Caitlin O’Connell knows a lot about animals. She spent decades studying animals in their native habitats from the Pacific Ocean to the African savannah. She specializes in elephants, and this is just the latest of her many nonfiction books about these majestic animals. But while “Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us about Connection, Community, and Ourselves” does include elephant rituals, she also includes the rituals of diverse animals from flamingoes and other birds to Galapagos tortoises and African lions. Even her dog, Frodo, is included in the discussion.
One of the things that struck me reading the book was how current it is. The first chapter includes information about how the quarantine has caused us to be more isolated. She believes that the isolation during this time has shown that humans have a strong need for contact, and that this physical isolation will result in transgenerational trauma. She also comments that “Many societies are deeply divided today, whether by race, class, age, income, religion, or gender.” Therefore, it’s more incumbent upon us than ever to do whatever we can to strengthen relationships and the ties that bind us. In this book, we learn how rituals can accomplish that binding and how we can learn from the rituals that animals perform and use that knowledge to reinforce our own human rituals — too many of which we have ignored in our times.
In one chapter, O’Connell discusses the power of the collective. She informs us that because of the evolution of group living, primates were able to evolve with resulting larger brains and eventually language in humans. In modern time, scientists pool information to reach answers to global problems.
One of the heartbreaking sections is about Chantek, the first orangutan to learn sign language. He had been raised as a human child, was taught sign language, and developed the language ability of a seven or eight year old. When he lived at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, he loved giving directions to the local ice cream store because ice cream was his favorite treat. But as happens all too often with primates brought up as humans, he outgrew his home. He was sent to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where instead of trips to get ice cream, he was kept in a very small cell with little enrichment or attention. When the person he grew up with visited, he signed that his feelings were hurt. He wanted to escape and go back to live with her. She told him she couldn’t do that, so he signed that she should open the door in secret so no one would know she had allowed him to escape. She did not. He stayed in those deprived surroundings for over a decade, until he was finally able to go to Zoo Atlanta where he received more attention and was able to enjoy painting and making jewelry. What is especially poignant in this story is that once at Zoo Atlanta, Chantek realized that he could communicate with the zoo keepers and help his fellow orangutans understand what was happening. He was able to explain what the zoo keepers were doing to calm the other orangutans.
O’Connell also shares stories about how the grieving process after the death of a close one is not limited to humans. While some believe that humans are superior to animals because of our highly developed emotions, read about the animals who couldn’t bear to give up their deceased offspring. Or how other animals in their herd or family grieved with the bereft mothers or siblings.
There are copious notes which link curious readers to the source material for much of what she writes. The photographs are beautiful, but at heart, what makes this book worth reading is the manner in which O’Connell shows us that humanity is not just for humans. If one person reads this book and it changes the way that person views the world around him or her, it will have been worth it. For while we all marveled at how wildlife came out of hiding when we were in quarantine, once we began to occupy the streets again, we forgot that magic and forgot about the animals who remain hidden to most of us. And by forgetting them, we allow them to be used and abused for financial greed when forests are burned or cut, when oceans are polluted for oil, and when the environment is poisoned by humans who lack the humanity exhibited by many other animals.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Chronicle Prism, the publisher, for review purposes.