After 'Wildhood,' You'll Never See Teenagers the Same Way Again

Wildhood book cover and authors

You live with a pack of wolves.

There’s no other explanation: you hear growls coming from their bedrooms. They leave pawprints all over the house, your refrigerator is raided on a regular basis, and they often communicate with deadly stares. Sure, they might look like teenagers but nope: wolves. If it’s any consolation, as you’ll see in Wildhood” by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, real canis lupus parents have similar issues.

Not long ago, while visiting a cove off the California coast, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers watched as adolescent sea otters repeatedly seemed to dare one another to get near hungry, sharp-toothed sharks. The authors had previously written a book about the correlation between human and animal health and here was another clear parallel: animal adolescence and human adolescence look a lot alike.

Like humans, animals have a period in life that’s sandwiched between babyhood and adulthood, a time framed by four things that all creatures must learn: how to be safe, how to get along, how courtship works, and how to “launch.” Often, very young animals observe those things through the experiences of others but during adolescence – when adulthood looms and parental support may be on the wane – these challenges coalesce on a personal, individual level.

Risk-taking, the authors say, is seen in many instances of animal adolescence, from otters and bats to lemurs and humans. Risk brings fear, which teaches the risk-taker about danger, helps them to know where danger lies, and teaches self-confidence. It seems like a huge contradiction but one cannot learn to be safe without taking risks – and risk-taking is easier when you’re in a group in which you know your status and know how to get along with others.

Learning to get along extends to courtship, and adolescence is a universal time to learn the “language” of romance and how to read a “no.” That can be awkward, and human teens will be comforted to know that their animal counterparts are really no less gawky. Likewise, parents will be happy to see that animals nag and remind, too – and that every bit’s necessary, whether you’re a hyena, wolf, horse, or human.

It’s hard not to be charmed by stories of crooning whales or a sassy otter. It’s hard not to see wolves, cows, and fish with fresh eyes, and even your teen looks a whole lot different when you read “Wildhood.”

While parents may joke about the similarities between their teens and animals, authors Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers prove that it’s a real thing. It’s science-based but never dry – the authors add delight and curiosity to their tales, which may hold you spellbound – and readers are furthermore shown that there’s a true, plausible reason why adolescents across the board do the (sometimes dumb) things they do.

Take the authors up on their invitation to observe animals in the wild and in your own household, and you’ll never look at other beings the same again. “Wildhood” is for parents, nature lovers, and the curious alike. You’ll be wild for it.

“Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humand and Other Animals”
by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowersc.2019, Scribner
$28.00 / $37.00 Canada
368 pages

Photos of the authors by Alison Sheehy and Joanna DeGeneres

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When Terri Schlichenmeyer was three years old, her long-suffering mother taught Terri to read – mostly to get her out of Mom's hair – and the book most likely to be read was “Mumpsy Goes to Kindergarten.” That was eons ago, but it set a precedent; now Terri reads four to five books a week and writes book reviews for hundreds of newspapers and magazines around the world. She lives in a house on a hill in Wisconsin with two ferocious little dogs and 14,000 books – including about 4,000 trivia books, 2,000 history books, and, yes, "Mumpsy."