Cover image for Being a beast : adventures across the species divide / Charles Foster.
Being a beast : adventures across the species divide / Charles Foster.

First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Picador/Metropolitan Books, 2016.
Physical Description:
235 pages ; 22 cm
Becoming a beast -- Earth 1 : badger -- Water : otter -- Fire : fox -- Earth 2 : red deer -- Air : swift.
To test the limits of our ability to inhabit lives that are not our own, Charles Foster set out to know the ultimate other: the nonhumans. To do that, he chose five animals and lived alongside them, sleeping as they slept, eating what they ate, learning to sense the landscape through the senses they used. In this lyrical, intimate, and completely radical look at the lives of animals, Charles Foster mingles neuroscience and psychology, nature writing and memoir, and ultimately presents an inquiry into the human experience in our world, carried out by exploring the full range of the life around us.
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1 Bob Harkins Branch 591.5 FOS Book Adult General Collection
1 Bob Harkins Branch 591.5 FOS Book Adult General Collection

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A passionate naturalist explores what it's really like to be an animal--by living like them

How can we ever be sure that we really know the other? To test the limits of our ability to inhabit lives that are not our own, Charles Foster set out to know the ultimate other: the non-humans, the beasts. And to do that, he tried to be like them, choosing a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a swift. He lived alongside badgers for weeks, sleeping in a sett in a Welsh hillside and eating earthworms, learning to sense the landscape through his nose rather than his eyes. He caught fish in his teeth while swimming like an otter; rooted through London garbage cans as an urban fox; was hunted by bloodhounds as a red deer, nearly dying in the snow. And he followed the swifts on their migration route over the Strait of Gibraltar, discovering himself to be strangely connected to the birds.

A lyrical, intimate, and completely radical look at the life of animals--human and other-- Being a Beast mingles neuroscience and psychology, nature writing and memoir to cross the boundaries separating the species. It is an extraordinary journey full of thrills and surprises, humor and joy. And, ultimately, it is an inquiry into the human experience in our world, carried out by exploring the full range of the life around us.

Author Notes

Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. He is a qualified veterinarian, teaches medical law and ethics, and is a practicing barrister. Much of his life has been spent on expeditions: he has run a 150-mile race in the Sahara, skied to the North Pole, and suffered injuries in many desolate and beautiful landscapes. He has written on travel, evolutionary biology, natural history, anthropology, and philosophy.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Nature writing has generally been about humans striding colonially around," writes Foster, a qualified veterinarian and research fellow at Oxford University. He instead opts for the four-legged approach, writing about nature through his experience mimicking the lifestyles of badgers, otters, foxes, red deer, and swifts. His book is an extraordinary account of his time spent traversing the forest near his home, digging into the earth to build an underground sett to live in as a badger (which also involved eating lots of earthworms), enlisting six children to help replicate the otter's use of dung to mark territory (and the otter's extraordinary metabolic rate), and substituting himself in lieu of a deer being hunted by hounds. In lesser hands this could come off as trite or patronizing, but Foster is quick to acknowledge his shortcomings and errors in perspective regarding his project, and he projects a healthy sense of humor; his account of encountering a police officer while attempting to recreate a fox's experience by sleeping next to a busy road is particularly rich. This approach, along with his willingness to address and avoid the temptation for anthropomorphism, makes his book interesting and informative. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

