The carnivore needs no introduction: fearsome, cold and brutal. But G. A. Bradshaw, known for her psychological work with elephants, asks readers to reconsider. In “Carnivore Minds,” she argues that predators are none of these things. She uses the orca for a case study in the evolution of morals; to explore emotional intelligence, her main example is the crocodile. Through “trans-species psychology,” Bradshaw asks us to consider the many ways that the animals we fear are far more similar to us than we might like to think. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.  

What first lead you to explore the minds of carnivores?
Carnivores are a natural counterpoint to the herbivorous elephant, the subject of my previous book, Elephants on the Edge. There certainly are differences between white sharks and elephants, but the similarities are much greater. We know this because of what neuroscience has discovered — mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles (and now, it appears, invertebrates like bees and octopi) share common brain structures and processes that govern thinking and feeling. The scientific model used to explore human minds applies to other animals. This trans-species psychology allows us to see, even experience, the worlds of carnivores as they might — from the inside-out.

White sharks, coyotes, and wolves not only have comparable mental and emotional capacities as humans, they are equally vulnerable to psychological trauma. This is what I discovered with the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in wild elephants. When elephants lose their homes and families, are subjected to mass killing, and are captured and incarcerated in zoos, they breakdown mentally and culturally and exhibit symptoms found in human prisoners and victims of genocide. As a result of hunting and persecution, pumas are showing symptoms of complex PTSD.

G. A. Bradshaw. Credit: Teja Brooks Pribac

Carnivores battle an extra prejudice — they are woefully misunderstood. They are considered mindless, ruthless killing machines. It’s true that they eat other animals (although plants make up the majority of a grizzly bear’s diet), but they kill parsimoniously, only out of essential need. They have complex cultures and are guided by strict, prosocial moral codes. When viewed in light of modern humans, carnivores are amazingly restrained. They don’t do to us what we do to them. Humans kill sharks, snakes, pumas, coyotes, wolves, bears, skunks, raccoons, crocodiles, and other carnivores by the millions annually. In comparison, for instance, the Global Shark Attack File shows that from 725 B.C.E. to 2015 (that’s almost 3000 years) there have been a total of 1,121 shark caused human fatalities.

What do you mean when you say that grizzly bears, or other carnivores, have a “culture”?
Up until recently, culture was defined in terms of human customs alone. Because nonhumans have not produced Mona Lisas, Notre Dames, and other cultural symbols, they were thought to lack culture. Gradually, biologists discovered that other animals do have culture. For example, whales, elephants, and dolphins pass down customs to their young. In the white shark chapter, I recount how a mother orca was observed teaching her daughter how to subdue and kill a white shark by maneuvering the shark on his back to induce tonic immobility — a trance-like state —that enabled the orca to overcome her prey. These discoveries have made us think more broadly about the definition of culture.

Similarly, grizzlies and pumas were thought to not have any kind of sociality except for mating and offspring. (You can think of culture as sociality which is passed down across generations.) It turns out, however, that bears, rattlesnakes, and pumas interact quite a bit and form meaningful friendships with each other. Grizzlies have an intricate communication system of trails and markers which they use to stay in touch and keep each other apprised of what is going on.

The supposition that carnivores are belligerent loners has been part of the myth that has given these species a bad reputation. Biologists maintained that pumas were most likely to fight and kill each other. But, trail cameras show multiple adult pumas of both genders with infants sharing a kill together. It was also believed that infanticide was common — male pumas killing babies so that the female would go into estrous and then conceive his kids, thereby ensuring that his genes were represented in the evolutionary pool. But, infanticide is not common among carnivores. When the data is examined carefully, chimpanzee, bear, and puma infanticide is very rare. Furthermore, when infanticide does occur, it is strongly correlated with trauma caused by human disturbance.

You start your book with great whites. What might surprise readers about these sharks?
Their amazing emotional sensitivity, for the reason that this discovery is so contrary to their popular image. There is probably no one scarier than the massive shark in the movie Jaws. But shark bad press comes from misperceptions. White sharks give the appearance of what has become the classic description of a dangerous psychopath: a blank, deadpan stare. This unsettling look comes from their unmammalian lidless eyes. Laminid sharks, such as white and mako sharks, roll back their eyeballs instead of shutting their eyelid like we do.

Again, though, neuroscience tells us that sharks brains are not that different from our own – species differences are largely variations on a common theme. So when a marine biologist insists that the face of a pregnant fifty year old white shark named Deep Blue shows maternal glow, it is entirely consistent with what neuroscience predicts. White sharks feel love and emotions as much as we do.

At one point in your book, you are asking readers to connect empathetically with rattlesnakes. Can you share some of what you do there?
I lay out what science tells us: rattlesnakes have what we have in terms of emotional and cognitive capacities, and then look at rattlesnake natural history through that lens. When you look through the eyes of a rattlesnake, you discover all sorts of wonderful things. For instance, rattlesnakes are social: they form deep bonds with each other and watch out for each other’s young. Reptiles exhibit exceptional emotional intelligence.

This neuropsychological lens dissolves layers of human prejudice that have been heaped on carnivores, obscuring who they really are. We can make inferences about snakes from what we know about ourselves, what Gordon Burghardt calls “critical anthropomorphism.” This gives us the opportunity to connect with someone who may look different but who really shares so much with us. We start to see animals in a radically different way.

Rattlesnakes are gripped with terror and pain when they are captured for annual “rattlesnake round ups” where they are tortured, eaten, and eventually killed, all for the purpose of entertaining humans. Their rattle is not a threat — it is a communiqué of fear. As Melissa Amarello, a rattlesnake researcher, points out, why would they make their presence known if they were out to get you? Snakes rattle to let you know where they are so you, who is fifty times bigger and heavier, don’t step on them.

We can learn a lot from carnivore compassion and morality. When prejudices are pushed aside, we discover that carnivores are naturally guided by prosocial ethics. Their relationships with each other and other animals, including humans, are based on respect and care. If our species followed shark, bear, wolf, coyote, rattlesnake, eagle, crocodile, or sperm whale ethics, most of world’s problems would simply disappear.