Why Animals Need Psychology

Research blows ethology's cover.

Posted Sep 18, 2015

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Source: C&C Images

You can't hear me sighin'
Or see my heart a cryin'
You can't know 'cause it don't show on me.

Abuse, unuse, refuse, misuse
That I got from you
But you can't know the feelin'
'Cause it just don't show on me

You can't know the heartbreak
And you can't feel the heartache
You can't know 'cause it don't show on me.

-Buck Owens, It Don't Show on Me

There’s an old adage that “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” In Swahili, its equivalent is “Usichague mchumba siku ya Idi," which literally translates as “Do not select a fiancee/fiance during the day of Eid,” meaning that since everyone dresses up for the holiday festivities, you can’t always tell who lies underneath all the fancy duds. In Russian the proverb is “One is met according to his clothes, but seen according to his intellect, and in Chinese “Person-not-judged-by-appearance, ocean-water-not-by measure.” Each has its unique culturally-specific way to caution that when we make assumptions based on appearances and projections, we can get into less than salubrious trouble. This is the important take home lesson from a recent study on black bears.

Mark Ditmer is a wildlife biologist at the University of Minnesota. He and his colleagues conducted a study to investigate whether or not Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—“drones”—had any effect on black bears. These buzzing sky-bound camera-fitted gadgets are gaining popularity both as tools for recreation and for research. Drones are able to monitor and photograph wildlife in all sorts of hard to reach places. While the mechanical busy bees gather data, their human drivers can wait and watch the data come in.

But despite advantages that technology garners, Ditmer and associates had concerns about possible negative impacts on the subjects of aerial spying. Habitat destruction and hunting are not wildlife’s only problems. UAVs, ATVs, GPS, mountain bikes, cars, boats, and other modes of viewing allow humans almost unbounded access to wildlife. As a result, no aspect of wild life is exempt from surveillance. Researchers and tourists can watch, up close and personal, a bear’s search for food, ablutions, and sensitive and private activities such as courting, denning, and caring for young. Such uninvited proximity often causes fear, anxiety, and disruptions in the already precarious life in the wild. Acute or chronic stress compromises immunity, creates intra-specific tension, and contributes to a suite of other potential maladies. In its extreme, trauma, the results are severe psychological and physical harm.

With this understanding, the Minnesota researchers designed a study to assess how bears reacted  to UAVs. After darting and sedating the bears, researchers attached GPS collars, then surgically implanted cardiac monitors, “biobloggers,” to record heart rates. Heart rate and heart rate variability are well-established measures used in human and other animal studies to monitor internal states of wellbeing and stress.[1] This way the scientists could measure any relationships between drone activities and bear behavior, heart rates, and movements. To ensure statistical rigor, data density was fairly high with recordings at two minute intervals, or 720 estimates per day.

At first, from the outside, it didn’t look like the UAVs ruffled any bear fur. Most bears appeared unaffected. But bioblogger data showed otherwise. The inside told a completely different story. Researchers observed “consistently strong physiological responses but infrequent behavioral changes.” All bears, even one who was already denning for hibernation, exhibited abnormally high heart rates “rising as much as 123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline” and in “many cases, cardiac pace doubled.”[2] In the “most extreme instance, the heart rate for a mother bear with cubs hopped from 41 to 162 beats per minute.” Not only that, it took at least ten minutes for heart rates to return to normal and for one bear, it took nearly three and half hours for his heart rate to normalize. [3] Behaviorally, the bears looked fine, but psychophysiologially, they were off the charts.

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The bear study clearly illustrates the need for a psychological approach to studying animal wellbeing and conditions as opposed to an ethological (i.e., animal behavioral) approach. Absent psychophysiological data, the researchers would have likely concluded that UAVs had no deleterious effects on bears. Ethological data produced a false negative, indicating that behavior alone does not suffice as a measure of animal wellbeing. Judging someone by his/her behavioral cover alone can lead to conclusions that are not only inaccurate, but dangerous. The reasons are several.

For one, behaviour is only one expression of mental and emotional state and therefore, by definition, fails to account for myriad other subjective states that an individual experiences. Psychologists and neuroscientists have known this for years about humans and nonhumans, the latter who are used in lieu of our own species as “animal models,” because the same model of brain, mind, and behavior holds for all. These parallels are exploited by bioresearchers who study cognitive, affective, and other expressions in mice, cats, beagles, and rabbits to infer what’s going on in humans. Second, messaging that is behaviorally ambiguous shouldn’t surprise animal biologists. It has a purpose.

