Becoming a Tiger: The Education of an Animal Child [NOOK Book]


From the co–author of the New York Times bestseller When Elephants Weep comes a book that uses true stories backed by scientific research to explore the way young animals discover their worlds and learn how to survive.

How does a baby animal figure out how to get around in the world? How much of what animals know is instinctive, and how much must they learn?

In Becoming a Tiger, bestselling author Susan McCarthy addresses these intriguing ...

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Becoming a Tiger: The Education of an Animal Child

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From the co–author of the New York Times bestseller When Elephants Weep comes a book that uses true stories backed by scientific research to explore the way young animals discover their worlds and learn how to survive.

How does a baby animal figure out how to get around in the world? How much of what animals know is instinctive, and how much must they learn?

In Becoming a Tiger, bestselling author Susan McCarthy addresses these intriguing matters, presenting fascinating and funny examples of animal behaviour in the laboratory and in the wild. McCarthy shows us how baby animals transform themselves from clueless kittens, clumsy cubs, or scrawny chicks into efficient predators, successful foragers, or deft nest–builders. From geese to mice, dolphins to orang–utans, bats to (of course) tigers, McCarthy's warm, amusing, and insightful examinations of animal life and developments provides a surprising window into the mental worlds of our fine fuzzy, furred, finned, and feathered friends.

oReaders will be fascinated by a close look at animal intelligence, learning, and family life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Although all animals come into the world with certain innate behaviors, such as sneezing, most life skills do need to be learned, says McCarthy, even things as simple as cramming fingers into one's mouth. Take Cody, an eight-week-old orangutan: "He wanted to put his fingers in his mouth and suck on them, but it was hard to get them to the right place," writes McCarthy, coauthor of the bestselling When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Life of Animals. After "waving his hand around, jamming it in his ear, [and] making expectant sucking noises with his mouth," he seemed confused. Baby animals like Cody, McCarthy explains, learn in a variety of ways, like trial and error, copying adults and conditioning. She divides the book into broad categories, such as finding food ("How to Make a Living"), avoiding predators ("How Not to Be Eaten") and communicating ("How to Get Your Point Across"), and then uses hundreds of examples gleaned from scientific journals, books and wildlife rehabilitators who care for orphaned animals to show how animals learn. McCarthy writes clearly and her penchant for humor (she explains early on that imprinting "will be discussed in scandalous detail later") makes the book an easy read, both for students of learning and those who can't get enough of television's Animal Planet. Agent, Stuart Krichevsky. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Having observed the activities of animal trainers, behavior experts, and their animal subjects some quite famous McCarthy (coauthor, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals) aims to show how those animals develop and mature. How, for instance, do chicks become expert nest-builders and tiger cubs formidable predators? She presents her findings in brief summaries, grouped into chapters on feeding, communication, breeding, and other functions. While illustrating the successes and failures of animal parents, zookeepers, and wildlife rehabilitators in rearing young animals to adulthood, she includes humorous asides and idiomatic headings, invoking anthropomorphic comparisons to dating, grocery shopping, and domestic life. Although many of the observations on animal learning fascinate, the funny comments and fragmented structure make this volume read more like a newspaper column than a science book. The author's approach strains credibility at times, as when she declares that a particular animal "realized" or "concluded" something when, technically, that would be impossible to determine. Long on examples but short on unifying themes or conclusions, this book is appropriate for larger public libraries that serve readers who are interested in animal behavior but want to avoid scientific jargon in favor of a lighter treatment of the subject. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/04.] Alvin Hutchinson, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-McCarthy synthesizes a great deal of research in this entertaining overview. Many of the same cases turn up again and again as she examines such topics as whether or not animals can learn language, how they imprint on their parents, and how predators learn to hunt while prey learns to avoid being eaten. Her writing is straightforward and anecdotal, but it is supported by copious notes and an extensive bibliography. The studies include not only creatures observed in the wild, but also those raised by wildlife rehabilitators and by humans as pets. This fascinating book is sure to pique the interest of science students and animal lovers.-Susan Salpini, TASIS-The American School in England Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Science journalist McCarthy (co-author, When Elephants Weep, 1995) details the interplay between nature and nurture, instinct and learning, in her broad, synthesizing overview of the way animals learn to be animals. Often tinged with humor ("This species of cuckoo has refined its criminality to a remarkable extent, at least in southern Spain") and written with an eye for clarity, the text starts with the big picture, asking whether the system of learning is open or closed, and then zeroes in on the particulars, both demonstrable and theoretical. McCarthy introduces the vehicles by which animals go about making their way in the world: social learning and facilitation, observation, imitation, accustomization, trial and error, socialization, habituation, practice, emulation, Pavlovian and Skinnerian conditioning, the role of play. What most interests her is what happens when the complexity of the environment demands more than what can be reliably supplied by the genome. How does an otter know to dry off rather than succumb to hypothermia? What are the consequences of cross-fostering, as when a rabbit is raised in the company of dogs? A heavy compendium of animal-learning anecdotes buttresses the theories: yes, McCarthy explains how a tiger becomes a tiger, but she also wonders: What about those frillfin gobies? The author underscores the lengths to which scientists go. "Researchers tried hard to instill fear of flowers in monkeys, using the same techniques that had instilled fear of snakes," she writes, "and they couldn't do it." But who would cast a stone at them for failure? What makes this a pleasure to read is the unadulterated delight McCarthy takes in her research, from the "ravenEinstein" of Bernd Heinrich to her fellow humans, great innovators because they are "remarkably ill-equipped with innate technologies." A prodigious summation of accepted and conjectural animal-learning capabilities, agreeably witty and bell-clear, though it includes all the exceptions and complications. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky/Stuart Krichevsky Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061738845
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/17/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 432
  • File size: 657 KB

