doing what they’re doing. So I’ve been unbelievably lucky to have a lot of these experiences first hand. I’ve experienced a range of animals that I actually don’t know of other people who’ve experienced such a range. I mean, I’ve been swimming with giant tuna that weighed 1000 pounds, that we’re zooming all around me. I’ve visited albatross colonies, I’ve been with elephants and chimpanzees. That’s an extraordinary lucky life to experience all of those things. And I think it’s part of the reason why I see things as I do, because I’ve seen all of those things firsthand and that’s given me a really incredible perspective on life in the world.

DFYB:
Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s the big thing is that you’ve, you know, you’ve gone all over the place and seen all different types of species. And it’s, it is truly gotta be really incredible to be able to say that.

Safina:
Yeah. And I feel and I feel like what my role is is to share those experiences. That’s, that’s really what I that’s why I write I write to share those experiences.

DFYB:
Yeah. And and that’s incredibly helpful for setting the record straight. Like you were mentioned in the book. Like there’s a lot of people think sperm whales are inherently evil or they’re inherently you know, I mean, obviously, Moby Dick comes to mind..

Safina:
Well, Moby Dick… first of all, yeah, so that’s a great example.

DFYB:
Yeah, it’s a great chapter in the book.

Safina:
Moby Dick is a fictional Well, first of all, you know, just like jaws is a fictional white shark. Now White Sharks have quite a few times attacked human beings. Sperm whales have never attacked a human being, with the exception of human beings who had harpoons them and they were just trying not to get killed because they were being harpooned by people. So that’s called self defense. That’s not called aggression. In the case of the whale that the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, came up with his climax because a whale did sink a ship called the Essex, and he read that story. A couple of other sperm whales later also sank ships in every single case, their group, the females, they were with were under attack by people in small boats from that ship who were killing them. That’s not aggression. That’s self defense. Sperm whales have never shown aggression to a human being.

DFYB:
Yeah, exactly. So that was that was really enlightening too because I was I’ll admit I was of that previous category of like, man, I thought these guys were very aggressive. But having read that chapter in those segments within the chapter, it is really interesting to know, they’re not any more aggressive than anything else. They’re just defending themselves or just trying to get away from this immediate danger. So in terms of sharks, it you know, it’s probably pretty difficult to determine their worth in the ecosystem in dollars because of that hurdle we have to jump…

Safina:
Well, I don’t think they’re worth in an ecosystem is measurable in dollars. I mean, and people have done that you can do it and people have done that. But To me that has nothing at all to do with their, with their value. It there are a lot of things that are worth essentially no dollars. They’re all highly valuable. They, they’re there, first of all, and there’s no reason to question for us in in our little tiny little brief lives to think that we can question the existence of something that’s been on earth for millions of years, and we can decide whether it’s worth anything is is an absurd and actually psychotic notion. Not only because of our standing in the world, but because we are then appointing ourselves to make the decision for every other human generation that will follow, who maybe don’t want the world cleaned out of living things. Who knows, but the human value of things is often discovered after most of them are destroyed. Or, or sometimes it’s discovered why that while they’re still abundant, I mean, the humanity is not the measure of everything on earth we often think it is. But that’s not true. It’s just not the case.

DFYB:
Yeah, agreed. It is unfortunate that a lot of people in countries do think in terms of dollars, but I mean, it’s one of those things that it’s, you know, we should be able to move beyond that, I agree with you.

Safina:
For most of human history, the question of the value of other living things would have made no sense. Every living thing was of complete value. It was the world, it to, to most human societies for most of human history, asking whether this species or that species was valuable, would be like asking is, is air valuable is the world valuable. It’s just it would be a nonsense kind of question. Of course, it’s, it’s there, it’s it’s the world. The world is valuable that that was the way that people saw it. Until, I mean, if you want to talk about reductionist, the, the monetary system is the reductionist thing that is catastrophically destructive, because in addition to saying, I’ll trade you, these tokens that we call money for, for what you have that I need, which is fine. It, it has gone to this bizarre extreme of saying, Well, if we’re not making money off of this, get rid of it. And that that is a I mean, it’s, you know, there are people called sociopaths. I don’t know what the other you know, biopathology might be the psychological term for people who don’t understand that everything that lives has tremendous value, whether you’re making money off of it is beside the point.

