The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint - Marc Bekoff (2010)
REASON 2. Animals Think and Feel
“It is remarkable how often the sounds that birds make suggest the emotions that we might feel in similar circumstances: soft notes like lullabies while calmly warming their eggs or nestlings; mournful cries while helplessly watching an intruder at their nests; harsh or grating sounds while threatening or attacking an enemy… . Birds so frequently respond to events in tones such as we might use that we suspect their emotions are similar to our own.”
— Alexander Skutch, The Minds of Birds
IF ANIMALS COULD CONVINCE HUMANS of only one thing with their manifesto, it would be that they think and feel. Animals are sentient, and they care about what happens to them. In their various ways, animals are passionate, deliberate, logical, self-aware, and have individual personalities.
Animals are, in other words, a lot like humans, even if they are not the same as humans. The emotions of our fellow animals are not necessarily identical to ours, and there’s no reason to think they should be. Their hearts and stomachs and kidneys differ from ours, and those of one species differ from those of another species, but this doesn’t stop us from recognizing that animals have hearts, stomachs, and kidneys that serve the same functions as ours. There’s dog-joy and chimpanzee-joy and pig-joy, and dog-grief, chimpanzee-grief, and pig-grief. Just because other animals feel differently does not mean that those animals don’t feel.
At a meeting in Palermo, Italy, a biologist told me about his dog, who for twelve years was friends with a mule. After the mule died, the dog followed the cart in which the corpse was being carried, and when the mule was buried, the dog slowly walked over to the grave of his friend and wailed. The biologist had never seen his dog do this before. The biologist told me that before my lecture on animal emotions, he ‘d been hesitant to tell this story. After all, how could he know what his dog’s behavior meant, if anything? But after hearing stories of animals ranging from turtles to magpies to elephants who displayed grief, he was now certain his dog had also grieved the loss of his longtime friend.
Anthropomorphism: Are We Just Making It Up?
Anthropomorphism is attributing human characteristics to animals and inanimate objects. Is this what we’re doing when we sense that animals are expressing sadness, anger, or joy? Are we just projecting human emotions onto them? It’s a valid concern. Humans have a history of solipsism, seeing anger in a hot wind and malice in shark attacks. We have a way of making everything about us.
In this case, though, we more often make the opposite mistake: we prefer to discount what is right before our eyes and consistently underestimate what animals know, do, think, and feel. Consider, for instance, that our human likes and dislikes are in fact useful; they help us make successful choices and move through the world, and animals have the same type of emotional compass. Further, animal feelings aren’t private, hidden, or secret. The emotional lives of animals are very public. Animals display exactly how they feel about what is happening to them. Instead of recognizing this for what it is, scientists especially have argued that we can’t “know” what animals think and feel. Yet today, this is no longer simply a conservative interpretation of the scientific data; it is an excuse to retain the status quo and prop up the idea of human superiority. Historically, humans have differentiated themselves as higher than other animals in large part based on the special quality of our feelings and thoughts. However, denying animal emotions now flies in the face of a growing mountain of solid, challenging, and exciting scientific research — more of which is appearing almost every day.
For example, mammals share the same brain structures that are important in processing emotions; this alone suggests that they serve a similar function. Interestingly, as we rehabilitate animals who have experienced trauma in zoos or through habitat encroachment, we are finding that many psychological treatments for humans also can work for animals, precisely because of our shared neural structures. In a 2008 essay in the New York Times, James Vlahos wrote about “pill-popping pets.” He noted that we give the same pills to animals that we give to ourselves to relieve their psychological distress and trauma, such as abuse, aggression, separation anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Vlahos asks: “If the strict mechanistic Cartesian view were true — that animals are essentially flesh-and-blood automatons, lacking anything resembling human emotion, memory and consciousness — then why do animals develop mental illnesses that eerily resemble human ones and that respond to the same medications? What can behavioral pharmacology teach us about animal minds and, ultimately, our own? “
Birds are quickly being recognized as equal to mammals in terms of cognitive ability. Magpies have a sense of self and some birds plan future meals. Burrowing owls attract their favorite beetle meals by placing mammal dung around their homes, and New Caledonian crows are better than chimpanzees at making and using tools. We know that all birds have a similar version of what is called the language gene, FOXP2. In the zebra finch, its protein is 98 percent identical to ours, differing by just eight amino acids. Constance Scharff at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany, discovered that levels of FOXP2 expression are highest during early life, which is when most of their song learning occurs. In canaries, birds who learn songs throughout their lives, levels of this protein increase annually and reach their peak during the late summer months, when they rework their songs.
