The problem with people, according to Desmond Morris, is that we don't act more like animals.
The best-selling zoologist just can't resist yet another comparison of animal and human behavior. He has been doing it for more than 20 years, since he wrote "The Naked Ape." Now, standing in front of the lions at the National Zoo, he's off again.
"We talk about nature being tooth and claw -- the idea of blood everywhere -- but that's only when predators are killing prey. When two animals are fighting one another, belonging to the same species, the fighting is controlled by a series of special appeasement signals. Fighting isn't destructive; it's not meant to destroy the other individual. It's simply meant to settle who is the boss."
Which brings him to us.
"Now, if we watch this and we see the way that this happens, we can start asking ourselves, 'Why is it that we so often fail to inhibit our aggression?' " he says. "Then you start to understand what's happening in the Persian Gulf at the moment. The armies are assembling and doing all the threat displays.
"If there is no war, we will be behaving like animals in the best possible sense. We'll have made our ritual displays at one another, which is what animals do: They puff up their chest or spread their feathers; we send out an army to sit with all their guns bristling. That threat will then have the function of making one side or the other back down."
Warfare, he says, is a human behavior. "We say, 'They're acting like animals,' when people behave in a particularly violent way. That's completely wrong. Animals don't do that. Torture and extreme violence are almost exclusively human attributes."
Morris is at it again, ruffling the feathers of all the behaviorists and anthropologists who like to think man is top dog in the evolutionary scheme of things. But the 62-year-old author has obviously struck a chord with readers. "The Naked Ape" sold 10 million copies; more recently, doting pet lovers snapped up a million copies of "Catwatching" and "Dogwatching," inside peeks at why Fluffy and Fido do the things they do.
Now he's gone back to his roots with his 27th book, "Animalwatching," a look at how wild animals live, love and lust in their natural habitat. His premise is simple: Study animals and you have a better understanding of human behavior.
Morris's own animal watching started in the English countryside as a boy. He enrolled as a zoology student at Birmingham University but almost left until he discovered ethology, which favored the study of animals by observation instead of by laboratory dissection. Morris received his doctorate from Oxford, writing about the sex life of the 10-spined stickleback fish, and went on to become curator of mammals at the London Zoo.
Then he turned his attention to humans.
The success of "The Naked Ape" allowed Morris to do pretty much anything he wanted to, which has meant painting, research, television and writing more books. Every year or so, he finds himself on another book tour.
All Joan Rivers wanted to know when she had him on her show was how different animals had sex. Here, at the National Zoo, he gets a chance to talk about humans and animals and history. And tigers.
It takes a second or two to convince Morris to do his imitation of the tiger greeting sound. "Hhmmnn. Hhmmm." It's a deep, slow version of the little rumble domestic cats make -- a trick he picked up years ago. He's still trying to figure out why lions don't have a sound like it.
Zoos, he says, are ideal for scientists when they re-create the animal's natural habitat. A researcher gets the opportunity to see generations live together and each animal is identified and observed every day.
"But you've got to know what they want," he says. "If you put them in bad conditions in the zoo, then you won't learn anything -- except what animals do when they go crazy."
Morris is peering at the zoo's number one attractions: Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who are doing what they usually do -- listlessly hanging out near the back of their outdoor playgrounds and staring sullenly at the crowd.
Giant pandas, as it turns out, are not the sweet, oversized teddy bears they appear to be. They're closer, in fact, to raccoons but without as much personality -- solitary animals that eat by night, sleep by day and basically ignore all the humans making kissy-face over the fence.
So, why are we so crazy about pandas?
"They have a whole lot of things going for them," says Morris. Most important, they bring out the maternal instinct in people. They have a flat, round faces -- like human babies -- with small noses. They appear to have very large eyes -- the black rings around their eyes give them the big-eyed baby look. They have rounded bodies and they're clumsy in their movements, another infantile quality.
"So they're like super babies," he says.
