Virginia Morell on the Inner World of Animals

Did you know that ants teach, earthworms make decisions, rats love to be tickled, and chimps grieve? Did you know that some dogs have thousand-word vocabularies and that birds practice songs in their sleep? That crows improvise tools, blue jays plan ahead, and moths remember living as caterpillars?

Animal Wise takes us on a dazzling odyssey into the inner world of animals, from ants to elephants to wolves, and from sharp-shooting archerfish to pods of dolphins that rumble like rival street gangs. With 30 years of experience covering the sciences, Virginia Morell uses her formidable gifts as a story-teller to transport us to field sites and laboratories around the world, introducing us to pioneering animal-cognition researchers and their surprisingly intelligent and sensitive subjects. Read It Forward spoke with Virginia and asked her a few questions about her book.

Read It Forward: What is your favorite story or part of Animal Wise, and why?

Virginia Morell: This is a tough question because I have so many favorite stories in Animal Wise. I loved meeting Alex the African Gray Parrot, a parrot that the scientist Irene Pepperberg had taught to mimic the sounds of over 100 English words. He understood that these sounds were labels – for example, he knew that the sound “yellow” referred to the color yellow.

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Irene could then ask him questions about his understanding of the world. It was remarkable to watch her ask these questions, and to listen to his answers. He had a sweet little voice, rather like the one Dustin Hoffman adopted for his character in Rain Man. Alex would open his beak and the words would just appear: “Yel-low” or “Co-lor” or “Shape.”

When one of his companion parrots was struggling to pronounce a word, Alex interrupted him and said, “Talk clearly! Talk clearly!” I realized then that Alex truly had a mind of his own.

RIF: Is your dog intelligent? How? Can you give us examples?

VM: Yes, our dog – named Buckaroo – is intelligent. He is an American Working Farm Collie – an old-fashioned style collie like the collies in Alfred Payson Terhune’s book Lad. We were told by Buck’s breeder that he would pay attention to and care for any animals that we take care of. Well, our kitty Nini doesn’t appreciate his interest, so Buck protects the jays we feed every morning instead.

I think he knows all the birds; collies have been shown to know all the sheep in their herds, and the birds are Buck’s herd. One day a few summers ago, we noticed Buck in our lower garden. He has a particular way of standing when protecting something, and he was standing like that. I went to investigate, and found him standing over one of the Steller’s jays. It was on the ground with its wings outstretched. My husband picked up the bird, and we looked for injuries but didn’t see any. So after warming it in his hand, Michael let the bird go; it managed to fly away.

The next morning, Buck brought the bird – now dead – inside and laid it at Michael’s feet. Buck looked up at Michael with an expression that clearly said, “Something’s wrong. Please, fix it.” It was such a touching moment. We called the County’s Disease Vector people, who arrived and – using rubber gloves – put the jay in a container with dry ice. They examined it in their lab, and discovered that it had died from West Nile virus. So, thanks to Buck, we helped track the spread of this disease in our county!

RIF: As a writer, how do you use your local library?

VM: The library is a wonderful resource for doing research and for just browsing. I love to wander the stacks and randomly pull books off the shelves and page through them; it’s a good way to get ideas and to dream about stories I’d like to write.

VIRGINIA MORELL is a prolific contributor to National Geographic, Science, and Smithsonian, among other publications. She is also the author of Ancestral Passions, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Blue Nile; and coauthor with Richard Leakey of Wildlife Wars.

Visit Virginia online on Facebook.

The Wisdom of Animals

RIFers! Do you have an “animal wise” story to share? Leave a comment with a story about a wise animal in your life!

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • techeditor

    My “animal-wise” story:

    When I had pneumonia, my cat, Ginger, knew something bad was going on with me.

    At 10 years old, she was never a cuddly cat, never a lap cat, never liked to be held. Yet, when I had pneumonia and coughed nonstop all day and all night, she followed me. She sat in my lap. She let me hug her. At night when I didn’t stop coughing even to sleep, she didn’t leave me. She, too went without sleep.

    Ginger appeared to be worried about me. I know that sounds like I’m claiming my cat had human emotions. (What’s the word for that?) But there you go.