DFYB:
Yeah, so I wonder if people who make or supplement their income off of sharks or shark finning, is there an argument on the other side of just hey, these species as a whole can provide some value whether it’s monetary or not?

Safina:
Well, in those cases, obviously, if you’re relying on something, you shouldn’t destroy it, right? I mean, why would you do something like that? Most businesses are obsessed with growth. Why would you have a business that’s obsessed with destroying what it relies on that’s that’s also a crazy thing. That happens a lot. With our relationship with living things. We often destroy the things we rely on and local people using it locally, don’t do that. Yeah. But what happens is when anybody whether they’re local, or especially if they’re not local, and the market is far away, and is impossible to satisfy, that’s when you get a catastrophic collision of the ability to take, and the inability to understand the word “enough”.

DFYB:
Hmm. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, a lot of different cases come to mind, you know, with trade to China or what have you. Yeah. So in your opinion, speaking of that, how strongly is COVID-19 linked to wild animal markets? And what recommendations do you have to push conservation efforts forward, such as closing the wet markets, while recognizing that people depend on natural resources to survive and while also being culturally sensitive?

Safina:
You know, well, I’m not culturally sensitive to any any culture, whether it’s my own or anybody else’s, that destroys the living world and diminishes it. This is totally different than using using is using but using it up is not good. And I’m against that in my own culture. I have fought a lot against overfishing. I fought a lot against things that deplete and diminish what’s alive and what people depend on. I go fishing, I use fish, they are my food. I don’t want to use them up because I want them to be there. That’s that’s a very important distinction. These wildlife markets are emptying the world of the wildlife that they are using. They have no sense of what’s enough. They have no sense of what they’re doing, in the far off places that are feeding into it. And to the extent that they started farming those wild animals, the amount of abuse and cruelty and total misery is beyond belief.

But that’s in a way beside the point of the question you asked, which is about this current pandemic called COVID-19.That did come from these wildlife markets. And one of the problems with these wildlife—you talking about what people use, what people use for their way of living. Well, these markets are now killing millions of people around the world, because they are functioning as test tubes for viruses, viruses that would never be in contact with people, viruses that would never be in contact among species that would never be in contact in the wild like that. Bats and civets would not be jammed up against each other in the wild. Day after day, year after year in these tight, filthy, miserable conditions, these viruses have innumerable chances to make little evolutionary changes that allow them to jump into human beings. A whole series of epidemics, some of them much more deadly than COVID-19 have occurred in the last 25 or 30 years. They’re accelerating because there are more and more people eating more and more of these animals jamming them up together, more and more consistently. We have COVID we had mers, which which people got from camels, that was that had a very high rate of lethality. Luckily it did not go pandemic. We had SARS, which also came from domestic animals. This is not all from wild animals, a lot of it is from the intensive factory farming that we do. Bird Flu comes from poultry and duck farms, doesn’t come from wild animals. swine flu is from pigs, it doesn’t come from wild animals. You’re not supposed to have millions and millions of pigs jammed up against each other constantly. And and shipped everywhere in the world. This is just a test tube for viruses to keep testing and testing to see essentially, whether they can exist and in fact, a new species that that is great for them because there’s 7 billion potential prey items called people around the world. Ebola came from primates and so did AIDS. AIDS came from people eating chimpanzees and monkeys, there’s a there’s a virus that doesn’t cause any illness or any symptoms in these species because they’ve been living with it for many thousands, maybe millions of years. It’s called “simian immunodeficiency” virus but it does not cause any immunodeficiency, and other simians, only human beings because we didn’t have any exposure to it until very recently, people eat these creatures that were not supposed to eat. They’re not part of the normal food chain. We’re not supposed to be in this kind of blood contact with them, basically exchanging bodily fluids with them. And this virus this this SIV became H (human) IV that caused AIDS which kills everybody who gets it. Except that now there are treatments that took decades to come up with. For decades AIDS was a total death sentence. Now luckily, these other others another one Marburg, that also came from monkeys. Some of these things killed a tremendous fraction of the people that were infected, talking about way over 50%, COVID is killing 3% or so, if if we had, and we may get, because these things are these new diseases from these animals are accelerating in their appearance. If we get a new disease that is as contagious as COVID and as deadly as Ebola, well, it’s pretty much game over it’s going to be the Black Plague again, which killed about one third of the people in Europe, but now it will be global and it will kill two or 3 billion people and, and disrupt everything about how to live as a human being.