Mother Nature made them soft, too, with very striking markings. Because they don't have long tails, they can sit up. And pandas have a sixth claw, which enables them to pick up a stick and hold it as a human being would. Add the fact that they're extremely rare and you have a can't-miss combination.
"And," he says for the denouement, "they have a name that's very easy for a child to say: Pan-da."
Pan-da T-shirt, Dad-dy.
There is a loud banging noise. One of the elephants is batting a metal barrel against the wall of her enclosure. Thunck. Thunck. After a few minutes, she strolls over to a pile of pumpkins in the yard and starts fooling around with one: tossing it into the air, winding her trunk around it, breaking it in pieces. She's not eating; she's just playing. Shutters click. The crowd is delighted.
"A lot of the immediate appeal of animals is anthropomorphic," says Morris. "The thing we really love about an animal, apart from its human qualities that make us see it as a friend, is if it's playful. When we come to the zoo, we like to see animals being playful because that's something we understand."
Which explains the appeal of monkeys, of course, seals and almost every baby animal. Humans are also drawn to animal facial expressions that appear to exhibit traits we admire.
The lion looks very dignified -- head raised, steady gaze -- but it's just because it's always looking in the distance for prey. Same with the eagle. They both have predatory vision that gives, by accident, dignified expressions.
"It's very difficult for people not to see animals in an anthropomorphic way," says Morris. "You have to really struggle to shed all that to become an objective observer who sees the animal from the animal's point of view. If you're studying elephants, you have to try and think like an elephant."
Elephants, he says, are very intelligent and really do have extraordinary memories. In the wild, they are one of the few matriarchies: An old female leads the group; males live on the fringes of the herd and are not allowed in except for sexual purposes.
"The Victorians in Africa, coming from a patriarchal society, assumed the boss elephant had to be a male because the bulls are individually the most powerful," says Morris. "Although they're strong, half a dozen females could tell them where to go -- and do. The feminists should really have the elephant as their emblem."
Hamadryas baboons, on the other hand, live in a harem system with one powerful male surrounded by half a dozen females ruled by him. The patas monkey has a harem of 16 females but he's gone too far, says Morris, because now there are enough females to dominate the male. Although the male is still the leader, he's also very much its servant, functioning as sort of an administrator for the group. Most species of birds live in pairs; termites, ants and bees have a complex caste system of queens, kings, workers and drones.
"One of the values in looking at animals is that you realize there is no one way of organizing society," he says. "All the arguments that go on about whether males or females should dominate human society take on a new light when you look on it as a zoological problem. Then you start to think of it not as some way it has to be but that there are different alternative social strategies. It gives you a flexibility of thought."
"If you see people laughing at monkeys, it's because they feel a bit uncomfortable," he says. "They're reminded they're monkeys themselves. A lot of people don't like this. It offends their dignity."
The conversation somehow turns to Capitol Hill.
"The difference between monkeys and politicians is that you can trust the expressions on faces of monkeys," he says with an almost straight face. Book tour humor. "That's especially for Washington."
Things to Know
The most lethal animal in the world is the tiny kokoi frog of the Amazon tropical forest. One gram of poison from its skin is so toxic, according to Morris, it can kill a hundred thousand average-size men.
Only 15 percent of all snakes are, in fact, poisonous. The species that are don't actually bite their victims: They stab with their fangs -- which are hollow -- and then pump the venom from glands in the jaw through the fangs and into the flesh.
Giraffes have a sophisticated system of blood valves in their necks that prevents them from blacking out when the head goes down almost 16 feet to drink water.
No one really knows why zebras have stripes. Conventional wisdom says the stripes break up the shape, concealing the body from predators. Morris presents nine theories ranging from stripes as camouflage to markings as a form of air conditioning. His favorite theory explains why zebras, unlike horses, suffer from few insect-carried diseases. "The one I find most fascinating is the idea that it's an insect repellent; that certain kinds of stinging insects will not land on a very brightly patterned black and white surface."
During mating season, the antennae of a male silk moth can detect a female up to seven miles away.