We’re trained to think our personal impressions are too subjective, and therefore must not be right, but when it comes to animal emotions, this assumption is wrong. Extensive research by ethologist Françoise Wemelsfelder and her colleagues has shown that even regular folks (as opposed to trained scientists) do a consistently accurate job of identifying animal emotions. Research by Audrey Schwartz Rivers, who runs animal-assisted programs for at-risk youth, agrees with Wemelsfelder, and other researchers have come to the same conclusion — whether people are observing wolves, dogs, or cats, they discern emotions nearly as well as trained researchers. This means that animal emotions really aren’t well hidden and that humans have a natural ability to discern emotions in other species.
Animals aren’t emotional beings because we want them to be but because they must be for their own survival — just like us. And what is so interesting is that our intuitions are being strongly supported by scientific research — science is finally catching up with what we ‘ve sensed all along.
Monkeys Teach! Whales Steal! Goldfish Remember!
There’s so much going on right now in the field of cognitive ethology — or the study of animal minds — that it’s hard to keep up. Did you know that monkeys teach their kids to floss their teeth? That magpies recognize their reflection? That bees display consciousness, and crabs don’t just feel pain but remember it? Each of these discoveries is exciting on its own, but taken together, they drive home the truth that animals think and feel, just in their own various, distinctive, marvelous, surprising ways.
However, it’s worth remembering that it’s only for humans that this remains headline news. Animals, if they could, would no doubt tell us much more about their abilities, and humans have had ample evidence for a long time. Consider, for instance, the ability of cormorants to count: since the 1930s, certain Chinese fishermen have used cormorants to catch fish for them. This cooperative arrangement is striking in itself, but in the 1970s, a researcher discovered that some fishermen rewarded their birds by allowing them to eat a fish after every seventh fish caught. Once each cormorant had caught his or her quota, the bird would not fish again or even move till he or she was fed the fish. As the researcher noted, “One is forced to conclude that these highly intelligent birds can count up to seven.”
Here is only a small sampling of recent findings:
Crabs “Sense and Remember Pain”
BBC News, March 27, 2009
“Queen’s University says new research it conducted shows crabs not only suffer pain but retain a memory of it. The study … looked at the reactions of hermit crabs to small electric shocks… . The crabs reacted adversely to the shocks but also seemed to try to avoid future shocks, suggesting that they recalled the past ones… .
“Professor Elwood, who previously carried out a study showing that prawns endure pain, said: ‘There has been a long debate about whether crustaceans including crabs, prawns and lobsters feel pain. We know from previous research that they can detect harmful stimuli and withdraw from the source of the stimuli but that could be a simple reflex without the inner “feeling” of unpleasantness that we associate with pain.
“ ‘This research demonstrates that it is not a simple reflex but that crabs trade-off their need for a quality shell with the need to avoid the harmful stimulus.’”
Dolphin Woos with Wood and Grass
BBC News, March 26, 2008
“A South American river dolphin uses branches, weeds and lumps of clay to woo the opposite sex and frighten off rivals, scientists have discovered. Researchers observed adult male botos carrying these objects while surrounded by females, and thrashing them on the water surface aggressively… . They say such behaviour has never before been seen in any marine mammal.”
What a Rodent Can Do With a Rake in Its Paw
New York Times, March 26, 2008
“Degus are highly social, intelligent rodents native to the highlands of Chile. They adorn the openings of their burrows with piles of sticks and stones, have bubbly personalities and like to play games. But in a laboratory setting, degus can do much more than play hide-and-seek… . They can learn to use tools.
“Specifically, degus have been trained to reach through a fence, grab hold of a tiny rake and pull their favorite food, half a peeled sunflower seed, close enough to reach with their mouths. After two months of practice, researchers say, the degus can move the rake as smoothly and efficiently as croupiers in any Las Vegas casino.