  • sarah woods

    Hopeful for the win; Without my rough Collie Brother Woods he was my life jacket win I lost my husband of 30.5 years

  • Norma Broten

    This book sounds wonder full. A friend at work sent me an email link so I could read about it.
    Ginger’s behavior was a clear change from her usual personality. Perhaps it was not from being worried but for a different reason that Ginger chose to be close. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will understand.

  • Barb C.

    What a sweet story! Ginger’s loyalty is amazing!

  • Lacey

    As a pet mommy {of many (1 horse, 4 poodles and a terrier and 2 cats)}, I would like to read this book.

  • Kira, editor at Read It Forward

    Ginger is amazing! So glad you shared that story, techeditor – and obviously other RIFers are, too!

  • Erin Sunderman

    I’d love to read it!

  • Virginia Morell

    I loved your story about your wise cat, Ginger. Pets often sense when something is wrong with us. If your Ginger is like my kitty and dog, she probably spends a lot of time watching your face and movements–she knows when you’re not behaving like your usual self. Scientists call our tendency to attribute human emotions or thoughts to animals “anthropomorphism.” It’s a natural thing to do, because we human are an empathetic species. But it also makes sense that other species, and especially mammals, share some of our same emotional feelings–an area that scientists are just beginning to explore.

  • Amelia Kushneruk

    How amazing are our pets!!! Can’t wait to read it.

  • Renee Ursprung

    This sounds like a very interesting read!

  • lUZ

    I’d love to read it.

  • robin fuller

    i’d love to read this book.

  • peggym

    My grandson would love this book!!!!

  • Kathleen Cleary

    Long ago, when my first son was just a couple of weeks old, our Samoyed delivered a litter of puppies. She and the puppies lived in the basement. Well, every night I would put Jason to bed with his wind-up duck that played a lullaby, but one day that duck was missing. I searched all around the crib and could not find it. A few days later, I was doing laundry in the basement and noticed something yellow in the middle of the puppies. Yes, Lady had taken the duck from Jason’s crib and brought it to her babies. We had several trips to the basement to retrieve that duck until I wised up and bought a musical toy for Lady’s babies. I assume she had been taking the duck while it was playing music because when she had her own musical toy, she would bring it to me for winding, then take it to her puppies!

  • Jan Staudenraus

    When I was growing up we had a house full of pets. Once we found ourselves with two litters of kittens both with babies about the same age. My mother put each family in it’s own box (bed) and set them both on the front porch. With in a few days all the kittens were in one bed and the mother cats were taking turns caring for all the kittens. One would mother cat would feed, clean and sleep with all the kittens as the other mother cat would be out hunting or just taking time away. We were so surprised to see the “day care” arrangement they had established.

  • Joy Isley

    We had a German shepherd dog when my son was small and King would watch him when he was in the backyard. Every time my son would get close to the gate, King would heard him away from it. A very smart dog! They were great companions.

  • colette

    I love this! Can’t wait to read it.

  • Sarah Kauffman

    Can’t wait to hear about the inner world of animals from the ‘horse’s mouth’ !!

  • Barbara allgeier

    would love to read book, always been a pet lover. When I was lil my Dad took train to work every morning. One day He came home with a black fluffy puppy, He found him in the railroad parking lot. He was my favorite surprise ♥

  • Tammy Bontoft

    Would love to read this book!

  • Linda

    This sounds like a great book – perfect for all of the animal lovers in my world!

  • Liz

    My Entire Family would love to read this book.

  • Christy Hawkes

    Sounds like an interesting read – please enter me

  • techeditor

    I’m happy to say I was informed that I won a copy of this book. After I receive and read it, I’ll let you know what I think.

  • Virginia Morell

    Thanks to everyone who entered the contest, and congratulations to techeditor who won! I enjoyed all of your comments, and the stories about the smart animals. Kathleen Cleary’s story about her lab, Lady, “stealing” the baby toy was endearing–and also showed something that scientists have proved experimentally: that dogs copy our behaviors. And Jan Staudenrauss’s story about her cats’ kitten “day-care” arrangement was equally lovely. Female lions also share babysitting and nursing responsibilities–which is the primary reason that lions live in prides.

  • Audrey Yell

    look forward to reading it! How do I change my address?

  • Helene Young

    Animal behavior has always been a favorite subject of mine. Yes, I would very much like to read this book.

