The Creative Lives of Animals: Understanding the artists around us

Creativity is something that is easier to identify than to explain. And one person’s definition of creativity may vary from your definition. For proof, you need only enter the modern art wing of a museum to hear “Why is that art?” uttered. But though creativity may be in the eye of the beholder, nobody would suggest that humans are not creative.

Yet so many people — even a few interviewed in The Creative Lives of Animals by Carol Gigliotti — are reluctant to admit that the species we share this planet with are also creative.

Perhaps this book will change their minds.

Over the course of this eye-opening and fascinating book, Gigliotti takes us on a guided tour of animal creativity, from playtime to house building, sex, emotions, culture and communications. Of communication she writes:

Humans are gifted with a fairly limited number of channels of communication compared to other animals. … Across species, animals make use of chemical, visual, acoustic, vibrational, sonic, bioluminescent, electric and tactile systems of communications in unlimited combinations.

Who can listen to the bird song of a Lyre bird and not think this animal is creative? But one need not travel to Australia to witness avian creativity. The European starling, largely looked upon as pests by American birders, has developed an amazing repertoire and utters a surprisingly strong imitation of a red-tailed hawk here in Southern Oregon.

What I most appreciate about this book is the diversity of species presented. Of course we hear from crows and elephants and whales — species often cited among the more intelligent of species (though measuring intelligence between animal species is inherently difficult).

Gigliotti introduces us to cuttlefish: the male will mimic “the coloring of a female on one side of his body to fool rivals into thinking he is just one of the girls. At the same time he displays typically male coloring on the other side so that a nearby female recognizes him as a possible mate.” Not only does this sound like the basis for the next Disney rom-com, it is impressively creative.

And did you know that crocodiles play? These animals who are always portrayed as lethally serious enjoy surfing waves. Alligators also play; a notable example includes play between an otter and an alligator, in which the otter would splash the alligator and the alligator responded by pulling the otter under water. Pretend play, we call it, and it is by no means unique to the human species. Pretending is its own form of creativity.

In fact, time and again in this book you will find yourself thinking just how similar we all are. We all laugh, we cry, we teach, we learn and we create. Yes, we all create.

And unlike an art museum that requires a cost of admission, we need not pay a fee to witness animal creativity. A bumble bee hive, a spider’s web, a bird song. Simply step outside and you will find it.

Someday we will look back on this age and wonder why we ever doubted the sentience, emotions and, yes, creativity of our fellow animal species. I hope they will forgive us our ignorance.

The Creative Lives of Animals
Carol Gigliotti
NYU Press

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