Author Peter Wohlleben on why we don't want to care about animals


Peter Wohlleben spent over 20 years working for the forestry commission in Germany before leaving to put his ideas of ecology into practice. He now runs an environmentally friendly woodland in Germany, where he is working towards the return of primeval forests, as well as caring for both wild and domestic animals. In his book, the Inner Life of Animals, he takes us from the microscopic levels of observation to the big philosophical, ethical and scientific questions around animal sentience. We hear stories of a grateful humpback whale, of a hedgehog who has nightmares, bees that plan for the future and pigs who learn their own names. As more and more researchers are discovering, animals experience rich emotional lives that are being ignored and sidelined, in order for the human race to exploit them more thoroughly. Wohlleben brings to life groundbreaking scientific research through his observations of nature and the animals he lives amongst. He is also the author of the international bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees.

“Why is there still so much resistance to the idea that our fellow creatures have the capacity to feel joy and to suffer? This resistance comes from some scientists, but above all from politicians who answer to farmers. Mostly, they are protecting the cheap methods used by factory farms to house and handle animals, such as castrating piglets with anaesthetic. And then there’s hunting, which claims the lies of hundreds of thousands of large mammals and may birds every year, and which in its current form is simply no longer appropriate.

Pigs help their young deliver their own children later in life.  Photo by  Suzanne Tucker  on  Unsplash

Pigs help their young deliver their own children later in life. Photo by Suzanne Tucker on Unsplash

When all the arguments have been made and it’s clear we’re getting to the point where we must grant animals way more skills than we usually do, the knockout punch is delivered: the charge of anthropomorphism. People who compare animals to humans, so the argument goes, are unscientific. They are wishful - maybe even mystical - thinkers. In the heat of the fray, an essential truth we all learned in school is overlooked: a human being is, from a purely biological perspective, an animal and therefore not so very different from other species.

When people reject acknowledging too much in the way of emotions in animals, I have the vague feeling that there’s a bit of fear that human beings could lose their special status. Even worse, it would become much more difficult to exploit animals. Every meal eaten or leather jacket worn would trigger moral considerations that would spoil their enjoyment.

When you think how sensitive pigs are, how they teach their young and help them deliver their own children later in life, how they answer to their names and pass the mirror test, the thought of the annual slaughter of 250 million of these animals across the European Union alone is chilling. 

I am suggesting that we infuse our dealings with the living beings with which we share our world with a little more respect, as we once used to do, whether those beings are animals or plants. That doesn’t mean completely doing without them but it does mean a certain reduction in our levels of comfort and in the amount of biological goods we consume. As a reward, if we then have happier horses, goats, chickens and pigs; if we can then observe contented deer, martens or ravens; if one day we can listen in when the ravens call their names, then a hormone will be released into our central nervous systems that will spread a feeling against which we have no defence - happiness!”

This is an extract from the epilogue of The Hidden Life of Animals, £16.99, Bodley Head.