“This is[the] first time rodents have been trained to wield tools, said Atshushi Iriki, a neuroscientist, who led the experiments… . But other species may soon join them.”
The Secret Language of Cuttlefish
New Scientist, April 26, 2008
“Recent research shows that cuttlefish can do things that are way beyond most molluscs and only rarely seen in mammals. Their response to an approaching predator is tailor-made for the carnivore in question, for example. Not only that, they have also developed a secret communications system that could be the marine equivalent of invisible ink.”
Wild Dolphins Tail-walk on Water
BBC News, August 19, 2008
“A wild dolphin is apparently teaching other members of her group to walk on their tails, a behavior usually seen only after training in captivity… .
“Scientists say tail-walk tuition has not been seen before, and suggest the habit may emerge as a form of ‘culture’ among this group. ‘We can’t for the life of us work out why they do it,’ said Mike Bossley from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), one of the scientists who have been monitoring the group on the Port River estuary.”
[I was fortunate to see these dolphins off the coast of Adelaide, Australia, along with Mike when I visited him in March 2008.]
Schoolboy Explodes Goldfish Memory Myth
The Age, February 18, 2008
“A 15-year-old South Australian school student has busted the myth that goldfish have a three second memory.
“ ‘We are told that a goldfish has a memory span of less than three seconds and that no matter how small its tank is, it will always discover new places and objects,’ Rory[Stokes] said. ‘I wanted to challenge this theory as I believe it is a myth intended to make us feel less guilty about keeping fish in small tanks… . My results strongly showed that goldfish can retain knowledge for at least six days… . They can retain that knowledge indefinitely if they use it regularly.’”
[Rory’s discovery has since been supported by more research, as reported in The Daily Mail, January 7, 2009, “Three Second Memory Myth.”]
Exploring Consciousness through the Study of Bees
scientific American, December 2008
“Bees display a remarkable range of talents — abilities that in a mammal such as a dog we would associate with consciousness.
…[Scientists] trained free-flying bees, using sugar water as a reward, in a variety of complex learning tasks… . Although bees can’t be expected to push levers, they can be trained to take either the left or the right exit inside a cylinder… .[The bees] even generalize to a situation they have never previously encountered.
“Although these experiments do not tell us that bees are conscious, they caution us that we have no principled reason at this point to reject this assertion.”
Ants “Get Aggressive with Cheats”
BBC News, January 10, 2009
“Worker ants in colonies with a queen are physically attacked by their peers if they try to reproduce… . This ‘reproductive policing’ plays an important role in maintaining harmony in the ant world… .’The idea that social harmony is dependent on strict systems to prevent and punish cheating individuals seems to apply to most successful societies,’[researchers] said.”
Monkeys “Teach Infants to Floss”
BBC News, March 12, 2009
“Female monkeys in Thailand have been observed showing their young how to floss their teeth — using human hair. Researchers from Japan said they watched seven long-tailed macaques cleaning the spaces between their teeth in the same manner as humans.
“They spent double the amount of time flossing when they were being watched by their infants, the team said. This suggests the mothers were deliberately teaching their young how to floss, Professor Nobuo Masataka of Kyoto University’s
Primate Research Institute said. ‘I was surprised because teaching techniques on using tools properly to a third party are said to be an activity carried out only by humans.’”
Chimps Craft Ultimate Fishing Rod
BBC News, March 4, 2009
“Scientists believe they have solved the mystery of why some chimpanzees are so good at catching termites. A team working in the Republic of Congo discovered that the chimps are crafting brush-tipped ‘fishing rods’ to scoop the insects out of their nests… .
“[One scientist] said: ‘The chimps seem to understand the function of the tool and its importance in gathering termites.’
“So far, the team have only found this behaviour in chimps in the Goualougo Triangle. The apparent absence of this in populations in eastern and western Africa suggests that it is not an innate skill found in all chimpanzees. Instead it seems that the Goualougo primates are learning the crafting techniques from other chimps.”