  • Helene Young

    Years ago, I was walking my Lab Mandy in Central Park on a misty day. (She liked to chase squirrels, which I allowed her to do because I knew she wasn’t fast enough to catch any!) On this particular day, I saw a squirrel in the distance and said “Mandy, there’s a squirrel!” She looked up at me excitedly as if to ask “where?”, and I said “over there”, with a shake of my head. Well, Mandy immediately took off in the direction of the squirrel. A woman who happened to have witnessed our interaction screamed out, “My God, that dog understood everything you said!” I responded,”that’s absolutely right!”.

  • Nadia Archuleta

    I love animals — animal stories usually make me cry!

  • Mel K.

    Cats are very wise. I had a calico who hid under a chair during a small earthquake in upstate NY. Cats usually hide when bad weather is approaching. I knew something was about to happen when I saw her under the chair. I listen to my cats. Always!
    I would love to win and read ths book. I have several books that fall into this catagory. I enjoy them immensely. Thanks and Happy New Year!

  • Amber Rairdan

    Sounds great!

  • Donna Coliz

    I look forward to reading this book. I am a real believer in the intelligence of animals and have loved watching and participating in their lives for many years. On a light note, when my son (now 46) was about eight years old he began the “I don’t believe in Santa” process. My father asked a friend to dress as Santa and come visit our home. My Pomeranian, Schatzie, was there for the visit and welcomed Santa without barking, even sitting beside him all though his visit. Because Schatzie barked at strangers and stayed far away from them, her familiarity with Santa convinced #1 Son that he was, in fact, authentic. A little dog helped make Christmas more magical for a little boy that year.

  • Pamela Davis

    When I broke my leg and was confined to a recliner, my cat would come and sit next to me. I thought it was very sweet considering he usually would sit alone across the room.

  • Jade

    Would love to read this book!!!

  • Pam Pinkert

    My animal wise story really touched my heart when it happened. It started on Dec the 11th 2012. I was invited to a friends home for dinner and a movie, upon returning home and opening my front door, I sadly discovered that my home was burning down! I had 5 precious “babies”, 3 chihuahua’s, and 2 cats. I lost 90% of what I owned, my home, and 4 of my babies. Only one cat, Sylvestor, survived. That night, when I laid down, he jumped up on the couch with me, which wasn’t that unusual as all of them slept with me. But he did something he has never done, he actually got completely under the covers, (cats don’t usually like to be covered up), and stretched his body out up next to me and was still in the same place when I woke the next morning! The next evening I went to see my neighbor, who shares her life with Lil Joe, a standard poodle. She told me that he had spent the day looking across the street at what little was left of my house with a sad face. He was SO happy to see me. I miss my babies terribly, and still cry over the loss of them. Losing them hurt worse than losing my home. But Sylvestor and Lil Joe cheered me up. I am a survivor, but having the unconditional love of these animals really touched me.

  • Kira, editor at Read It Forward

    Pam, your story brought tears to my eyes. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing that sweet story. I send you and Sylvestor many good wishes and hope you are well!

  • techeditor


    I’m reading ANIMAL WISE now and am just past the chapter about Alex the parrot. Coincidentally, I just bought ALEX AND ME a few days ago.

    Anyhow, so far, you haven’t made a point that I’m sure you will: the more people realize that animals have thoughts and emotions and really feel pain, the more care will be taken with them, including chickens, cows, and pesky chipmunks.

    I’d love to meet you and hope you have a book event near me in Michigan.

  • Amber Rairdan

    Thank for Animal Wise!! I can not wait to read it.

  • elizabeth

    I won a copy of this book and found it insightful and delightful.

    Thanks for the ARC. I have posted a review on goodreads.

  • Andrea Lapsley

    I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book and couldn’t wait to delve into it. Having animals ( cats, dogs, goldfish, turtles and horses) throughout my life, I always knew that they had deep emotions, felt pain and suffered loss. This book verified and quantiied everything. And, who could not love Alex the parrot. My dogs always have stayed by my side whenever I was sick and understood everything that I have said! I am fortunate to work at the University where Temple Grandin teaches and does her research so have read a lto about animal behavior and emotion. I’m glad to add this book to my reading experience.

  • readitforward

    My dog Lucy has an uncanny ability to know when it’s going to rain!

  • I took the Animal Wise Quiz and discovered all kinds of intelligence in animals I never would have expected. What a terrific book! Here’s the link to the quiz – it’s fun!

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