Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Review - Smiling Bears

One of the most heavily debated subjects in the fields of science and biology is that of animals and emotions: do they have them or don't they? Scientists claim that what may seem to be emotional reponses in animals are actually just physiological responses to certain stimuli. They claim that there is no hard evidence that animals have feelings, yet they have consistently been unable to provide hard evidence that they don't. Personally, I find it quite interesting that the only researchers to have made truly groundbreaking advances in the field of animal research are the ones who have tried to tap into the feelings of animals and connect with them in emotional ways. To that ever-growing list should be added Else Poulsen who, with her 2009 book Smiling Bears, has crafted a work equal to Grizzly Heart in its emotional power and revelation.

After working as a field biologist, Poulsen ultimately became a zookeeper in Calgary, Canada where she specialized in bear rehabilitation. Working with the animals in this way required her to initiate close and intimate contact with them...and them with her. Needless to say she was stunned when her bears started communicating to her their needs, wants, and emotional states. Some of her co-workers had experienced many of the same things but were forced to keep their mouths shut for fear of losing their reputations or even their jobs. Unable to stay silent any longer, Poulsen brings us this book and gives the field of bear research a big push in the right direction.

The bears in this book are a joy to read about as they open themselves up to Poulsen and allow her into their world. Some of the stories are humorous, like the bear who reacted with disgust after eating a Halls menthol drop, then - upon realizing that the medicine was clearing his head cold - "asked" for more, or the bear who demonstrated with body language that she wanted a bath and even indicated what parts of her body she wanted washed. A very human-like intelligence was evident in the polar bears, one of whom cleverly demonstrated to Poulsen that frozen chickens don't make ideal toys because they thaw out in water and fall apart, while the other developed an obssessive-compulsive case of pacing that was prozac. Perhaps most remarkable of all are the biting-the-paw gestures that the bears use to express to Poulsen that they're feeling pain, both physical and emotional.

Inevitably, some readers will dismiss the book as being too anthropomorphic (a word that I cringe to even have to write), but it's a must-read for bear lovers, animal lovers, or just anyone who wants a fresh perspective on the world around them. A HIGHLY recommended and invaluable new addition to this fascinating field of study.

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