This has been a wonderful summer of international meetings concerning the fascinating, complex, and frustrating relationships that exist between humans and other animals ("animals"). Topics have ranged from animal protection and conservation to what we can learn about human play behavior from the ways in which animals play with one another and the right of children to be children, to be allowed to frolic and just have fun. Clearly, numerous people all over the world are interested in animals and the numbers are rapidly growing (see also).
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a meeting that was more focused on "Humans and other apes: Rethinking the species interface". At this gathering, supported by the Arcus Foundation, an organization concerned with social justice and conservation issues, my colleagues and I were specifically concerned with relationships between humans and other great apes and what we can do to protect these amazing beings from further exploitation by humans in captivity and in the wild (there are about 1000 chimpanzees languishing in laboratories in the United States). The timing of this meeting couldn't have been better, what with the recent appearance of a book on ethics and animals, a new journal devoted to this topic, the opening of new movies focusing on chimpanzees, "Project Nim" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", and a public workshop on the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research held in Washington, D. C (see also).
While it's too early to know if and how new books, journals, and movies will be able to help the dire situation of captive chimpanzees and other animals they all make it very clear that these great apes are intelligent and deeply emotional beings and that they care very much about what happens to them, just as we care about what happens to us. They surely need much more protection in the horrific conditions of captivity in which they're kept and in the wild where individuals are unrelentingly killed and their habitats decimated. Concerning the workshop on the use of chimpanzees in research, support for ending the use of chimpanzees in "traumatic and invasive research" came from many different corners including Roscoe G. Bartlett, a republican representative from Maryland and a former physiologist at the Navy's School of Aviation Medicine. In an essay in the New York Times Representative Bartlett concluded, "Americans can longer justifying confining these magnificent and innocent animals to traumatic and invasive research and life imprisonment." As the world famous scientist Carl Sagan once asked, "How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes murder? Indeed how smart would any animal have to be?"
At the Arcus Foundation's meeting my colleagues and I talked about a wide variety of issues in a daunting array of animals (ants to great apes) ranging from ethical concerns centering on the use of animals in research, deeply philosophical issues (see also) including personhood, legal issues, the keeping of animals in other captive situations, animal behavior, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds; see also), the emotional and moral lives of animals, human-animal interactions in various areas of the world, ethnoprimatology (see also and), conservation biology and conservation psychology, how we can expand our compassion footprint for animals, including humans, our uniquely destructive ways, and compassionate conservation. While there were differing views, as might be expected when people get together to discuss the broad and challenging issues concerned with human-animal interactions, we all agreed that much can be done to improve the lives of chimpanzees and of course other animals and that it is essential to understand the gaps in our knowledge and how we can and must overcome the barriers to communicating our and other's concerns to a wide audience, outside of the ivory tower. Human exceptionalism and speciesism (see also and) were on the table for frank and open discussions. If one is so bold as to attempt to draw lines between different species, it's clear that the borders are extremely fuzzy and ever changing.
Stories about individual animals are compelling as many people, perhaps most, are drawn into the life of individuals with whom they can identity. As one of many examples about the egregious treatment of a chimpanzee, consider this story about Negra from a research paper by Dr. Hope Ferdowsian and her colleagues about mood and anxiety disorders in chimpanzees. "A chimpanzee named Negra was a 36-year-old female at the time of the study. Taken from the wild in Africa as an infant, she has remained in captivity since that time. She was used in invasive research, including hepatitis experiments, and for breeding. Each of her infants was removed from her at an early age. During the period in which she was used in research, she was kept in isolation for several years. Approximately 1 year prior to the study, she was transferred to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington state, where she currently lives with six other chimpanzees. Negra met alternative criteria for depression and PTSD. According to reports, she had persistent depressed hunched posture, and she was socially withdrawn. Negra slept excessively during the daytime, and she lacked interest in play, food, other individuals, and grooming. She also demonstrated poor attention to tasks. She was described as slow and sluggish, and at times, she appeared anxious. In response to an unexpected touch, she would 'threat bark,' scream, or run away. Compared with other chimpanzees, she demonstrated less variability in her facial expressions. Caretakers reported that her face was expressionless, 'like a ghost,' for at least a month after she arrived at the sanctuary. She seldom, if ever, exhibited a play face. She was tested for a thyroid disorder and assessed for other medical causes of her clinical presentation, but all laboratory tests were within normal limits. Based on later reports provided by her caretakers, some of her symptoms have improved since she has been living in the sanctuary. She has become more interested in other chimpanzees, including grooming, and the variability in her facial expressions has increased."
Personal stories of named individual chimpanzees (and other animals) abound and provide compelling narratives that are often difficult to read and force us to see these beings as individuals who truly have needed and continue to need our help (for information about the lives and deaths of the first 100 chimpanzees used in research see Lori Gruen's website).
Animals are "in" and numerous people all over the world are interested in just who these beings are and how we can reduce conflict and foster coexistence with them. And it's not just academics who are thinking about the dire and urgent situation worldwide. For example, I was pleasantly surprised to see an editorial called "The empathy of apes" in a newspaper from a small Colorado town the day after the Arcus Foundation's meeting ended. There also was a recent story about the generosity displayed by chimpanzees.
The situation is urgent. Everyone concerned with the plight of animals has to talk with (not at) one another. We can't continue to close our senses and hearts to what other animals want and need from us right now, not when it's "more convenient". As we harm and lose animals we harm and lose ourselves. We must expand our circle of moral concern for their and our benefit.
Everyone can make a difference in the lives of great apes and other animals. Please write your representatives expressing your concern and get involved in local and other projects. The animals need all of us and depend on our goodwill and compassion. We need international efforts and sensitivity to different cultures that are grounded in real world scenarios. Grassroots activism is a central component for making the lives of animals better and everyone counts! Reaching out to children is critical as they are the ambassadors for a more compassionate and peaceful future. Let's get to it.