Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster was by far one of the most unique and intriguing books I have read.
Foster, a veterinarian with a doctorate in medical law and ethics from the University of Cambridge, decided he wanted to really understand “the other”, in other words the nonhumans, the beasts as he calls them.
So what did he do? He went to live among them to see what their lives were really like in order to understand, in turn, the human experience even more. Foster chose five animals to experience life with: a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a swift. Each respectively representing the ancient elements: earth, fire, water, air.
“Nature has generally been about humans striding colonially around, describing what they see from six feet above the ground, or about humans pretending that animals wear clothes. This book is an attempt to see the world from the height of naked Welsh badgers, London foxes, Exmoor otters, Oxford swifts, and Scottish and West Country red deer; to learn what it is like to shuffle or swoop through a landscape that is mainly olfactory or auditory rather than visual.”
My favorite chapter had to be Otter. Since there has been a surge in popularity of otters, due to all the cute videos of them sleeping and holding each other’s paws or playing with their favorite rocks, it was really fascinating to read that they actually are not so cute and fuzzy as they appear. (Similar to dolphins, who are actually quite aggressive predators i.e. should not be locked up at aquariums…!) Foster writes:
“Being an otter is like being on speed. In suburban life the nearest I can legally get to it is to stay up for a couple of nights, drinking a double espresso every couple of hours, before having a cold bath followed by a huge breakfast of still-twitching sushi and then a nap, and then keep repeating until I die – which I would do most authentically by running in front of a car, or from septicemia from an abdominal wound…they spend more than three quarters of their lives asleep. That’s more than eighteen hours a day. The remaining six hours are spent in frenetic killings.”
Aside from the year after birth that they spend with their mothers, otters live relatively solo lives going from river to river searching for food. It really is a go, go, go type of lifestyle and they truly are fastidious creatures.
I loved this book for its uniqueness and open-mindedness. Foster spends the first chapter explaining that there may be faults with his methods, and if you disagree with him about his approach to animals and his theories on what divides humans and beasts, he does his best to explain how he’s arrived at his conclusions. Although I read it primarily for the animal aspects, there is plenty of science in this book as well. I have never been to Wales, or Oxford or West Africa, but after Foster’s expeditions and experiments and thorough descriptions of the environments he lived in, I now feel like I have.
For anyone who has ever believed they have had a special connection with animals, but could never quite explain or understand it, this book is for you.