Hungry Whales Steal Birds’ Dinner
BBC News, March 17, 2009
“Humpback whales have come up with a novel way for getting an easy snack — stealing birds’ dinners. A BBC crew filmed seabirds carefully corralling unwieldy shoals of herring into tightly packed ‘bait balls’ from which the fish are easy to pluck. “But they discovered that passing whales would wait for the birds to complete their hard graft before devouring the ball of fish in a single gulp. The team said this was the first time they had seen this behaviour.
“[The producer] said: ‘It was like the whales had noticed what the birds were doing, and let the birds do all the hard work of creating the balls of fish so they could then come in to scoop them up… .
“ ‘You have to take your hat off to them — it is when you see them doing things like that, you realise that they are really very very clever and that they are aware of their environment and what is going on.’”
For the Tough Nuts, Capuchin Monkeys
Select the Right Stones
New York Times, January16, 2009
“Researchers have found that bearded capuchin monkeys in the wild will select the most effective stone for use in cracking nuts, rejecting those that are too light or crumbly… .
“Other than in humans, such tool selectivity had been shown only in chimpanzees, which are closely related to humans. Capuchins are much more distant relatives. ‘Here we showed that a species removed from humans 35 million years ago is capable of being extremely selective in terms of tool use,’[one researcher] said. ‘I’m far from arguing that this is extremely special and unique. Perhaps it is simpler than we expected.’”
Monkeys Have Regrets Just Like Humans —
At Least When They’re Playing Dealor No Deal
Daily Mail, May 15, 2009
“Monkeys can feel regret too — at least when playing a version of Deal Or No Deal. When given a task similar to the popular Channel 4 show, their brains registered missed opportunities… . Just as contestants on Deal Or No Deal wonder what might have been, the monkeys became wistful when realising their error.
“[One researcher] said: ‘This is the first evidence that monkeys, like people, have “would-have, could-have, should-have” thoughts.’”
Grumpy Mules “Highly Intelligent”
BBC News, September 3, 2008
“The legendary ‘bad temper’ of mules is because they are intelligent animals who are mentally understimulated, claim researchers studying them. Academics who carried out research at a donkey sanctuary in Devon found that mules were smarter than horses or donkeys. The animals are hybrids of male donkeys and female horses.
“[One researcher] said: ‘The mules’ performance was significantly better than that of either of the parent species and got faster over a period of time.’”
Magpie “Can Recognise Reflection”
BBC News, August 19, 2008
“Magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror, scientists have found — the first time self-recognition has been observed in a non-mammal. Until relatively recently, humans were thought to be uniquely self-aware. Scientists now know that most chimpanzees and orangutans can recognise their own reflections… . “ ‘We do not claim that the findings demonstrate a level of self-consciousness or self-reflection typical of humans,’ the researchers wrote… .’The findings do, however, show that magpies respond in the mirror… in a manner so far only clearly found in apes, and, at least suggestively, in dolphins and elephants.
“ ‘This is a remarkable capability that is at least a prerequisite of self-recognition and might play a role in perspective taking.’”
Dolphin “Chef” Follows Cuttlefish Recipe
National Geographic News, January 28, 2009
“A wild dolphin has been observed following a specific recipe for preparing a mollusk meal, even stripping the animal of its internal shell and beating it free of ink, a new study says. The female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin was seen repeatedly catching, killing, and preparing giant cuttlefish, which are relatives of octopuses and squid.
“ ‘It’s an example of quite sophisticated behavior,’ said[the study coauthor, who noted that] despite their lack of limbs, dolphins have developed clever ways to use their snouts. ‘A dolphin is like a genius trapped in the body of a fish.’”
Sperm Whales Use Babysitters for Young
The Telegraph, June 13, 2009
“Sperm whales are one of the deepest diving whales on the planet and make dives of more than 2000ft below the ocean’s surface lasting up to an hour while they search for the squid they feed on. The calves, however, cannot make these dives and have to remain at the surface. This leaves the calves vulnerable to killer whales which often follow pods of sperm whales to prey upon the youngsters.
“Scientists… have now discovered the whales use the equivalent of a babysitting pool to ensure mothers can feed without endangering their young… . In larger groups the babysitting tended to be reciprocal.
“[One researcher said,] ‘It is not unreasonable to suggest that the need to protect vulnerable offspring could have been an important evolutionary driver of cooperation among sperm whales, just as it may have been in humans.’”
