Animals In the News: A brief summary of the fascinating lives of animals and people's attitudes toward them

Animals are fascinating beings who deserve respect and admiration

Posted Dec 18, 2009

This will be my last post for 2009 and I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank my readers and those who have sent in comments to Psychology Today and to me personally. I thought that this would be a good time to tell you about some new happenings in my field and lay the groundwork for 2010. As usual animals are in the news almost daily. Sometimes I'm surprised by what I read but since I make my living studying and writing about the amazing cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of animals I often find myself saying something like "Isn't about time that someone reported that!" I often get emails from people saying "Wow, I didn't know that!" Every day we learn just how fascinating other animals really are. 

People all over the world are interested in animals and there are social and cultural variations in their attitudes toward, and respect for, animals. Thus, I was pleased to receive a detailed report on the Origins of Attitudes Toward Animals by Jenia Meng.  

Here is a list of some of Dr. Meng's important findings:

 • The definitions for animal protection and vegetarianism are different in different nations.

• Prevalent stereotypes of the attitudes of some societies are incomplete andunrepresentative.

• Animal Welfare and Reverence for Animals are two fundamentally differentattitudes towards animals.

• A holistic worldview is tied to high Reverence for Animals.

• Animal Rights is a product of animal welfare and Reverence for Animals. Societies can have low levels of animal welfare but high levels of animal rights when AnimalWelfare is low but the Reverence for Animals is high.

• 'New Welfarism', a term coined by Gary L. Francione, is identified scientifically.This type of animal protection does not challenge the property status of animals and is different from Animal Rights; Integrity of animals and zoo issues are important aspects of Animal Rights but have been given limited attention in New Welfarism.

• In total the four types of animal protection explain 32.8% of the variation in the overall attitudes to animals. The degree of the different types of animal protection are:

Animal Welfare –UK> Spain, Iran, Norway, Serbia>China, Czech, Ireland, South Korea, Macedonia, Sweden;

New Welfarism –UK>Serbia>Macedonia>Spain>China, Czech, Ireland, Norway>Iran, Sweden>South Korea;

Reverence for Animals –UK>Macedonia>China, Serbia>Spain>Czech, Ireland, South Korea, Norway, Sweden>Iran;

Animal Rights –UK>Serbia>Macedonia, Spain>China, Czech, Ireland, Iran, South Korea,Norway, Sweden;

Other types of attitudes analysed were: naturalness (Genetic changes) of animals,autonomy of animals, animal experimentation, wildlife protection, spiritual power of animals.

• Respect for the autonomy of animals is identified as a positive attitude towards animals. This attitude is sometimes mistaken for the avoidance of animals.

• The attitude to animal welfare is a more consistent predictor of the attitudes to world issues among different types of animal protection at the present time.

• Females on average have more positive attitudes to animals than males.

• Overall ranking of perceived sentience is: Human Infant> apes>other mammals>birds> cold-blooded animals.

• Far East tradition, Greek tradition and many indigenous traditions have higher levels of reverence for animals than do Abrahamic religions.

• There is some evidence to suggest that people in higher levels of the social hierarchy tend to have lower reverence for animals.

• Students from nations sharing similar political ideologies, in particular those sharing communist influences, share similar overall attitudes to animals and world issues, but this association can also be explained by the similar human welfare levels in these nations.

Some good news from Australia. A Victorian court has denied the return of 173 exotic birds to their keeper after finding they had been illegally imported into the country. The result is a win for Australia's fight against illegal wildlife trade, an issue taken seriously due to the risk it places on Australia's unique flora and fauna. 

