Animal Emotions

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Minding Animals: Some Good News and Some Bad News

A wonderful meeting and horrific abuse by Ringling Bros.

Our relationships with other animals are a muddle. First, some good news.

In July 2009 the first Minding Animals Conference was held in Newcastle, Australia. The idea for this first of its kind strongly transdisciplinary gathering with about 500 people from around 30 countries attending stemmed from earlier discussions at a meeting held in Hobart, Tasmania, two years before. Rod Bennison, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Newcastle, and a number of people, including myself, talked about his idea; and because of Rod's unrelenting and selfless efforts, along with a team of very dedicated people, the meeting came to fruition and some papers from this conference are available here

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I was very pleased with the name of the conference because it's the title of a book I published in 2002. Briefly, "minding animals" means we must "mind" them by recognizing that they have active minds and feelings. We must also "mind" them as their caretakers in a human dominated world in which their interests are continually trumped in deference to ours. To mind animals it’s essential for people with varied expertise and interests to talk to one another, to share what we know about animals and use this knowledge for bettering their and our lives. There are many ways of knowing; and figuring out how science and the humanities, including those interested in animal protection, conservation, and environmentalism (with concerns ranging from individuals to populations, species, and ecosystems), can learn from one another is essential. This is just what happened in Newcastle. Since my book was published an incredible amount of new scientific data has continued to show that many nonhuman animals (animals) have highly develop cognitive skills, rich and deep emotional lives, and display moral behavior.  

Because Minding Animals 1 was a huge success plans were made for a second Minding Animals Conference that recently ended on July 6, 2012. The second conference was held in The Netherlands at the University of Utrecht with Dr. Tatjana Visak heading the organizational committee. Just like the first meeting there were about 500 delegates from many different countries representing many academic and non-academic areas. Details about the program at the second conference can be found here.

I attended both meetings and extend the heartiest kudos to Drs. Bennison and Visak. For those who have never tried to organize large international meetings (or other projects of this type) it's a huge amount of work and often a thankless task. However, I can say that both meetings were outstanding, so much so, that planning for a third conference to be held in 2015 is in the works. 

Some more good news. On my flight to Amsterdam to attend the second Minding Animals Conference I watched some movies, and one that really was a winner is called Chimpanzee. A trailer can be seen here and this is the storyline: "Oscar, a baby chimpanzee is enjoying his life with his mother in the jungles along the Ivory Coast. Without warning, young Oscar is tragically orphaned during an attack from a rival group of chimpanzees. Afterwards, he attempts to survive on his own, and to be accepted by the other chimps. But Oscar struggles, until he is surprisingly adopted by the Alpha Male of his group."

In addition to the incredible footage, what I liked about the movie was some of its messages reflecting current scientific knowledge about chimpanzees and other animals. Some quotes I picked up included "Friendships need investments", "The cohesiveness of a group is fragile"*, and after Oscar's group won a battle over a group of chimpanzees led by a pretty nasty male named Scar, "Teamwork has beaten brute force". Current knowledge has shown that all are true.

One more piece of good news that came across my desk today involved the closing of a San Diego beach year-round that's used by harbor seals during their breeding season. The vote of the California Coastal Commission to close the beach was unanimous. Bravo for them.  

Now for some bad news, about which you can do something.

First, the United States Navy plans to deafen 15,900 whales and dolphins and kill 1,800 more over the next five years. You can join more than 485,000 people who have already signed a petition to stop the killing by signing a petition here

And once again horse racing is in the news. We've just learned that Triple Crown contender, I'll have Another, had a long history of physical ailments (see also) and was being treated with painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs. How extensive was the abuse of this remarkable horse is still being debated but "Dr. George Maylin, a veterinarian and longtime head of New York State’s testing laboratory for racehorses, said it was clear that 'osteoarthritis has been with this horse for a period of time,' adding that 'the tendon problem has also been existent for some period of time.'" I'll Have Another was sold for $10 million to a Japanese breeding farm. We must always remember that animals are not objects but sentient beings. Shame on the people who treat horses and others animals as if they have no feelings. 

Finally, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is in the news once again for abusing elephants who they break so they will perform stupid and unnatural tricks. This reprehensible story of unrelenting and heartless abuse, accompanied by horrific pictures, will sicken you, but it is worth noting how Ringling Bros. trains — really breaks the hearts, spirits, and souls — of these magnificent animals. Trainers repeatedly beat, gouge with bullhooks, and tie elephants to the ground as part of their training program. Ringling Bros. has a long history of abusing elephants. In late 2011 they were fined $270,00 for mishandling animals

I hope the good news will inspire you to keep working for animals and the bad news will inspire you to actively protest their heinous and often repeated abuse. These amazing beings depend on our goodwill and need us to "mind" them with all our heart. 

*Note: The word "cohesiveness" may have been stability or something that reflected how important it is for group members to work together for the good of the group, often selflessly. 

The teaser image is the Minding Animals logo. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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