Turtle Love Goes Beyond the Grave
CNN, July 24, 2008
“Dozens of people flocked the shoreline at Laniakea Beach, hoping to get a glimpse of the Hawaiian sea turtle. News of the slaughtering of Honey Girl, a frequent visitor to Turtle Beach, has generated even more interest in the threatened species. But what happened Monday afternoon tugs at your heart even more. A large male, known as Kuhina, suddenly appeared on the shore and quietly made his way to a memorial that volunteers had set up for Honey Girl.
“[One woman said,] ‘They had to move the ropes aside so he could come straight up through and just came up and put his head right near the memorial, right near the picture and just stayed… . It was almost like he was coming to say goodbye.’
“Kuhina stayed for hours. Volunteers say it appeared as if he never took his eyes off her picture.”
A Mother’s Grief:
Heartbroken Gorilla Cradles Her Dead Baby
Daily News, August 18, 2008
“Eleven-year-old gorilla Gana was holding her three-month-old baby in her arms on Saturday in her compound at the zoo in Munster, northern Germany, when it suddenly died. Initially puzzled, Gana stared at the body, bewildered by its lifelessness. For hours the distraught mother gently shook and stroked the child, vainly seeking to restore movement to his lolling head and limp arms. Visitors to the zoo openly wept as they witnessed her actions.
“Hours passed, during which Gana continually prodded and caressed the dead child, to no effect. But still she refused to give up hope. Gently placing it on her back and slowly walking around the compound, she stopped every few paces to look back and see if her much-loved son had returned to life… .
“Gorillas usually have a strong attachment to their own kind. Like other apes with a well-developed social structure, gorillas mourn the death of loved ones. They exhibit both care for the dead and sadness at their passing — even keeping the body close until it begins decomposing. On occasion, gorillas have also been known to ‘bury’ their dead, by covering the body with leaves.”
The Observer Effect: The Truth about Octopi
How we study animals influences what we find — this is the observer effect. Too often, scientists take animals out of their natural environments and communities, place them in sterile cages or labs (where they may be held in isolation for years), and come up with all sorts of misleading conclusions about their cognitive and emotional capacities. A world-renowned primatologist who conducts laboratory and field research told me, “There is an interesting, but unreported fact about captive primates: after years of testing, they burn out, bored by material, and thus, generally unresponsive… . so we constantly have to shift the paradigms to trick them into thinking it is new.”
By studying octopi in the wild, we’re learning they are incredibly complex creatures, and we are reaching very different conclusions about them than we did when studying them in captivity. Christine Huffard, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and now at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, discovered that octopi engage in complex mating behavior, such as fighting over conquests, flirtatious color displays, and careful partner selection. “Until you see an animal in its natural habitat, everything you think about it is really a best guess,” Huffard said. “And our best guesses about octopus mating were actually not correct.”
Huffard continued, “Each day in the water, we learned something new about octopus behavior, probably like what ornithologists must have gone through after the invention of binoculars. We quickly realized that Abdopus aculeatus broke all the ‘rules’ — doing the near opposite of every hypothesis we’d formed based on aquarium studies.”
Personal experiences with animals are essential for coming to terms with who they are. Consider the reflections of George Schaller, one of the world’s preeminent field biologists:
When you’re isolated in a different culture, a different country, you have to have an emotional attachment to what you do. You have to like the people, the country, and the animals. Without emotion you have a dead study. How can you possibly sit for months and look at something you don’t particularly like, that you see simply as an object? You’re dealing with individual beings who have their own feelings, desires and fears. To understand them is very difficult and you cannot do it unless you try to have some emotional contact and intuition. Some scientists will say they are wholly objective, but I think that’s impossible. Laboratory scientists wasted years putting rats in mazes to show they were learning. They never got close enough to a rat to realise that they were not going by sight and learning, they were following the scent trails of previous rats. By overlooking this simple fact they wasted years of science.
