Horse sense: Acclaimed author explores animal consciousness

Carl Safina

Early humans knew that animals have emotions and cognitive abilities; today, most people just don’t see it, says award-winning ecologist Carl Safina. The Stony Brook University professor is the author of the New York Times best-seller Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel and the host of the public television series “Saving the Ocean.”

“The question isn’t when did science begin to understand these things, but when did humans forget?” says Safina. “We started out with this reverence … and somewhere along the way, we lost that connection.”

Safina will bring that compelling perspective to Asheville in a Wednesday, Feb. 17 lecture presented by the WaterRock Institute, a local nonprofit that also offers pastoral counseling and executive coaching. After his talk, he’ll sign copies of his book.

Heidi Campbell-Robinson, the institute’s founder and director, says the spiritual aspect of Safina’s work is what inspired her to bring him to Asheville. “I wanted to create a forum for engaged learning via workshops and talks; I wanted to offer life enrichment.”

Safina’s interest in such matters started early. At age 7, he persuaded his father to let him raise homing pigeons on the roof of their Brooklyn apartment building; he soon began to notice similarities between the animal and human worlds.

The birds lived in stacked peach crates; they left during the day and returned at night; they cared for their young. “It reminded me of all of the families living stacked in these apartment buildings, leaving to go about their business during the day, coming home at night, raising their families,” he says.

When his family moved out to Long Island, Safina witnessed the destruction of natural spaces to make way for more roads, more suburban homes and more shopping centers. Years later, he asked a group of award-winning environmentalists what had motivated them to follow that career path.

“Each one had childhood memories of a natural place — a marsh, a patch of forest, a meadow where they could just disappear,” he recalls. “Too many children don’t have access to that anymore. There just isn’t enough nature for people to sit in and just be.”

Even in places like Western North Carolina, says Safina, people are too busy to take advantage of the thousands of square miles of parklands and national forest and connect with wildlife.

Yet our very lives depend on the health of the environment, Safina maintains. His TV series explores solutions to the pollution and overfishing that are endangering the planet’s oceans. The nonprofit Safina Center’s sustainable seafood program helps those of us who aren’t marine biologists understand the connections between a healthy ocean, fishing, seafood and human health.

Human beings sit at the top of the food chain, and from that lofty perch, we’re reluctant to consider the emotional and cognitive abilities of the animals we’re exploiting, Safina asserts. In addition, he continues, people tend to misunderstand the biblical “dominion” humans were given over the animal world.

“If you’re given dominion over a beautiful home and gardens, you don’t torch the place: You care for it,” he points out, adding, “We have a responsibility toward animals and the planet.”


From the horse’s mouth

Carl Safina will speak on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at Lenoir-Rhyne University 36 Montford Ave. Reception starts at 5:30 p.m.; lecture begins at 6 p.m. Tickets ($20, $10 students with college ID) are available online at To learn more about the author, visit


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Horse sense: Acclaimed author explores animal consciousness

  1. boatrocker

    I agree with the title- all animals who are awake are conscious. Humor aside, this sounds like an interesting subject if the New Agey stuff is kept to a minimum. I’ve always believed Mr. Ed actually spoke and it wasn’t just peanut butter on the roof of his mouth. Should be a fun lecture to hear.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.