There are evolutionary benefits of keeping a poker face, especially under adversity. Whether being pursued by an UAV, ATV, or a flesh and blood stalker on the hoof, behavioral parsimony is essential. It saves valuable energy needed for coping strategies to avert danger—fight or flight. Emotions and adrenalin coursing through the body best serve when employed to secure wellbeing. Playing behavioral cards close to the chest also minimizes tipping off someone who wants to eat you. The less a potential enemy knows, the better. There is no need to advertise when nuanced signals to loved ones suffice.

This study brings to the fore an urgent need. While animal behavior, or ethology as it is also known, has been the traditional designated authority of what and why animals do what they do, the time has come for a broader intellectual approach if the interests of animals are to be well served. Findings from studies such as the black bear heart rate project, wide acceptance of animal sentience, and neurosciences’ open declaration of human-animal comparability in brain, mind, and behavior [4] all point to the same conclusion: the need to subsume the wealth of ethological expertise and method under the synoptic umbrella of psychology and its substrate counterpart, neuroscience. There are ethical as well as practical reasons for ethology’s disciplinary merger with psychology. 

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By ignoring psyche, animal behavior reduces an individual’s subjective experience to mere signs, passive markers that assume an animal’s inability to voice. In contrast, a psychological framing sees behavior as one among many symptoms through which an animal speaks. While ethograms silence, objectify and deny nonhuman animal sentience and agency, psychological symptoms communicate in a language that is shared by all sentient beings. In so doing, trans-species psychology emerges as the intellectual architecture of animal rights and self-determination. [5] This brings us to one more important message.

Many work assiduously to save our wildlife kin, but conservation methods often add to the problem while seeking to solve it. The majority of conservation “tools” are difficult to distinguish from those of extirpation. They include hostile manipulation, government approved hunts, “pest” and reprisal killings, sport “harvesting,” capture-translocation programs, and aversive behavioral conditioning. When they don’t kill, many conservation methods are traumatogenic. For example, as we saw, radio collaring has brought great insights but at an even greater cost. There are short- and long-term psychophysiological effects of darting and radio collaring, as researchers discovered when a still-dazed grizzly uncharacteristically mauled a Yellowstone hiker, Erwin Evert. In 2012, a “USGS crew had trapped, tranquilized, studied and released a 430-pound grizzly bear . . .[that] was likely antagonized by its experience with the researchers.”[6] And what happened to the bear? Using the GPS from the radio collar, "authorities" summarily tracked down, shot and killed the bear.[7]

The message of the bears is clear. Through using millions upon millions of nonhuman animals to probe the mysteries of human minds and bodies in experiments, science has learned the obvious: we are all kin under skin. There is no need for research, conservation or otherwise, to prove what is common sense. Bears, wild turkeys, condors, tortoises, octopi, and myriad other animals are as vulnerable to violence as we are. They are also equally deserving of the right for peace, quiet, and privacy—which brings us to another adage. What is good for the human goose is good for the animal gander.

Literature Cited

[1] Eberhard von Borell et al., “Heart Rate Variability as a Measure of Autonomic Regulation of Cardiac Activity for Assessing Stress and Welfare in Farm Animals—a Review,” Physiology and Behavior 92, vol. 3 (2007): 293-316.

[2] Mark A. Ditmer et al., “Bears Show a Physiological but Limited Behavioral Response to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” Current Biology, accessed August 21, 2015, http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0960982215008271, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.07.024.

[3] “The Heart Rates of Black Bears Spike When Drones Fly Overhead,” PBS, accessed September 19, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/even-bears-annoyed-drones/.

[4] Philip Low, et al., “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” Francis Crick Memorial Conference 2012: Consciousness in Animals, accessed August 20, 2015, http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf.

[5] Trans-species Psychology, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-species_psychology.

[6] C. J. Baker, “Judge Rules for Government in Bear Mauling Suit,” last modified October 25, 2012, accessed August 31, 2015, http://www.powelltribune.com/news/item/10271-judge-rulesfor-government-i....

[7] “Authorities Kill Grizzly Bear That Mauled Man at Yellowstone," CNN.com, accessed September 18, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/06/18/wyoming.man.grizzly.death/.