And some good news from Spain. A bill to ban bullfighting in the Spanish region of Catalonia cleared its first hurdle Friday as legislators mulled a measure to reject a cultural pillar of traditional Spain. If approved, Catalonia would become the second Spanish region to ban bullfighting. The Canary Islands, off Morocco's coast, did so in 1991

We all know that elephants are amazing beings, smart, highly social, and extremely emotional. I was pleased to read recently that People for the Ethical Treatment of animals is taking on Ringling Brothers Circus for mistreating baby elephants, A former elephant handler with Ringling Brothers, the late Sammy Haddock, is quoted as saying "Toward the end of my career . . . I stopped telling people what I did for a living. I was ashamed."

There's also some very bad news right here in the American west. Wolves are being slaughtered in Montana and this wanton killing can put them in peril, once again. "According to Doug Smith, the coordinator of the reintroduction efforts and leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project that studies and manages the wolves, 'The good times are over,' Smith says. His annual census of the park's wolf population is expected to be the lowest in 10 years, he said. Smith is still gathering data but says the number of gray wolves in the park will be 116, a 33% drop from 2003, when the population was at an all-time high of 174."

Government workers routinely kill wolves and other predators by the tens of thousands, and some believe that Wildlife Services who are responsible for these slaughters should be renamed the "Wildlife Execution Squad." As Jean Williams notes, "The mission of the Wildlife Service as stated on their web site is "To provide federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows humans and wildlife to coexist peacefully. … Unfortunately, the alarming statistics of millions of birds and animals that have literally been exterminated by the service clearly indicates little in the way of managing wildlife to 'peacefully coexist' with people. Rather, it indicates the free-falling and indiscriminate slaughter of any segment of wildlife that draws a complaint to the Service."

Recently I was fascinated by three reports. The first showed that coral reef fish can undergo can undergo a personality change in warm water, the next showed octopus are able to fashion coconut shells as shelters, and the third reported that humpback whales saved a seal from a killer whale (orca). The last story first.  After a Weddell seal was swept into the water by a killer whale in the icy waters around Antarctica, it was reported "As the killer whales moved in, the plucky pinniped leapt on to the vast ribbed belly of a humpback, and nestled in the animal's armpit. Not only that, but when a wave threatened to return the seal to danger, the humpback used its massive flipper (at five metres, the longest in the animal kingdom) to nudge it back on. … Moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe," wrote the scientists. They believe the seal triggered a maternal defence mechanism in the humpbacks. Whatever the truth, it's a heartening tale."

Concerning the fish, we've learned that "Coral reef fish can undergo a personality change in warmer water, according to an intriguing new study suggesting that climate change may make some species more aggressive. … Experiments with two species of young damselfish on Australia's Great Barrier Reef have shown for the first time that some reef fish are either consistently timid, or consistently bold, and that these individual differences are even more marked as water temperatures rise. … The idea that fish have personalities may seem surprising at first, but we now know that personality is common in animal populations, and that this phenomenon may have far-reaching implications for understanding how animals respond to ecological and environmental challenges," says Dr Peter Biro, of the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who led the study with colleagues Christa Beckmann and Judy A. Stamps."

Let me end with the fascinating example of tool use by octopus. "Underwater footage reveals that the creatures scoop up halved coconut shells before scampering away with them so they can later use them as shelters. … Dr Mark Norman, head of science at Museum Victoria, Melbourne, and one of the authors of the paper, said: 'It is amazing watching them excavate one of these shells. They probe their arms down to loosen the mud, then they rotate them out. After turning the shells so the open side faces upwards, the octopuses blow jets of mud out of the bowl before extending their arms around the shell - or if they have two halves, stacking them first, one inside the other - before stiffening their legs and tip-toeing away.

I hope these few examples will make all of us think deeply about how lucky we are to share the world with a wide array of fascinating animals and also how fortunate we are to be able to learn about who they are when we allow them to live their lives free of our intrusions - amazing beings from whom we can learn a lot about ourselves. We also need to reflect on what we do to animals without a flicker of thought about what they think and feel about us, and how we all - every single one of us -- can make the world a better place for animals and for us. Let's make that our resolution for 2010 and the future. Future generations will surely thank us for our efforts as will all animals. 


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