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Speciesism, Bad Zoos, Fish Personality, and Clever Reptiles

In the past weeks there's been some significant news and new data about animals

Animals in the news

I continue to feel that this is "the century of the nonhuman animals" (animals) and daily I receive data and stories about their fascinating behavior and about our complex, frustrating, paradoxical, and challenging relationships with them (anthrozoology).

Why speciesism makes no sense

Here's a brief update of some of the material that's crossed my desk in the past few weeks. With great pleasure, I learned about the release of an outstanding documentary by Mark Devries called Speciesism: The Movie. I've watched it a number of times and each time I discover something new. It is that rich in content, with interviews with numerous people who are working tirelessly on behalf of other animals. Basically, speciesism is a view that assumes human superiority over other species and "involves the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership" (see also "Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism" and "Individual Animals Count: Speciesism Doesn't Work").

Speciesism has received well-deserved glowing reviews and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about how speciesism influences how we view and interact with animals and just how rampant it is. Here's a teaser that should whet your appetite for more. "Modern farms are struggling to keep a secret. Most of the animals used for food in the United States are raised in giant, bizarre factories, hidden deep in remote areas of the countryside. Speciesism: The Movie director Mark Devries set out to investigate. The documentary takes viewers on a sometimes funny, sometimes frightening adventure, crawling through the bushes that hide these factories, flying in airplanes above their toxic 'manure lagoons,' and coming face-to-face with their owners."

It is important to stress that while there is a concentration on who (not what; see also and) we choose to eat, there is considerably much more in the general and specific discussions that center on our meal plans. For example, there are discussions about animal cognition, emotions, and moral behavior, and also their status, or lack thereof, in legal systems. I also like how numerous questions about our relationships with other animals are raised and we see not only how confused many people are—inconsistencies and paradoxes abound—but also how viewers are left to draw their own answers and conclusions about our obligations to other animals and their interests in living in peace and safety.

One of my friends, who is not one of "the converted," told me that Speciesism changed his life. Others have written:

"About the movie, I've been thinking about it a lot actually and was raving about it to my wife. … I've come to the conclusion at this point that my thoughts about humans vis-a-vis animals are basically irrational, which is hard for me to swallow!." –David, Washington, DC

"I appreciate this film for the conversation which very few (if any) filmmakers have broached: what sets apart humans from animals...really. Not the usual 'here's why we're better, or worse' but let's really ask 'what distinguishes us?' And to stay with the question, logically, to see what's there. That's documentary film at its best." –Jenny, Sacramento, CA

"I just had to share this with you... My 79-year-old mom is visiting me from out of town. I have talked to her several times about [speciesisism] and she's always kind of brushed me off and gave me the impression she thought I was being extreme. So when I realized that she was going to be here while your movie was playing in LA, I told her I was going to take her to see it. At first she was very resistant, but then she agreed to go. Well when it was over she told me she loved the movie and said it was very well done. She talked about it all the way back home. She thanked me for taking her to see it. You definitely made her stop and think and question her beliefs and behavior. And for a woman who will be 80 in 2 months, that is huge! Thank you again for making this thought provoking, intellectually stimulating movie!" –Kirsten, Los Angeles

My humble suggestion is watch this documentary, watch it again, and share it widely. It is that important. It's difficult to do justice to all of the gems that are in this video.

British zoos don't meet standards of welfare, fish have distinct personalities, and reptiles aren't stupid

We've also learned from a detailed empirical study that British Zoos do not meet minimum standards of animal welfare, that "Animal Personalities Are More Like Humans Than First Thought", and that "Coldblooded Does Not Mean Stupid". In this New York Times essay world renowned researcher Gordon Burghardt from the University of Tennessee notes, “Reptiles don’t really have great press ... Certainly in the past, people didn’t really think too much of their intelligence. They were thought of as instinct machines.” Well, thanks to his and others' seminal research, times are changing and we clearly have learned that indeed, coldblooded does not mean stupid. To quote Dr. Burghardt once again, “People are starting to take some of the tests that were developed for the ‘smart’ animals and adapting them to use with other species, and finding that the ‘smart’ animals may not be so special.”

I agree totally with Dr. Burghardt. I always argue that talking about species differences in intelligence makes little sense because animals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species (see "Emotional honeybees and brainy jellyfish: More "surprises" in animal behavior"). And, to extend the idea that "Coldblooded Does Not Mean Stupid", I'm sure we'll also discover that coldblooded does not mean coldhearted.

What caught my eye about the study of personalities was that not only did it concern the behavior of mosquitofish rather than mammals or birds, but also the researchers' conclusion, "We believe that unpredictability might represent a form of behavioral flexibility that facilitates learning, or makes animals unpredictable to predators or competitors. Some have even referred to this phenomenon as representing 'free will' in animals. Our study, having confirmed that unpredictability is a trait, now sets the stage for further studies to test for this phenomenon in other species, and to tease out the causes and consequences of this behavioral variation." Along these line, my colleagues and I have also suggested that behavioral flexibility is very important in the evolution and development of behavior and that play behavior may be important in providing "training for the unexpected" (see also "The Need for "Wild" Play: Let Children Be the Animals They Need to Be").

Just as I posted this essay someone sent me this notice titled "Animals listed as a top priority on the UN’s global survey". Please stay tuned for more on the fascinating world of animals.

Note: More information about the study of personality in mosquitofish can be found here.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also), and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also).

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