Camels store fat, not water, in their humps. They can drink up to 30 percent of their weight and then go for more than two weeks without water because of a unique ability to stay cool -- they don't even begin to sweat until their body temperature reaches 105 degrees.
Possums play dead, never flinching even when bitten, because predators will only eat fresh-killed prey that they know is healthy.
Sand and mackerel sharks produce cannibal embryos. A female shark starts out with a dozen or so fertilized embryos. Already equipped with teeth, one of them eats all the would-be brothers and sisters and then changes positions in the womb, which triggers birth.
"It's a very, very fit and healthy young shark," says Morris. "The way this was discovered was that an American shark expert was dissecting a dead female shark, put his hand inside and got attacked and bitten by the nine-inch embryo that was still in there."
Look ma, no hands.
The Hunted The big cats are, as usual, lolling in the sun. Because they are such efficient hunters, cats sleep twice as much as man and spend the rest of their time flopped out.
Morris stares at the tigers, which are now on the endangered species list.
"We've been dominating the planet for so long," he says. "And we won. We're the boss. We can wipe out any animal we want to. The fact is, we share the planet with them. It's time for us to take care of the animals rather than ask them to take care of us."
No one would expect Morris to be neutral when it comes to animal preservation, and, of course, he's not. He launches into a passionate oratory: We wouldn't have civilization without animals. There was no way man could have developed without animal power -- beasts of burden and domestic animals -- a debt Morris says we've forgotten now that we have mechanical means to replace them.
"Now, having used them to build civilization, we're obliterating them all over the world," he says. "I find this very depressing."
Morris is not a vegetarian and he doesn't have a problem with Eskimos killing seals for food; same goes for salmon fishers. But, he says, there's no excuse for exploitation of animals in factory farms, fur farms, or for trapping animals for furs or hunting animals for sport.
He does credit hunting with giving early man most of our human personality -- cooperation, concentration and teamwork -- and the development of manual skills that led to technological advances.
"Having said all that, we also developed the ability to make symbolic equations," he says carefully. "That means today, when we don't need to hunt for food, we can still satisfy hunting urges by using symbolic equivalents. I can hunt for the perfect book; a doctor can hunt for perfect cure. We all have our hunts, but they're symbolic hunts.
"There's really no excuse anymore for the old form of hunting where we go out and kill an animal for fun. That seems to me to be a very crass and primitive form of expression of the hunting urge when we're capable of transforming it into abstract hunting. That is why I personally find people who go out hunting for fun, killing animals, to me are backward human beings because they haven't moved on past that stage."
Morris is not a big champion of reintroducing endangered animals into the wild where animals are still at risk of being poached. Instead, he'd like to have what he calls specialized animal centers. Elephants, for example, don't breed well in captivity and need a herd to live naturally. Morris would like to see an elephant zoo with a full herd on 50 or 100 acres with a ditch around the edge. "Elephants can't jump. Not a bit."
Maybe throw in ostriches and antelopes. If people pay thousands of dollars to go on an African safari, why wouldn't they pay to see the same thing in this country?
"To see a great herd of elephants, with all the babies playing and the mothers looking after them and the big bulls is such a spectacle," he says. "It's very different from seeing a couple of elephants in a small enclosure. That's the next step."
A Dog's Life
His current obsessions are the exotic fish that inhabit coral reefs, which means leaving the chill of Oxford months of scuba diving off the tropical coasts of Indonesia. Lush, he admits. But Morris swears he could spend three years studying any species and not get bored. Pigeons, for example. Squirrels. Bugs, even.
"One doesn't have to go to exotic, faraway places to do animal watching," he says. "There's a lot you can learn by watching squirrels in your back yard. Unfortunately, people have this idea unless an animal is really rare and exotic that it's not worth watching. This is nonsense. A house sparrow is a fascinating bird."
Given all that, what would he be -- honestly -- if he could be any animal anywhere in the world?
"I always say my wife's dogs," he smiles. "Because they have the cushiest time of any animal."