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“With animals, we often don’t know the reason for a behavior,”
July 4, 2014 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Zoo Animals and Their Discontents [New York Times]
posted by Fizz (20 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why did the chicken cross the road?

Man, I would hate to be an elephant who accidentally did something that was misinterpreted as the "I need a Gatorade enema" signal.
posted by XMLicious at 6:28 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


“Sometimes a scientist will ask me, ‘What are your data points?’ ” he said. “But if we accept that animals are self-aware beings and have emotions, they are no longer data points. No amount of data points will explain identity.”

This is good. I get the feeling I'd be delighted to meet this person.

I feel a disconnect with people who don't understand that nonhuman animals have complex psychological lives.
posted by quiet earth at 6:41 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


Now I want to watch "Fierce Creatures" again.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:47 PM on July 4


I grew up with a Dr. Dolittle album. All animals converse, not just talk. Converse. They have volition and seek comprehension and postulate about what the hell I do to parade about and never cease to provide food. The science of it is abysmal...was it even two decades ago it occurred to caretakers to hide food so their wards weren't neurotic from boredom? And I think of a dolphin in a pool throwing out clicks evolved to traverse leagues and fathoms of seawater-- a near echo chamber compared to the open ocean. Oh, we're learning their language. IN AN ECHO CHAMBER? And the "real" science (demonstrable experiment) is all classified by the military, tell-tale details emerging in mass media reports about their use in reconnaissance with implications of self-sacrifice (detonation).
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:18 PM on July 4


Wow, this is a very very well done article. Mrs. Johnson and I had no idea Dr. Virga's occupation of "behavioral consultant" existed for zoos. (Mrs. J works in animal management at a zoo) I would be interested to hear from others working in similar positions?

This article is especially striking in comparison with an article posted a week or so ago on the blue, titled, "Zoos Drive Animals Crazy". I know it's the internet so aggregation trumps refinement, but I wish we could explode all copies of that other, paper-thin article and replace it with this more even-handed one. I mean, just look at the title of that one compared to this one: "Zoo Animals and Their Discontents". I mean, the other article has its conclusion already made by the end of the title; ladies and gentlemen, check your critical thinking at the door and fire up your outrage at zoos!

Rather than a blanket dismissal of institutions we see various animal issues, with various causes (social stresses, poor environment), and a careful inspection of how one can treat animals as individuals, validating their rich psychological and intellectual aptitudes. The animals are more than just biological commodities. Sure, you're going to lose some (those panthers -- ouch), but the victories (as told in the article) are real, too. I see in Dr. Virga's work an unmistakeable forward momentum.

...yes, I'm cribbing a lot of Mrs. Johnson's viewpoints, in the work she does at a zoo. But I am a teacher, and as I re-read the above paragraph (swap animal/student, biological commodity/test scores) I realize how much it reflects my own perspective on my work, too.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 8:54 PM on July 4 [3 favorites]


Has anyone tried to identify the zoos in this article? I saw the mention of peacocks in the part about the panthers and immediately thought "oh shit oh shit oh shit, please don't be the Philadelphia Zoo." (Though the Philly zoo got a new big cat exhibit a few years ago; haven't seen it, but it's supposed to be good.)
posted by bokane at 9:18 PM on July 4


I see in Dr. Virga's work an unmistakeable forward momentum.

I do as well, but I posted plaintively because the the study of animal behavior, its academic tradition and practice, is problematic-- food sources that are also clues to our own mind and medical practices. And the NY Times is both a cultural cite (it is of record) and marred by scandal and conservative inertia.

The title of the article reminded me of Nick Park's career-making Creature Comforts, 1989, a faint praise.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:37 PM on July 4


Wow, thanks for posting that!

I trained as a vet for some years, and would have loved to have become someone like Dr Virga; in fact a student colleague did go on to similar work.

For the student parade one year we made a larger-than-lifesize elephant float, and performed an operation on it as it drove the route. Several of us were inside, with buckets of genuine elephant dung to shovel out the rear, trashbins of urine to pump, and buckets of real blood for the operation (the latter two non-elephant), while the elephant's trunk squirted water over spectators. The operation produced many yards of stuffed car tire inner-tubes (no tubeless tires then) painted a bilious purple-pink. We won the prize for best float, of course. Unfortunately I dropped out before graduating (it was the sixties) and turned into an engineer.

How do we stop anthropomorphism being a dirty word? It's so f-ing obvious that animals do have actual minds, why do we pretend they don't?
posted by anadem at 10:34 PM on July 4 [8 favorites]


I was able to spend a little time (about an hour a week for two months) with a pair of mated baboons held in two connected cages, each about the size of a 1-car garage, outdoors, mounted on a cropping of rocks. Through bars, picking at and plying each other's skin was an immediate and meaningful discourse-- anthropomorphisms aren't groundless, as you say.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 10:52 PM on July 4


So 'behaviorist' now means 'someone who sees into the inner lives of animals' as well as the earlier meaning 'someone who explicitly excludes inner lives from psychology, even human psychology'.

Thanks.
posted by Segundus at 11:30 PM on July 4


For the student parade one year we made a larger-than-lifesize elephant float...

