Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild by Susan McCarthy

Not long ago, a zoologist studied animals by killing them, cutting them into various parts, giving them a Latin handle and putting their hides on display in the museum. And so a critter became known to science though the zoologist seldom knew what it ate, when it mated or if it had colts or kittens. Behavior was assumed to be genetically fixed, uninteresting, and no one knew how to study it anyway.

Then a bunch of guys put their mind to it, won the Nobel Prize, invented the field of ethology or animal behavior, and we discovered that there’s a lot of learning going on out in the woods. That’s what McCarthy’s whacking literature review, Becoming a Tiger, is all about.

There’s a reason a critter should be born knowing everything and having to learn nothing. Brains are expensive organs to maintain. The problem is, brainless animals are entirely at the mercy of circumstances. Confronted with something new, survival goes to the fittest, meaning only the luckiest. A few brains will help any animal confront new situations so there’s real reason to have some brains and often a lot of them.

For most animals, nature has worked out a balance between brains and genetics. Tigers are innate hunters, but mom teaches them what and how to hunt. That’s why tiger cubs hang around mom for two years. They’ve a lot to learn. Adult tigers confront new problems and have to solve them on their own. That’s learning, too.

The things that have to be learned are many and surprising. How to get around in a fashion appropriate to the species is one of the first things. Deer and antelope have to learn to stand quickly if they are going to get to mom’s milk. That’s vital so there’s a lot of genetic programming when it comes to standing up. Getting back down isn’t as important and eventually gravity solves the problem anyway. Why waste good genes on that. Let the critter figure it out on its own.

And there’s the matter of figuring out which species you are. For some species, us for example, this is pretty obvious. Animals might have raised Mowgli, but when push came to shove Mowgli figured out he was human pretty quick. For other species, figuring out their kind is not so obvious. Wild geese raised by humans tend to think they’re humans. There are cases of rabbits identifying with dogs and even a case or two of a lioness attempting to raise an antelope. Animals that get the imprinting wrong often have frustrating sex lives. Some kinds of hand-raised owls will attempt to mate with human heads.

Learning to communicate is another task. We, along with many kinds of birds, have complicated systems of vocalization that involve both learning and room for innovation. Others animals just bark, but even for them there’s the question of when to bark and how loud. That can make the difference between being aggressive and being submissive, a critical distinction for any wolf or hyena.

Learning what to eat and when to eat it is something few critters dare to get wrong. Hand-raised animals abandoned in the wild will often starve. Equally important is learning what thinks you’re a dinner. Even rabbits, seemingly on everyone’s menu, have to learn to draw distinctions.

Things like invention, innovation and the use of tools get really complicated. Tool use was considered the hallmark of the human species until Jane Goodall’s chimps put that bit of vanity to rest, and tool use is now recognized as widely, if somewhat simplistically, existent in nature.

Finally there’s the matter of culture, parenting and teaching. Again, humans no longer have a complete monopoly over culture. There is a tiger culture, one specific to the species, and it has regional variations. Damned be the kitty that gets it wrong.

The problems of parenting and teaching get down to why this stuff is not just interesting but why it’s important. We can’t save species just by freezing DNA. There’s more to being a tiger than what’s hidden in a cub’s DNA and mom has to teach that. With more than 10% of the globe’s land area now in protected areas, there’s a lot of species rehabilitation and reintroduction going on. When mom’s not around to teach lessons, we have to do it and that requires detailed understanding of animal behavior. Some species aren’t amenable to reintroduction right now, and these must survive in zoos if they are to survive at all. Their happiness and success in captivity depends on our meeting their behavioral needs, and our learning about those needs may eventually help us to put them back in nature.

In her first chapter, McCarthy reviews the various types of learning so far identified. There’s a lot a hair splitting here. Too, scientific opinion about which kind of learning is swanky and which kind is vulgar changes rapidly. One month, mimicry is all the rage only to be dismissed as trivial the next month. For a sparrow, if mimicry works what does it care about scientific opinion? In this arena, scientific whimsy resembles fads in the school curriculum, and herein is another reason why understanding animal behavior is so important: It tells us a lot about our own learning patterns.

Essentially McCarthy has written a mammoth literature review. The bibliography is lengthy and it reflects what is in the endnotes. The endnotes refer back to specific phrases in the text. Hence to go from a page of text to the right endnote to the bibliography is a little cumbersome. If tigers can learn that autos make lousy prey, I’m confident that serious students can learn to contend with McCarthy’s citation system. For the rest of us who can afford to skip over citations lightly, McCarthy’s book is a pleasure to read.