So these ways of abusing wildlife are going to kill us and these ways of abusing farm animals are also going to kill us they have they have sparked these epidemics that until now have not been pandemic. This is the first pandemic coming out of all this, factory farm, well, first of all eating animals has a lot of there are a lot of negative effects. The cruelty issue completely aside there are a lot of negative effects of farming animals and these the raising them in concentration camps needs to be totally redone. I mean small farms disaggregated farms local use of animals and have animal products, that’s one thing. We’re doing it all wrong now and it is coming back to kill us.

DFYB:
I know you’re right. And I feel the more I look into factory farming the I mean, it’s a tinderbox waiting to explode and it has in the past. But to your point, not as not as dire of a impact as it really could. And really just, you know, it’s hard to put the cruelty aside but even putting that aside, it is horrifying, the way they’re jammed in there the way that you know, that they’re treated, and we expect-we’re talking about cortisol early, we expect that not to increase but we also expect these diseases not to run rampant within them. So yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more about that. So, you know, talking about that you’ve got one of my favorite passages I’ve ever read is in the in this book, and it goes like this—”A thing is right when it adds or AIDS what is beautiful parks and refuges necessary now, but not sufficient are merely the flip side of widespread demolition. They’re like preserving Mona Lisa’s eyes while pulping the rest of Da Vinci’s masterpiece for its fibers, then congratulating ourselves for our foresight”. Incredible. I read that a few times just to really grasp how powerful it was. Using your analogy, what can we do to try and reclaim Mona Lisa if we can at all? I mean, you know, there are these little pockets of nature and they keep growing smaller and smaller every day. But like what are some positive environmental stories we can we can leave off with?

Safina:
Right well see, what you the way you just stated that is something that we need to re-understand. There are not pockets of nature. Nature is the whole world and what we need to understand is that we can’t conserve pockets. That will fail. Nature is not something that exists in a place you go to, to get nature, like you go to the supermarket to get food because that’s where food is, even though we tend to think many of us that you go to a National Park to get nature, but nature is everywhere. It’s the whole world. And what we need to do is come to a better coexistence with the living world everywhere so that it can live where we live. That’s the only thing that can possibly work. So it’s not just a few parts here and there or save a few things here and there. It’s it’s widespread, gigantic amounts of coexistence across landscapes throughout oceans and through and through the atmosphere, wherever living things can live, we need to let them live and we need to coexist with them. I don’t mean in every square inch, I don’t mean in our house. I don’t mean everything needs to live in every city. But I do mean that relying on parks or refuges will fail, they cannot be big enough to work permanently. What will work permanently is for us to simply make room for the rest of life on earth the way that we did for most of human history until I don’t know just you know, a century or two.

DFYB:
How do you feel? Are you positive about the world being able to do that or do you feel differently though, now that you have all this exposure with different cultures and different species?

Safina:
Well, the trends are are both there are some things that are going in a good direction. And there are some things that are going in a terrible direction. There, there’s a clash of values. The best part is we we know everything that we would need to do. It’s not like we’re losing things and we have no idea why or no idea how to turn it around. But, you know, as much as we’ve tried to ensure the safety and health of the natural and human environment in this country, for instance, pesticide companies, pharmaceutical companies, agribusinesses, oil companies have all worked in the exact opposite direction they are on what is basically a life killing spree. And a lot of people would like to see things done in a much better way, and we know what those better ways would be. So, how it will end? I don’t know.

DFYB:
Yeah, agreed. Well, Carl, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. You know, before we go, where can someone pick up a copy of Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Family, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace?

Safina:
Well, as they say, anywhere books are sold. So any bookstore either has it or can get it and any online bookseller can. Well, a lot of a lot of them have it in stock right now. So it’s very easy to get.

DFYB:
Perfect. And like I was saying before this interview, telling you, you know, I am not someone who can read on my computer, but you guys sent me a PDF. You also sent me a book but I finished it all on the PDF just reading on my computer is such an incredible read, I’m going to reread it, I have the entire thing highlighted, I took notes of the whole thing. So you know, a lot to learn, a lot of takeaway. So thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for the work you’re doing and I really appreciate this. Thank you so much.

Safina:
Thanks so much for having me on.

DFYB:
Absolutely. Well, you take care okay.

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