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The Beasts Within

Girls as peacocks and boys as a pack of wolves--a writer scans the Newport Beach scene and sees animal behaviors translated into human interaction.

June 14, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Have you ever noticed how people tend to resemble animals?

Roy Feinson of Newport Beach has.

We refer to people as foxy, slothful and catty. People work like horses, eat like pigs and are as stubborn as mules. And who hasn't felt like monkeying around?

But there's more to it than these superficial behaviors, says Feinson, who believes that a more complex animal personality resides within each of us.

In "The Animal in You" (St. Martin's Griffin; $10.95), Feinson offers a way to discover your animal personality and gain insight into your social habits, love life, career and relationships.

"The book really offers the reader a new way of understanding him or herself and the relationships that they form in their work and in their personal lives," said Feinson, 41, a computer software designer who studied zoology at the University of Port Elizabeth in his native South Africa.

"One thing I'd do is hang out by the watering holes and see animals coming and going and see how the species interacted," said Feinson, who turned animal gazing into people watching after moving to Newport Beach a decade ago.

From the vantage point of the upstairs balcony of his beachfront apartment, "I'd watch people coming and going, and it struck me that the same behaviors I saw in South Africa with the animals were being translated into the people's behavior here.

"For example, I was watching some girls strutting their stuff just as peacocks might behave: 'Look at me. This is how I get through life, by being attractive to others, and I need attention.' "

He also saw young boys demonstrating wolf behavior as they "walked by in their little groups, or packs, constantly sort of high-fiving each other and reassuring one another and using that group energy to go on the hunt, as it were."

Then there were the walruses: "the big-bellied, sunburned men who just want to sit by the water and laze about, and that's how they deal with life: Don't engage it, just enjoy it."

About a year and a half ago, Feinson said, "it hit me how strong these connections were. There is definitely a biological reason for this."

Feinson said the key component is something called parallel evolution: Unrelated species separated by vast distances often evolve corresponding behavioral and physical characteristics to take advantage of available niches.

Just as there is a porcupine--a small animal with sharp barbs--on land, Feinson said, so too are there fish in the ocean and creatures in the insect world that have evolved quills.

"In human society we're no different," he said, "and certain individuals have evolved sharp barbs" in the form of a prickly, acerbic personality in which sarcasm and wit are their primary defense mechanisms.

"In all these examples, the animal that evolves these quills is a smaller, otherwise defenseless animal, because, clearly, if it was large and had claws it wouldn't need to evolve quills," he said.

"The point I want to make is the physical characteristics of the human being influence their behavioral characteristics, which is why the test takes into account your physical constructs as well as your behavioral characteristics."

Feinson said he developed his Animal Personality Test through software he wrote after testing about 100 people. "The test builds a profile of somebody's personality and then matches you up with a corresponding animal profile."

In discovering the animal in you, he said, "you learn about yourself and also about how you interact with your mate or boss. Clearly, if you're a mouse or a dog you don't want to hang with a cat. It helps you in your relationships, your work, and it really helps you to understand yourself."

So what animal is Feinson?

"Actually, I turned out to be a fox, the fox being a carnivorous animal," he said. "I'm pretty much a go-getter, but I'm not a large carnivore, so I have to use my wits to succeed in life rather than the sheer force of my personality."

Feinson said the more he reads about foxes the more personal insight he gains.

"We talk about foxes being charming," he said. "If you watch foxes in the wild, you'll see they sometimes aren't fast enough to catch a rabbit in their own environment, so they resort to other techniques. They will sit around and engage in playful behavior. They'll chase their own tails and do little tumbling rolls, and the rabbits are sort of charmed by this. They come out to investigate, and bam!"

A powerful wolf or lion needn't resort to such slyness, he said. "They just go out and hammer their prey head on."

Feinson's book features a pull-up tab on the cover that places various animal heads on human bodies.

"It is whimsical, and it doesn't take itself too seriously," he said, "but because there is a strong underlying biological structure behind it, there is this thread of recognition."

A second Feinson book, "Animal Attraction," is due out early next year.

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