Cover image for Becoming a tiger : how baby animals learn to live in the wild
Becoming a tiger : how baby animals learn to live in the wild
McCarthy, Susan.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2004]

Physical Description:
xi, 418 pages ; 24 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 8.7 26.0 86334.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QL785 .M45 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QL785 .M45 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



It's a jungle out there. And survival is never a given. Somehow, a blind, defenseless tiger kitten must evolve into a deadly, efficient predator; a chimp must learn to distinguish edible plants from lethal poisons; a baby buffalo must be able to pick its mother out of a herd of hundreds. Contrary to common belief, not everything is "hardwired" -- or instinctual -- in the animal kingdom. Many skills a wild animal needs to thrive, to grow, to be what nature intended, must be developed through play, painstaking teaching, and often treacherous trial and error. The coming-of-age processes of the myriad creatures of plain, forest, ocean, and jungle are truly fascinating and often astonishing natural events.

In Becoming a Tiger, Susan McCarthy, co-author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller When Elephants Weep, offers readers an in-depth look into the amazing ways baby animals learn not only about themselves, but about their world and ours -- and how to survive in both. Based on extensive scientific research done in the lab, in controlled "natural" settings, as well as in the wild, her findings provide stunning new insights into the lives and development of Earth's nonhuman inhabitants -- not only tigers, but lions, bears, bats, rats, birds, dolphins, whales, apes, elephants, and dozens of other species.

Sharing stories and discoveries at once captivating, funny, breathtaking, provocative, and heartwarming, Susan McCarthy carries us on a remarkable journey into untamed places, immersing us in the fascinating, complex, and hitherto unimagined societies and cultures of the beasts and birds. Along the way she shines a brilliant new light on subjects scientists, biologists, and zoologists have only begun to explore, revealing startling truths about the behavior, and sometimes humanlike foibles, of creatures great and small.

Warm, informative, and beautifully written, Becoming a Tiger is an enthralling reading experience for animal lovers everywhere. In the transformation tales of playful pups, big-footed cubs, and scrawny chicks becoming deadly hunters, able foragers, and deft nest-builders are valuable and enriching life lessons for members of our own inquisitive, ever-developing species.

Author Notes

Susan McCarthy holds degrees in biology and journalism, writes regularly for, and has contributed to Best American Science Writing. She lives in San Francisco

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

How do baby animals become competent adults? In answering this question, McCarthy (coauthor of the well-received When Elephants Weep 0 1995) provides an extensive introduction to how animals learn. In a humorous, anecdotal style, she uses a phenomenal number of scientific studies to illustrate the ways that animals figure out how to function in their worlds. Understanding the ways animals learn comes first, and the "nature versus nurture" debate is shown to be only part of the equation, as animals learn in different ways for different reasons. One of the basic things a baby animal must learn is how to get from one place to another in a manner appropriate to its species. Other basics involve learning to recognize your own species, to communicate, to find food, and not0 to become some other species' food. McCarthy discusses species as various as horses, bonobos, zebra finches, and fruit-fly maggots to illustrate the learning process. A comprehensive notes section leads the reader to an encyclopedic 24-page bibliography. An extremely readable primer. --Nancy Bent Copyright 2004 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Having joined forces with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson to explain When Elephants Weep, McCarthy goes it alone to consider how they grow up. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild by Susan McCarthy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Learning?p. ix
1 How to Do or Know Something New: Ways of Learningp. 1
2 Learning the Basics: How to Crawl, Walk, Climb, Swim, and Flyp. 31
3 Learning Your Speciesp. 59
4 How to Get Your Point Across: Being Vocal, Being Verbal, and Otherwise Communicatingp. 91
5 How to Make a Livingp. 141
6 How Not to Be Eatenp. 183
7 Invention, Innovation, and Tools: How to Do Something New, Possibly with a Stickp. 209
8 How to Get Culturedp. 245
9 Parenting and Teaching: How to Pass It Onp. 273
10 What Learning Tells Us About Intelligencep. 311
Conclusion: Secrets of a Tiger's Successp. 347
Notesp. 351
Bibliographyp. 375
Acknowledgmentsp. 399