Book review: Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals by Jonathan Balcombe Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp, £20

KELLY is clever , and she loves to eat fish. Kelly is also unusually tidy: she has been brought up to expect extra portions of fish whenever she clears away other people's litter.

But Kelly is devious too: she has taken to hoarding waste paper and tearing off little pieces so she can demand extra helpings when she wants. A typical modern brat, you might say: cynical, selfish and manipulative. The only thing is, Kelly is a dolphin.

This is just one of hundreds of anecdotes that Jonathan Balcombe has brought together as evidence that animals have far more in common with us humans than we might like to suppose.

As well as cunning and intelligence, they can also show kindness and sensitivity. When the matriarch of an elephant family in Kenya became ill and fell to the ground, the leader of another group came to her aid, using her tusks to lift the old lady to her feet; and when she eventually died, elephants came from far and wide to observe the body, and, it would seem, pay their respects.

Animals also have a remarkable capacity for gratitude. Take the humpback whale that got entangled in crab-traps off the coast of California a few years ago: she waited stoically while a group of divers hacked away at the ropes, winking collusively with her dinner-plate eyes, and when at last she was free, she nuzzled all her rescuers, giving each of them a thank-you kiss before swimming away.

Animals can act ethically too, or at least unselfishly – like the dolphin who found a couple of whales stranded up a narrow creek, and gallantly escorted them 200 yards back to the open sea; or the elephants who kept one of their comrades alive by placing food directly in her mouth after she lost her trunk to a hunter's snare.

But Balcombe means to do more than charm us with his tales about the inner lives of animals. He wants to protest against what he sees as an unbroken tradition of human cruelty and indifference.

Throughout recorded history, he argues, we have always presumed to have a monopoly on reason, consciousness, sensibility and moral worth. But that is an absurd exaggeration: we were all brought up with stories about the kindness of animals and human-animal friendships, and there can't be many pets who are underestimated by their owners.

Nor should we assume we would be nicer to animals if we gave them more credit for their complex and interesting minds, or if we recognised their susceptibility to fear and pain.

People who go in for bull-fighting or bear-baiting do not ignore the spectacle of suffering: it is precisely what they enjoy.

There is no reason to think animals would be better off if we treated them more like people: our inhumanity to animals is nothing compared with our inhumanity to each other.