You are here

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson - Book Review

Dale Peterson begins his thesis with the execution of elephants for crimes of murder against humans. An unusual, well-argued and inspiring book. Peterson co-authored the famous Demonic Males, an anthropological study in their own environment of several kinds of apes, including humans. I expected him to come up with something new on the subject of animal morality, and I was not disappointed. This is a real thesis, a slow burning one that reaches a high temperature.

Dale Peterson begins his thesis with the execution of elephants for crimes of murder against humans. He thus arrests our attention with a couple of concepts most of us probably don't mull over every day in relation to elephants: 'execution' and 'murder'.

Execution and Punishment

Firstly, he calls to our minds the difficulty of killing an elephant and of how authorities 'execute' elephants mostly when those animals have done something that makes them seem pretty dangerous - generally maiming or killing a human. The level of decision-making and authority to kill the elephant in question is such that it takes on the character of an execution and a punishment.

Then he introduces the concept of 'murder' by non-humans of humans. He shows how people in earlier times have tended to assume intent and deliberation in animals and that, even though this assumption has been largely dropped with the institution of Cartesian values that say animals are machines without feelings, with elephants people tend, despite themselves, to assume intelligence and planning.

Australians might recognise the motif of execution and murder in the way we sometimes deal with sharks and crocodiles after one of them has killed one of us. And then, there is our attitude to dingos. And pit-bulls.


An important part of Peterson's logic depends on establishing that most species think of themselves as the most important, possibly the only 'real' species, just as humans do. He gives an example of how, when human observers were educated not to interact at all with non-human apes in the Goodall studies - the non-human apes simply forgot the human apes were there. They accommodated their presence in the sense that they went around them, but the almost never attempted to interact. Humans went off their radar - just as most other species are nearly always off most humans' radars.

Obviously you have to read the book to understand what Peterson is talking about here. He is sufficiently original to surprise most people saturated in animal ethology, evolution and animal rights literature.

Empathy a widespread evolutionary trait

Species self-centredness does not exclude a capacity for empathy when there is meaningful interaction with another species and within one's own. Peterson defines empathy and argues very effectively that this is an evolutionary trait shared by many species apart from humans. Readers may not be surprised by this observation, but they will probably be impressed by the reasoning and examples.

With this significant beginning, Peterson goes on to examine other perspectives on animals in laboratories and in the wild which many of us won't have thought of. He also has a lot of unusual but well documented examples from the wild, in part due to his long association with Jane Goodall.

Emotional attitude

When I was deliberating about buying this book, I wondered how Peterson would deal with his own emotions on these subjects and with those he might expect in a reader. Emotional attitude is very important in such works because it can put readers off for a number of different reasons. For instance, some readers might seek to avoid the pain of knowing of awful treatment of animals. Conversely, animal rights readers might suspect an author who did not express indignation and anger. On the other hand, scientific readers and people used to repressing their emotions might prefer an absence of emotion. How does Dale Peterson deal with this? He doesn't become 'emotional' but he nonetheless validates the experience of animals by describing their reactions - for instance how laboratory rats would go hungry and even risk starvation to avoid imposing pain on their rat-neighbours when that was a risk entailed in seeking food - for instance where pressing a lever to get a pellet of food appeared to cause another rat to receive some kind of 'punishment'.

Does Peterson rail against the people who would deliberately cause animals - from lab rats to chimpanzees and elephants - pain? No, he doesn't. But the actions of the animals to protect each other dignify the animals themselves, and so the reader makes their judgement.

Peterson succeeds here in a very difficult field: he teaches us that the matter is too serious for mere indignation. Serious in a manner that requires intense reflection on our relationship with other creatures, with ourselves and each other.


"The puffin (harvested locally, the waitress promised) was sliced thin, its gaminess muted with litchi and fig. The minke whale, also finely carved, tasted like beef tenderloin with a faint metallic finish; it was savoury and delicate when paired with an airy washabi cream." (Liz Alderman, New York Times travel journalist, 2013)

The industrialized killing of whales during the twentieth century was 'perhaps the most callous demonstration history offers of humankind's self-appointed dominion over animals. One searches almost in vain for an expression of sympathy, compassion, understanding, or rationality. In their place were only insensitivity and avarice.' (Richard Ellis,2003. The Empty Ocean).

Whales are present throughout the book, an undercurrent in the form of educated interpretations of Moby Dick, which will absolutely fascinate anyone who has studied it, but the cetaceans surface, so to speak, in their full glory, in the last chapter.