Perhaps researchers and others who deny animals their intelligence and rich emotional lives do so because they haven’t taken the time to watch animals in situations where they can display their full repertoire of behavior. Or they do so because their acceptance of the fact that animals have rich emotional lives — that they have a point of view and don’t like being subjected to pain and suffering —might impede their research. Surely, a few mice living in an impoverished cage alone or with a few other mice cannot display the full array of mouse behavior or demonstrate behavioral variability. If the mice were born in the lab, perhaps their brains aren’t as well developed as their wild relatives, and this affects their behavior by making it less nuanced and less elaborate. Researcher James Burns and his colleagues reported in the prestigious journal Ethology that laboratoryreared guppies have smaller brains than wild-caught individuals. They concluded, “Any deficiencies in brain size of lab-reared fish may hinder our ability to understand the basic mechanisms of cognition and how it has been shaped by natural selection.”
In other words, just because an animal doesn’t do something in one setting does not mean that they cannot do it in another context. Also, just because an animal doesn’t express something does not mean that they’re not feeling something.
Of course, the same can be said about humans. Masking emotions can be a very important social skill, and both nonhumans and humans hide their feelings in various social situations.
Clearly, we already know a lot about the lives of diverse species and what they want, more than we often give ourselves credit for. The more we look, the more we see. As Nobel laureate and discoverer of bee language Karl von Frisch once said, “The life of bees is like a magic well. The more you draw from it, the more there is to draw.”
Revenge Is Sweet:
Are Pissed off Elephants Striking Back?
A natural question, given what we know about the depth of feeling and intelligence of our fellow animals, is: What do they think of humans? As we study them, they are assuredly, in their own ways, studying us.
In fact, there’s a flurry of interest lately in the intriguing question of whether animals take revenge on humans when they’re pissed off at being mistreated. Revenge is a complex cognitive reaction, involving memory, self-awareness, logic, hurt, justice, blame, and more. Anecdotal evidence is that some animals can and do take revenge. In China in December 2008, a trio of monkeys attacked their trainer during a public performance. When one of the monkeys refused to ride a mini-bicycle, the trainer hit the monkey with a stick; the other two monkeys got upset and came to their fellow’s aide. One monkey twisted his trainer’s ears, and another pulled out his hair and bit his neck; when the trainer dropped the cane, one of the monkeys picked it up and started hitting him in the head until the stick broke. In another incident, a male chimpanzee at the Kolkata Zoo in India apparently retaliated at visitors — after a few people began teasing him and throwing pieces of brick —by throwing stones into the crowd and injuring a mother and her daughter.
Elephants are highly social, highly emotional sentient giants who have also demonstrated that they don’t like being mistreated, and revenge seems to have played a factor in some attacks by elephants on humans in some locales. Elephants surely have the cognitive and emotional capacities to remember who treated them unkindly and to bear grudges. In addition, the frequency of angry elephant-human encounters has increased. Elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton wrote to me in a recent email: “I think what has happened is that the interface of human elephant conflict has increased as people expand into elephant range all across Africa, and there is also more reporting of what goes on.”
We’re certainly learning more about the extraordinary emotional capacity of elephants every day. We know that African elephants can actually form expectations about the locations of out-of-sight family members, and they can recognize up to seventeen females and possibly up to thirty family members from cues present in the urine-earth mix. They can also keep track of the location of these individuals in relation to themselves. Scientists are tapping into the phenomenal way in which elephants communicate over long distances using low-frequency infrasounds that travel through the ground. And there’s a practical application of this discovery. By using the low rumble sound of a female in heat, researchers in Namibia’s Etosha National Park are luring bull males away from adjacent farms (and those farmers’ guns).
Elephants and other animals also grieve the loss of friends and family. For instance, consider this moving account of a funeral service for a baby who was mauled to death by a lioness:
On safari in Botswana, Peter Jackson came across a lioness that had mauled a baby elephant to death. As he watched the lioness and her cubs feast on its remains, he witnessed the rare spectacle of 100 elephants turning up to stage a funeral. On they came, until they began to assemble around the bloody remains of the baby elephant, some stamping their feet and snorting in the direction of the lion family they knew still to be near. But most would lightly touch and sniff the body with their trunks and then move to a respectable distance, standing in silent groups. Still more elephants arrived until there were at least 100 in all, the latecomers filtering their way to the body, seemingly paying their respects, then moving to the rear of the congregation.
