A little over one year ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers, by Amy Sutherland, the follow up to her hit 2006 New York Times Article and a fun, candid look at how wild animal training techniques can teach us a thing or two and help us tame our own wild (inner and outer) beasts. You can check out that review here.
Since Shamu is about to be released in paperback (April 21), I spoke with Amy last month about what she’s been reading lately, how her life has been changed by studying animal behavior, and why Mean Girls wasn’t just a figment of Tina Fey’s imagination.
What Are You Reading, Amy Sutherland?
Author of “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers”
Q&A with Christine Thomas
A. “Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are,” by Frans De Waal, one of my heroes. It’s about behavior we share, or the roots of behavior we share, with out primate cousins. de Waal, a world famous scientist, is a really down-to-earth writer, so the book is like spending time with the smartest friend you have. I picked up this book because it’s about my favorite subject, animal behavior, but also because de Waal writes a good deal about bonobos, which I can never read enough about.
Q. How did you discover de Waal?
A. When I was working on my book, “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched,” I started to read books on animal behavior for general background then got hooked on de Waal. I think this is the fourth book of his I read.
Q. Is this one, Our Inner Ape, measuring up to the others?
A. Yes, though I’ve read enough of his books, it feels like one ongoing, compelling tale of the complicated behavior of our fellow primates. I recognize chimps in this book from an earlier book, Chimpanzee Politics. But it doesn’t feel repetitive at all. Then again I never tire of reading about the complicated relationships that make up a chimpanzee troupe. If you thought high school was tough, think again.
Q. Is it like the movie “Mean Girls” but in the jungle and real life?
A. There is a “Mean Girls” aspect. De Waal writes about female chimps’ penchant for holding a grudge and also of using trickery. There’s a terrible story of two female chimps who’ve had a falling out, and then the older signals to the younger with an open hand, which is basically chimp for “let’s be friends again.” The younger chimp nervously, slowly approaches. Just as she gets close enough, the older chimp wallops her. I think many of us females have had similar experiences.
Q. In your recent book “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage,” which comes out in paperback on April 21, you also noted the connection between animal and human behavior—though in that case how to use animal training to make you and your husband more live-with-able cage mates. As you continue to live life and write, has it become impossible for you not to see the connections between ourselves and animals?
A. Yes, for me there is absolutely no divide between us and animals. That has made life, the world, so fascinating. When my friends ask me for relationship advice I often find myself talking about beluga whales or African wild dogs or bonobos. I do get some blank stares but most of my pals ask me because they know they will get a fresh and unusual perspective. The thing is a lot of the same basic desires all make us all tick, from dart frogs to giraffes to us. I personally love that, that we are part of the great web of life. And if you can find some tips on how to get along with your fellow humans from the animal kingdom, why not?