Now I am not one to be impressed by interspecies comparisons with human intelligence because I don't think I judge other species' worth in relation to humans. I have therefore never been very taken by the popular iconology of whales and porpoises. I love the sea and enjoy the creatures in it. They are a whole other planet. They do not need to be like me for me to want them to be.

Whaling on the west coast of Australia

No, when I think of whales, I think about how, when I was a child about five years old I participated in one of the last whale hunts off the West Australian coast. Two whalers were involved - one Australian and one Russian. My father (a scientist) was a guest for the day on the Russian boat and my mother and I were on the Australian one. The two boats competed for a mother whale and her calf. The Russians caught the mother and the calf. It was windy. The sea was roiling. The whales, although huge, appeared and disappeared among the waves. I remember the excitement of the pursuit and apparently friendly competition between the boat crews pursuing the same whale.

When we came ashore, we left the real crews to deal with their catch and drove to the country pub where we were sleeping.

Early the next morning we returned to the whaling station, eager to see the work that had been done. We climbed up on a rise above the station and looked down into a bay like a pit between cliffs. Our stomachs lurched at the sight. Humans were climbing over the partially exposed skeleton of the huge mother whale in a scene that resembled one of Hieronymous Boch's versions of hell. They were hacking away at the giant creature like ants with axes and knives. Was the little one lying beside its mother? I cannot be sure of my memory. I do remember that even my father (a man who made his own spears for underwater fishing) lost his bullish enthusiasm for the scene. The terrible smell of rotting whale even outdid the visual desecration of such an obviously monumental animal. Above everything else, the smell drove us away, gagging with horror, suddenly deeply depressed.

I was glad when I became aware they had banned whaling some years after that. Since then I have enjoyed the sight of whales with the feeling that - at least those I can see in Australia - are not menaced by a local whaling industry. Since there are already so many people out there protesting on behalf of whales, with an apparent appetite for associated posters and films, I have felt I could choose to spend my time trying to defend our very deserving Australian indigenous land-creatures and vegetation, which lack the profile in their own country that whales do, but suffer similarly.

Whale statistics

Reading Dale Peterson's last chapter, however, concentrated my mind on the precarious position of whales. Peterson doesn't waste the reader's time with excess adjectives and examples. He makes the matter perfectly clear. Some whale populations that recovered from initial whaling bans are now nearly extinct, largely due to the current activities of the Japanese, the Greenlanders and the Icelanders. Some of the biggest creatures on the earth - with much larger brains than ours and similar neuronal connections - and perhaps with superior morality and values - are close to being wiped out by a bunch of badly-educated apes who no longer are in touch with what is going on around them. There is no excuse for whaling. There is no excuse for extinction. We have no excuse, except perhaps that, collectively, we humans are not as smart as we think.

"Altogether the brains of cetaceans show 'a structural complexity that could support complex information processing, allowing for intelligent, rational behavior.' That's the word from the neuroanatomists, and those scientists who have been studying cetacean behavior for the last several decades strongly support it, finding a group of animals who have excellent memories and high levels of social and self-awareness, who are excellent at mimicking the behavior of others and can respond to symbolic representations, who form complex and creatively adaptive social systems, who show a broad capacity for the cultural transmission of learned behaviors ... and so on."

"Nearly half of the thirteen great whale species are currently listed as endangered, some critically so, while a number of localized populations are gone or just about gone. The right whale of the North Atlantic, once common, is now down to a population of around three hundred and still declining. These giant animals were given their name in the old days because, as slow-moving and naturally-buoyant-after-death creatures, they were the 'right' ones to find and kill. Now they are right for extinction, with their continuing decline today, largely the consequence of accidental collisions with ships. The magnificent blue whales of the Antarctic, abundant until whalers discovered them, have been reduced to around 1 percent of their original numbers. At more than a hundred feet long and 150 tons heavy, incidentally, these animals are the largest creatures ever to have lived on this planet, land or sea, but they, too, are teetering on the edge of nonexistence. Also endangered or threatened are the gray whales of the northwestern Pacific, the fin whales, the sei, the beluga, and the sperm whales. 'Trusting creatures whose size probably precluded a knowledge of fear,' writes author and marine wildlife expert Richard Ellis, in The Empty Ocean (2003), 'the whales were chased until they were exhausted and then stabbed and blown up; their babies were slaughtered; their numbers were halved and halved again.' The industrialized killing of whales during the twentieth century, Ellis concludes, was 'perhaps the most callous demonstration history offers of humankind's self-appointed dominion over animals. One searches almost in vain for an expression of sympathy, compassion, understanding, or rationality. In their place were only insensitivity and avarice.'