Researchers have observed elephants mourning a black rhinoceros who had been killed by poachers, as well as elephant bulls grieving the loss of other bulls. Given all this, how much of a stretch is it to imagine that elephants might target humans whom they know have killed or injured one of their relatives?
Some have even gone so far as to speculate about whether what we’re seeing are more premeditated, intentional acts of generalized animal revenge spanning the globe and widely separated habitats. This “conspiracy theory” seems unlikely, but it’s quite possible that individual animals can and will respond to violence with violence of their own. We receive what we give. Douglas-Hamilton told me: “Simply put, if you treat elephants nastily, they are likely to be nasty in return. There is nothing new about this or particularly unique to elephants. If you are kind to elephants, they will respond in kind. The same is true for a huge range of mammals, from Cape Buffalo to dogs.”
Elephants are an excellent example that animals are more than we give them credit for, which necessitates a change in how we interact with them. The effects of early elephantine trauma are devastating and long lasting. Some individuals cannot be rehabilitated after a decade of attempts to get them out of their misery and depression. I met some of these traumatized elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust outside of Nairobi, Kenya, and saw the marvelous work that was being done there to rehabilitate individuals so that they could be returned to the wild. I also witnessed elephants who suffered from flashbacks and were unable to forget what they’d experienced years before.
Some zoo administrators are beginning to recognize that elephants are extremely sensitive beings and that zoos can’t satisfy their social, emotional, or physical needs. Thus, five major zoos in the United States are phasing out their elephant exhibits despite the fact that they’re moneymakers. Elephants in zoos also die younger than their wild relatives. Despite the absence of predators and the availability of veterinary care, captive elephants, especially Asians, don’t do very well compared to wild relatives. A review of survivorship in Asian and African zoo elephants, written by six eminent biologists and published in the prestigious journal Science in December 2008, concluded: “Overall, bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability. The effects of early experience, interzoo transfer, and possibly maternal loss, plus the health and reproductive problems recorded in zoo elephants… suggest stress and/or obesity as likely causes.”
Doubt, and Deciding What We “Know”
As we saw under “Headline News,” a fifteen-year-old boy, Rory Stokes, believed that goldfish are mistreated when confined to small fish tanks or bowls, but to convince others, he had to demonstrate that goldfish can remember for longer than three seconds. Indeed, when he did this, proving that goldfish have a much longer memory than previously thought, it became worldwide news. Only afterward did adult scientists from Israel conduct similar experiments to determine that, yes, this teenage boy was correct.
Those of us who study and live with animals already know a great deal about the mental capabilities and emotions of animals, even if science hasn’t yet proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re correct. But waiting for science to confirm what we already know about animals can be disastrous. Skepticism is an important trait for a scientist, but doubt can also be its own excuse, a way to avoid coping with the consequences of what we ‘re doing to our fellow beings. For scientists, doubt is especially useful as a way to avoid the truth of what is done to the very individuals being studied. Let’s consider two studies, one on empathy in mice and one on “muskrat love,” in which individuals were abused and killed, all in the name of confirming what many of us already know.
First, do you believe mice are capable of empathy? If you’ve lived with mice, you’re more likely to say yes, because you’ve probably seen it firsthand, but either way, up until a few years ago, “the science” hadn’t been done to prove or disprove this, so it was considered a controversial claim. Then, in June 2006, researchers reported in the journal Science the first unequivocal evidence for empathy between adult, nonprimate mammals, that is, mice. What experiment do you think they devised?
Dale Langford, of McGill University, and her colleagues demonstrated that mice feel empathy by showing that they suffer distress when they watch a cage-mate experience pain. Langford and her team injected one or both members of a pair of adult mice with acetic acid, which causes a severely painful burning sensation. The researchers discovered that mice who watched their cage-mates in pain were more sensitive to pain themselves. A mouse injected with acid writhed more violently if his or her partner had also been injected and was writhing in pain. Not only did the mice who watched cage-mates in distress become more sensitive to the same painful stimuli, they became generally more sensitive to pain, showing a heightened reaction, for example, to heat under their paws.