Meet the Author

Susan McCarthy is co-author (with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson) of the New York Times bestseller When Elephants Weep. She holds degrees in biology and journalism, writes regularly for, and has contributed to Best American Science Writing. She lives in San Francisco.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Learning? ix
1 How to Do or Know Something New: Ways of Learning 1
2 Learning the Basics: How to Crawl, Walk, Climb, Swim, and Fly 31
3 Learning Your Species 59
4 How to Get Your Point Across: Being Vocal, Being Verbal, and Otherwise Communicating 91
5 How to Make a Living 141
6 How Not to Be Eaten 183
7 Invention, Innovation, and Tools: How to Do Something New, Possibly with a Stick 209
8 How to Get Cultured 245
9 Parenting and Teaching: How to Pass It On 273
10 What Learning Tells Us About Intelligence 311
Conclusion: Secrets of a Tiger's Success 347
Notes 351
Bibliography 375
Acknowledgments 399
Index 401
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First Chapter

Becoming a Tiger
How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild

Chapter One

How to Do or Know Something New: Ways of Learning

Studying killer whales off the Canadian Pacific coast, researcher Alexandra Morton spotted an eaglet learning that not all birds are alike. The nest he had hatched in was in a fir tree by the shore. Gazing keenly about, the eaglet saw a great blue heron standing on floating kelp. Deciding to do likewise, the eaglet flew down to alight on the kelp. Instead of standing on it with splayed toes as the heron did, he griped it like a bough. The seaweed sank when the young bird landed on it, and he plunged in. He struggled free, but didn't give up the project. "Again and again the eagle alighted and sank to his breast, flapping wildly to avoid drowning," writes Morton. It took all morning before the eaglet abandoned hope of becoming the Terror of the Kelp.

An experimental process of trial and error persuaded the young bald eagle that at least one perching place wasn't for him. Some baby animals are born with most of the skills they will use in their lives, and need to gather very little information to make their way through life. Others must learn many skills and collect a great deal of information if they are to survive.

There are many ways to learn. An orphaned fox cub at a rehabilitation center who stops panicking every time someone puts a food pan in its cage is becoming habituated. An owlet flapping its wings and trying to fly to a higher branch is practicing. Wrestling puppies come to understand social relationships by playing. A tiger cub with newly opened eyes is learning to see by forming neural connections. A dayold chick that begins foraging by pecking indiscriminately at seeds, bugs, and its own toes (and switches to pecking only at seeds and bugs) is using trial and error. When a young raven, cawing fiercely, joins with the rest of the flock in mobbing a creature it has never seen before, the fledgling is undergoing social conditioning. These are all forms of learning.

Researchers have carefully examined many of the ways animals learn, and have focused a lot of attention on which ways to learn are available to all kinds of animals and which are special to only a few top-flight species, particularly the human species. But that animals of every kind learn in at least some ways is undisputed.

Why learn?