"The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was originally organized in 1946 to support the industry by promoting the supposedly 'sustainable' harvesting of whales. But commercial whaling had, by the second half of the century, reduced the numbers of most species so decisively that in July of 1982 the IWC declared a moratorium on all whaling.

That important and positive event has been challenged continuously by the Starbucks[1] of this world. The Soviet whaling industry simply continued harvesting whales of all species, all ages and sizes, while falsifying their reports. The Japanese officially adhered to the terms of the moratorium by identifying their whaling as 'scientific' rather than a commercial enterprise. Iceland ignored the moratorium, allowing its ships to kill one hundred minke whales and as many as one hundred and fifty endangered finned whales during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. The Norwegians have never stopped whaling either and continue to slaughter hundreds of minke whales yearly, insisting that whale killing is a glorious part of their cultural heritage and, furthermore, that these giant mammals eat too many fish. During the 2009 meeting of the IWC, meanwhile Greenland,backed by the Danish government, applied for permission to harvest as many as fifty endangered humpback whales over the next five years for the purposes of 'aboriginal subsistence,' even though Greenland already has a surplus of whale meat, which is sold in supermarkets."

Exotic eating driving extinction everywhere

After I began writing this review, I was sad to read the following in an internationally syndicated travelogue by New York journalist, Liz Alderman, about Iceland nightlife:

"We studied the menu and pointed to the puffin and minke whale appetisers, Icelandic delicacies. The puffin (harvested locally, the waitress promised) was sliced thin, its gaminess muted with litchi and fig. The minke whale, also finely carved, tasted like beef tenderloin with a faint metallic finish; it was savoury and delicate when paired with an airy washabi cream."

Liz Alderman was not starving, was not an indigenous hunter, was not unable to procure other kinds of food, so how could she be so blind and deaf and dumb to the imminent extinction of the whale and the puffin?[3] And, if it sold articles, would she also sample elephants' tusks and tigers' bones? Where would she draw the line? Would she, could she draw a line anywhere?

Is there any hope for the world? Are we any different from the Ancient Romans who gorged themselves with rare animal dishes and self-induced vomiting so as to be able to eat more?

It is as if every local rule that ever developed to save something for later and maintain the populations of food sources is being eroded by marketing for short-term gain to nations of unhappily fat people who cannot avoid exposure to the brainwashing.

I know I am not the only one who is absolutely sick of the multiplication of cooking shows on television. I rarely turn on my own television, but television is now everywhere - on the back of airline seats, in hospitals and doctors' waiting rooms, in public squares. It is a form of ideological pollution. At every hour of day and night we are sold the idea of eating more and more kinds of animals, to seek the out wherever they may hide and popularise their demise. So we are supposed to admire a man who urges us to taste fried spiders, then follow the camera's eye as it roves greedily over other produce, passing casually over the sad little face of a small dead bat. The image haunts me still, because I have actually been friends with a bat. I recorded it in this film, Gracie, the flying fox.

Julia Buch, who introduced me to the friendly bat took to saving baby bats orphaned on bat hunts in New Guinea, when she was a child. A tradition of bat eating among a small population of New Guinea clans-people is one thing; 7.5 billion people hunting down every bat and every spider, every tasty rare plant and turning their habitats into fields for soy and corn is like some kind of scary nightmare. Yet that is what is happening! Humans have become the nemesis of every other creature in the world. Our behaviour is monstruous.


[1] Starbuck was one of the characters in Moby Dick. He was less impressed by Moby Dick and Captain Ahab than most of the crew. He wanted to get on with business and go home to his wife.
[2] Liz Alderman, "The nights and lights of Reykjavik," Australian Financial Review, February 22-24, 2013, pp22-24.
[3] Puffins are hunted for eggs, feathers and meat. Atlantic Puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 19th century and early 20th century. They continue to be hunted in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

The Atlantic Puffin forms part of the national diet in Iceland, where the species does not have legal protection. Puffins are hunted by a technique called “sky fishing”, which involves catching low-flying birds with a big net. Their meat is commonly featured on hotel menus. The fresh heart of a puffin is eaten raw as a traditional Icelandic delicacy.


