This is a beautiful book. Thomas writes gracefully and forthrightly and, clearly, judging by the many negative reviews of this book, her writing is not for the faint of heart. This is what I’d call “thick” ethnography; thick in the sense that she writes from a place that is in the thick of things.
Thomas has wonderful empathy and insight into dogs’ minds. She rightly challenges the all-too-human ban on “anthropomorphism.” She’s way nicer about about challenging that ban that I am. Thomas points out that humans are animals and, like all animals, we share common ancestors, have long sequences of genetic material in common, and have similar brain structures. So why wouldn’t we have similar emotions and cognitive abilities? To assume that humans are somehow unique is, in my view, precisely the hubris that has allowed us to dominate the planet–and to destroy it. While I wouldn’t care that we are destroying the planet if it were only a matter of humans dying out, the fact of the matter is we are taking all life forms down with us.
In “The Hidden Life” Thomas wanted to answer a relatively simple and straightforward question: what do dogs want? Again, humans tend to think they know everything and to know what is best for everyone (though in fact we haven’t a clue). Trained as an anthropologist, Thomas used the participant-observer method to find out what her dogs wanted. This entailed letting them, so to speak, run wild. She tracked the extent of their ranging by the calls she got from the people upon whose doorsteps the dogs ended up. (They’re smart: the travel far, but then let a human call home so they can get a ride.)
A lot of reviewers are really upset about this, stating (as if they know best) that Thomas doesn’t deserve pets. They’re correct: in Thomas’s view, pet “ownership” is a sort of slavery. That’s why it’s called ownership!
But I doubt the people who left angry reviews actually read the whole book. If they had, they’d have been left in a puddle of tears: the last half of this short book is very moving, tender-hearted, and full of insights about dogs’ minds and hearts.
I think if you can read this book understanding that it is nothing to do with being a “pet” “owner” and everything to do with being inquisitive and empathetic, you will, as I did, learn a lot about your best friends.