A young rabbit being closely pursued by a predator zigzags crazily from side to side. The rabbit covers less ground this way, but because it's nimbler than a big wolf or bobcat or eagle, it stands a chance of getting away by dodging. This is an excellent strategy that might not occur to me if a monster were suddenly hot on my heels. The young rabbit doesn't have to learn zigzagging -- a rabbit's life is short, and if it had to learn its evasive tactics would be even shorter. This is great, unless the rabbit stupidly jumps out in front of your car, realizes that it's in trouble, and starts zigzagging down the road in front of the car. If rabbits lived a long time, and were protected from predators by their parents while they slowly learned about the world, we might hope they would come up with a better way not to be hit by cars. (How about not jumping in front of them in the first place, pal?) Not having time, rabbits are born ready to zigzag.

Being prepared ahead of time or thinking on your feet?

Why go to the trouble of learning if you can just be born knowing how to dodge? You may dodge when it's inappropriate, like the rabbit in front of the car. You may be unable to learn new strategies, like crossing the road after the car comes, not before. Species vary tremendously in how much of their behavioral repertoire is learned. The zoologist Ernst Mayr proposed the metaphor of closed and open programs. Mayr defines a closed program as one which does not allow appreciable modifications, and an open program as one "which allows for additional input during the lifespan of its owner."

An animal with a closed program recognizes mates without having to learn what their species looks like, usually by one or two key features or a ritualized display. An animal with an open program learns what prospective mates should look like, often by observing its own family. A frog doesn't need to learn what a suitable frog mate looks like, but an owl must learn to spot a suitable partner. Many animals have closed programs for some aspects of their behavior and open for other aspects.

I once raised two small Virginia opossums whose mother had been hit by a car, and they operated largely on closed programs. Things they simply knew included how to hiss (showing 50 teeth), how to curl up in a ball, how to hang by their tails, how to beat up a cat that jumped them, and how to catch fledgling birds. They knew that fledgling birds and rotten apples were good to eat (they thought almost everything was good to eat). They knew they should waddle along, sniffing, until they smelled food. They knew that climbing upward was a good way to be safe.

They were open to some new information. They learned that I was a friend who would protect them, and so when I took them to the woods, thinking they'd like to explore, they whirled in alarm and clambered up my legs-because they hadn't learned to know the woods. They learned that I wouldn't really let them fall if they refused to hang by their tails. They learned that my dog and my cat wouldn't bother them. And that was about all.

Species with short lifespans, like opossums, have little time to learn, so they are apt to have more closed than programs open ...

Becoming a Tiger
How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild
. Copyright © by Susan McCarthy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 1, 2011

    Funny and Entertaining

    I found this book to be extremely funny and entertaining but at the same time it is completely educational. Susan Mccarthy does a great job at not making this book boring. As you read it the author inserts some funny example or comment that makes the book come to life. it is as if you are face to face having an interesting conversation about animal behavior. The author also has excellent organization. She starts off with the basic like: "Is everything instictive?" and "Why have to learn?". She then goes into specific examples of learning and teaching on part of humans and animals. She does and excellent job referencing the people she uses in her book. All in all,I found the book to be highly educational and also highly funny.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2004

    Entertaining Learning Experience

    Almost every living creature has the ability to learn in some form or fashion. Imitation, trial and error, conditioning, play, and observation are just a few of the different types of learning that McCarthy covers through anecdotes and research results. From birds to primates to lowly worms, the methods and reasons that different animals learn what they need to survive proves to be a fascinating topic. Animals clearly have both innate behaviors and learned behaviors and it's very interesting to see where the two intersect. Becoming a Tiger is broadly broken out into chapters that cover different areas important to survival: knowing your species, what and how to eat, how to get around, how not to be eaten, who makes a good mate, and so forth. It's fairly humbling to find out just how many types of animals use tools, since that used to be a benchmark for human and then primate supremacy. Many of the stories from rehabilitators and field researches are very touching. It's nice that McCarthy tries to stick with research results from non-harmful scientific studies, and when she does reference an older, less-humane study she does so apologetically. McCarthy's sense of humor shines through in wry asides and tongue-in-cheek chapter headings. Her writing style is easy to follow, even when she delves now and then into scientific terminology. While chatty in tone and geared towards the general reader, McCarthy backs up her information with impressive sections of notes and bibliography. Her passion for the subject shines through and makes this a highly recommended read for anyone interested in learning or animals.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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