Anadem, it kind of sounds like you spent the sixties inside a Richard Brautigan story. That's some Trout Fishing in America stuff.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:42 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


It seems undeniable that some animals have mental states like ours, yet they're clearly not exactly like ours, and to claim we can know for sure what they are is risky. That's surely why Morgan's Canon says we shouldn't invoke conscious thought in explaining animal behaviour unless we really have to. Maybe that goes too far, but it respects the genuine difficulties..

Take the use of Prozac. In humans we use it for depression; do animals get depression? We don't really know, but their analogue is certainly not going to be quite the same because, for one thing, they don't have language and don't have the concept "depression". They can't think about what's happening to them in those terms. We cannot explain to them what the drug is for and they cannot give consent. We cannot ask them if they are happy; they cannot ask themselves. The risk is that giving them the drug merely amounts to chemical suppression of behaviour which visitors and keepers don't like. It could even be interpreted as 'protest' behaviour, or the animal analogue of protest, if we're following through on treating animals as people.
posted by Segundus at 12:05 AM on July 5 [3 favorites]


It strikes me that humans had no problem succumbing to depression back when the concept as such did not exist, and there were no words for it in language. It is academics and health professionals that primarily experience depression through discourse and language, *patients* experience it in rather more visceral terms.

I have no problem allowing for an analog of depression in reasonably complex animal species, even one that responds to human medication in expected ways.
posted by tigrrrlily at 12:42 AM on July 5 [4 favorites]


do animals get depression? We don't really know, but their analogue is certainly not going to be quite the same because, for one thing, they don't have language and don't have the concept "depression".

Well, if that's the case, then we don't really know if they get hungry, tired, horny, or annoyed by biting flies, because they don't have language and don't have the concepts "hungry," "tired," "horny," nor "annoyed by biting flies."
posted by univac at 12:43 AM on July 5 [7 favorites]


It's so f-ing obvious that animals do have actual minds, why do we pretend they don't?

I imagine it's mainly so we can enslave; forcibly breed, mistreat, slaughter, sell, consume and digest them without existential horror. Or zoo them for entertainment. We deny animal sentience in order to absolve ourselves of the duty of compassion and the burden of consent.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 12:58 AM on July 5 [6 favorites]


It strikes me that humans had no problem succumbing to depression back when the concept as such did not exist, and there were no words for it in language.

When are you thinking of, and what examples? I doubt that human depression is ever purely visceral.

univac, the states you mention all have relatively clear behavioural readings, I think - hungry means showing a tendency to seek and consume food, for example. Even at this level I'd resist the idea that we can read across without due care - is animal horniness always just what humans feel in analogous circumstances? - but we've got a clear basis.

I think depression is far more difficult. We might say an animal seems listless and lacking interest in its usual pursuits, but does it have feelings of worthlessness? Does it wonder what the point is? Does it contemplate suicide? There may well be an analogue but it's definitely not a perfect one, and in my opinion it's not clear we should call it 'depression', with all that that may imply.
posted by Segundus at 2:52 AM on July 5


Take the use of Prozac. In humans we use it for depression; do animals get depression?

SSRIs are not specific for depression, even in human beings. Psychiatrists prescribe SSRIs (and indeed, fluoxetine/Prozac in particular) for depression, OCD, alcohol dependence, borderline personality disorder, mild cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's disease, panic disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (no kidding), social anxiety disorder, and even sometimes as an adjunctive treatment for schizophrenia. There's also really no good theoretical grounds for calling these drugs 'anti-depressants' anyway, given that there's no sound theory of what depression is in the first place, and no evidence whatsoever that SSRIs target the mechanisms of depression (assuming, falsely, that we even know what those are -- the monoamine [serotonin] hypothesis is not really a credible theory any longer, scientifically speaking). Happy to provide more info/citations for the curious.

We know very little about these disorders in human beings, and so it seems wrong to impute uncertainty only in the case of animals. To deny cognition and affect in animals is to deny the vast extent to which we are strangers to ourselves.
posted by mister-o at 4:56 AM on July 5 [6 favorites]


Every pet owner has a story about animal behavior that is, to them at least, the result of thoughts and emotions similar to their own. And why not?
posted by tommasz at 6:43 AM on July 5


To deny cognition and affect in animals is to deny the vast extent to which we are strangers to ourselves.

I don't think you have to deny cognition and affect at all to question whether mental states can be mapped cleanly from humans to other animals. But to some extent it doesn't always matter - if we know symptoms of "depression" in elephants and treatments for "depression" in elephants for many purposes it's just fine if it's not quite the same thing because all we wanted to do was relieve the symptoms in the first place.
posted by atoxyl at 2:11 PM on July 6


It’s comforting not to be at the center of creation.

I like this sentence.

Seems to me a lot of the fight in not considering animals to have complex psychological lives stems from people wanting to remain at the center of creation.


The operation produced many yards of stuffed car tire inner-tubes (no tubeless tires then) painted a bilious purple-pink.

Anadem, you neglected to link to a photo in this story. You must immediately rectify this situation.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:56 PM on July 6


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