One of the researchers suggested that an opaque barrier be used to separate mice so that they can’t know what’s happening to another mouse because mice who observe each other during experiments may be “contaminating” the data; the mice, in other words, were being too empathetic. It’s difficult to believe that he really meant this, but it’s a good example of a scientist shirking his responsibility to provide the animals he uses with the very best care possible. Of course, according to U.S. law, mice, voles, rats and other rodents, birds, rabbits, and fish aren’t protected from invasive research in the United States. Yet this very study shows why this law is inadequate.
In a study of “muskrat love,” researchers separated nine male voles from their partners to see how they coped with this stress. They then killed the voles and discovered elevated levels of a chemical called cortico-tropin-releasing factor (CRF) that is known to play a role in depression. An article about the study in the Los Angeles Times began: “Scientists have confirmed what poets have long known: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
By that logic, does death make the heart grow fonder still? And what does it say about humans that they devised an experiment in which they killed animals to prove those animals can love? If animals wrote a manifesto, surely one of their demands would be that humans trust their instincts concerning them first. Then, if the humans have any lingering doubts, that they satisfy those doubts in ways that, in hindsight, don’t accept cruelty as the price for knowledge.
Anthropomorphism Is Alive and Well,
as It Should Be
The more we learn about animals’ cognitive abilities, the more these capabilities compel us to rethink how we treat them. Our fellow animals not only think, but they feel — deeply. Animals live and move through the world with likes and dislikes and preferences just like we do. This is not being anthropomorphic. We’re not inserting something human into them that they don’t have. It doesn’t matter whether their thoughts and emotions are exactly the same as our thoughts and emotions. Both their feelings and ours are essential for a meaningful life. We know that there are individual differences among humans, so that what I think and feel, the pain I experience, might not be the same as someone else, but this obviously doesn’t mean that either of us doesn’t think, feel, and experience pain.
Critics who complain about anthropomorphism fail to notice their own anthropomorphism. The same zoo officials who accuse activists of being anthropomorphic when they call a captive elephant unhappy turn around and freely describe the same elephant as perfectly happy. Renowned philosopher Mary Midgley points out in Animals and Why They Matter, what’s truly anthropomorphic is to assume that animals don’t think or feel. Terry Tempest Williams calls this the “ultimate act of solipsism.” It’s important that we get over the issue of anthropomorphism and move on — there’s important work to be done.
It’s also important to remember that solid biological theory and a rapidly growing database of scientific research supports the claim that animals have their own sorts of pain and emotions and that what they feel matters to them. (See this book’s bibliography and notes section for ample citations, scientific papers, and research, as well as my books The Emotional Lives of Animals and Animals Matter.) Anna Sewell notes in Black Beauty, “We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.” Of course, while animals cannot tell us what they feel in words, they do clearly let us know what they’re feeling using a wide variety of behaviors, sounds, and scents.
For the few remaining skeptics, it is unacceptable to only study animals in cages or in unnatural groups in which they can’t display their natural repertoire of behavior — and their ability to change their behavior when there are variations in their social and physical environments. As we’ve seen, when we study animals in captivity, we can reach completely incorrect and limited conclusions.
Science is catching up with what many lay observers already know from living with animals every day. This growing understanding can help us see and relate to animals as fellow subjective beings rather than as objects. I like what Australian Bradley Trevor Greive writes in his book Priceless: The Vanishing Beauty of a Fragile Planet: “For endangered species we are both their greatest enemy and their only hope. These wonderful creatures will not argue their case. They will not put up a fight. They will not beg for reprieve. They will not say goodbye. They will not cry out. They will just vanish. And after they are gone, there will be silence. And there will be stillness. And there will be empty places. And nothing you can say will change this. Nothing you can do will bring them back. With so many lives hanging in the balance, the paths we choose today will decide the fate of the world. So it’s up to us. It’s up to you and me to decide who lives and who dies.” I read these words as part of a “blessing of the animals” service at the Minding Animals conference in Newcastle, Australia, in July 2009, and the audience was stilled by their simplicity and compassionate call to action, a major message of this book.
I’m sure that the next decade is going to be a boon in terms of what we learn about animal emotions and beastly passions. Indeed, it’s what animals feel and share that draws us to them. When we don’t have these connections, we become alienated from life and other beings, and this is what allows us to abuse others. Empathy and compassion, then, lead us to the next item in this manifesto.