IT'S NOT EASY being a theriomorph. The gods of myth never seem to break a sweat when they sprout an elephant head, goat hooves or swan's wings. But few of us mere mortals can take on an animal's nature so effortlessly. My own early experiments in this transformation involved a strange quadrupedal scuttle meant to mimic the stride of my childhood dog, a collie mix named Penny The gait slowed me down, gave me a head rush and produced grass stains on my culottes that infuriated my mother. Beyond the suburbs, traditional shamanic uses of hallucinogens, such as ayahuasca, are said to facilitate such metamorphoses. But here again, a novice's pants might require more than spot cleaning, this time from the explosive biological side effects. The messiness of morphing is a pungent theme of "Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide," a meditative romp that leaves you laughing out loud (and occasionally cursing in anger) even as you soak up the spray of science. The author, Charles Foster, is an eccentric, big-brained Briton who enjoys success as a lawyer, a veterinarian and an Oxford academic (with a Ph.D. in medical law and ethics from Cambridge). But he yearns to be other: a swift, a badger, a fox or perhaps an otter or a red deer. He is a lifelong naturalist, and he has a simple dream, as he puts it: "I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing." So he devises a series of experiments. To become a "man-badger," he abandons his home for several weeks to eat worms and live in an underground burrow in Wales that writhes around him, "as active as a uterus." To understand urban foxes, he takes to the East End of London to wallow "incontinently" in his own mess and to eat street scraps and trash - pizza, fried rice, chips. As part of imitating otters, he and his children (he has six of them) relieve themselves outdoors in the country and try to distinguish one another's bowel movements by smell. And to experience the feeling of overgrown hooves, he stops cutting his toenails for months during his red deer phase. Polite half-efforts are not for him. He's seeking vivid, visceral, epic shape-shifts. And how he goes about it is spectacularly unconventional, though as my own life as a dog helps illustrate, there is no such thing as a conventional, or perhaps more to the point, graceful approach. Steeped in scholarship, yet directed by his own quirky mysticism, Foster brilliantly takes on questions of animal consciousness, cognition, emotion and theory of mind. "Species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous," he tells us. "Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman." First, for badgers, the beefy cousins of weasels, Foster and his son head to a friend's farm. "Quite a lot of being a badger consisted simply in allowing the wood to do to us what it did to a badger; being there when it rained; keeping badgers' hours; being cramped underground." The bigger hurdle is taking in the world the way a badger does - with his nose. In an effort to become "a more olfactory creature," Foster has prepped at home by blindfolding himself and navigating not by the furniture that had been shifted anyway, but by the scents of the cheeses he had placed in the corners. In the wild, he travels on all fours, making a scent map of badger territory. He does cheat with a backhoe, a headlamp and food deliveries, but his friend and personal heckler, Burt, offers to compensate by setting the dogs on him and trying to run him over on the road. All the while, Foster celebrates the earthiness of animal life. He's like a learned naturalist who has swallowed a fistful of magic mushrooms, providing febrile clarity and doing for science what Technicolor did for the Bible. He eats a dead squirrel scraped off the road, describes otter anal jelly - "a rich, marmalade-like substance that probably eases the passage of sharp fish bones through vulnerable gut" - and compares the taste of different maggots. It wasn't squeamishness that got to me, but a different kind of shock. I just couldn't square the author who wrote so gracefully early in the book about the thoughts and feelings of animals - including those exhibited by "dogs playing or cats smooching" - with the one who, in his words, hates cats and believes they are best in the hands of bad taxidermists. Foster goes further with otters, seeming to channel Descartes when he questions their ability to feel pain. His opinion, he says, "has no neurobiological basis at all." But still, he writes, "I can't help my intuition. And I don't apologize for it much." Ruminants, horses and pigs, too, he says, are "machines." We don't even need to turn to modern science to reject this. In his fine book "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," Carl Safina quotes Voltaire: "What a pitiful, what a sorry thing to have said that animals are machines bereft of understanding and feeling." Yet, after this, in the last chapter, Foster returns to conjurer, on the wings of swifts - the "aerial sight hounds" who can fly for years without touching earth. It is here that the cosmic comedian is moved to tears. He is awaiting the swifts' arrival in Oxford, worried that they are late, and when the birds suddenly appear, he weeps. "Because the world still works." When the swifts depart for Africa again, he will follow them, "across the channel and across France, noting down slavishly - like a bereaved disciple looking for relics or holy places - the things the swifts might have seen or smelled or heard as they came this way" He sees the connectedness of all living things playing out with swifts at the center and observes, "I suppose I was a gnat's breath away from psychosis." Is it folly or divinity at work when trying to become a beast? Of the impossibility of changing into a swift, Foster says, "I might as well try to be God." Yes, precisely. But a god, we hope, who blesses otters and cats too. To understand urban foxes, Foster wallows in his own mess and eats trash. VICKI CONSTANTINE CROKE is the author of "Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II." She covers animal issues for the WBUR/NPR news program "Here & Now."

Library Journal Review

While myriad scientists and naturalists have penned books about animals after studying them in their natural habitats, Foster (medical law & ethics, Oxford Univ.) writes from their points of view after attempting to approximate their lives in the wild. He believes people cannot truly know animals by watching them, but that we must see the world as they do. The author lived as a badger in a makeshift den, eating worms and observing the environment by scent; swam as an otter, trying to catch fish with his mouth; adopted the habits of an urban fox, hiding in backyards, then foraging for food in the garbage; and followed the migrations of swifts and imagined how it must feel to live in the air. Woven through the lyrical narrative are neuroscience, facts about the creatures, and philosophy. VERDICT This book's fascinating premise, with its unique perspective of how animals perceive their surroundings, will be of interest to scientists, naturalists, and those who enjoy reading about natural history.-Sue O'Brien, Downers Grove P.L., IL © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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