SOS Puffin is a conservation project based from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick to save the puffins on islands in the Firth of Forth. Puffin numbers on the island of Craigleith, once one of the largest colonies in Scotland, with 28,000 pairs, have crashed to just a few thousand due to the invasion of Tree Mallow, an exotic plant which has taken over the island and prevented the puffins from accessing their burrows and breeding.[21] The project has the support of over 450 volunteers and progress is being made with puffins returning in numbers to breed this year.

In the summer, children in Iceland walk around local areas with boxes and containers to rescue puffins that land in dangerous spots, such as close to cities, where the city light has confused them into trying to fly into that direction, as opposed to diving in the direction of the light reflecting off the sea water near their burrows. The children who rescue puffins then later release them at sea, and away from the city. Source: Wikipedia

About the author of this review

Sheila Newman is an evolutionary sociologist. Her home page is Her most recent book is reviewed at See below for where you can obtain a copy.

Click here to Buy PRINT VERSION of S.M. Newman, Demography Territory Law: The Rules of Animal and Human Populations (2013)


Western Australia’s State Barrier Fence is designed to keep emus out of farms – but at what cost? Graeme Chapman.

Every five or ten years Western Australia’s emus undertake mass migrations in search of food. On the way they encounter the 1,170km State Barrier Fence, which seeks to stop dingos, emus and kangaroos entering farms.

A large proportion of these emus die of starvation, after becoming tangled in the fence, or are shot. The WA Government’s current plan to extend the fence poses even more serious threats to the region’s native plants and animals.

The WA Government plans to build a multi-million dollar, 490km extension of the existing fence, creating a largely continuous barrier through five bioregions from north of Geraldton to Cape Arid.

The extension will cut through the largest intact temperate woodland on earth, the Great Western Woodlands.

The WA Government, under pressure from farmers, will argue they are removing threats to stock and crops. They must also acknowledge however that they are creating another, potentially greater, long-term threat to native flora and fauna.

A key issue here is that there has not been an adequate, transparent cost-benefit analysis. Will there be a net profit from building the fence? A thorough cost-benefit analysis would consider the relative costs and benefits of different ways of solving the problem. It would also consider all of the costs, including the impacts on Australia’s natural heritage.

And the impacts are most likely substantial. A recent report Dr Jenny Lau (Birdlife Australia) and I prepared for the Ecological Society of Australia, the peak group for Australian ecologists, lists three areas where the State Barrier Fence could be undermining natural processes. Peer-reviewed research suggests that the barrier fence is likely to increase fox and cat numbers by excluding dingos, fragment populations of native species and stop seed dispersal.

Emus inadvertently disperse native seeds because they eat fruits from a range of native plants. Emus are estimated to transport seeds from 12 to more than 200 plant species, depending on the region. Emus travel long distances, and by restricting their natural movement the fence is also preventing dispersal of seeds.

In the absence of this dispersal, plant species may decline across large areas. Isolated populations, with no source of replenishment, may die out. This is particularly concerning for the future because many species need to alter their ranges due to global warming. Plants that no longer have the ability to travel long distances inside an emu may not survive accelerating rates of climate change because they cannot keep up with the shifting climate.

Australia needs forward thinking management to sustain natural heritage through climate change. The three consequences of the State Barrier Fence illustrate that the fence is inconsistent with these ideals. We need to enable native species to shift their range to stay within their climatic tolerances. Instead of providing dingo-free space where cats and foxes can flourish, we need to reduce pressures from feral predators so that larger populations of native species survive and have a chance to adapt to climate change.

Unfortunately with this fence, the WA Government is going in the opposite direction.

As it stands, there is certainly enough evidence of important environmental concerns to immediately halt all work on the extension to the State Barrier Fence. The next step is for the WA Government to support a transparent assessment of the costs and benefits of the fence.

My guess is that the costs to farmers of crop damage caused by migrating emus once every five to ten years will be dwarfed by the expense of building and maintaining the fence combined with the cost of the lost ecosystem services provided by migrating emus. Alternative solutions need to be sought.

It is time for the value of Australia’s natural heritage to be fully included in the development equation.

More here

It would take far more than the space allotted here to comprehensively describe the philosophical and ethical debates that have contributed to the foundation of animal law. Suffice to say that although in the law animals are regarded as the property of human animals, yet in being accorded some protection against mistreatment and cruelty, it could be said that animal law has an ethical, or moral, cornerstone that other property law does not have.