Manchester Dogs Home

You may have seen in the news that last night, Manchester Dogs Home suffered an enormous fire.

 

The Guardian reports that a 15 year old boy has been arrested on suspicion of arson. So far, 53 dogs have died and 150 rescued.

If you want to help Manchester Dogs Home you can donate (the centre is completely destroyed), or if you live in the area, the North Manchester Police office is accepting donations of blankets and food.

I’ve seen a few comments calling for this boy to be treated very poorly by the law. I would caution against this as best I can. Acting out like this is undoubtedly an indication of a very unhappy life. If this kid is guilty, he needs help. After all, animals can be an important part of our social development, and animal abuse is an indicator of future antisocial behaviour.

 

Not so fluffy this Friday.

Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?

Working in the world of international animal welfare as I have been doing in the last couple of months, you are confronted by your own innate biases. These are little (or big!) ideas you have about animal welfare that influence the way you think about it and the choices you make for animal welfare.

These biases are often problematic as one of our main messages is “It is the animal’s point of view which matters”, and the animals don’t know about our biases. 

Now biases are hard to recognise because they are part of the way we think about the world. I’ll give you an example from my own background. I did a zoology degree which, in all honesty, was not big on the animal welfare side of things. ‘Naturalness’ was prized above all, because  we were conservationists and behavioural ecologists. I then went to work in wildlife rehabilitation with the RSPCA where we did our utmost to avoid interacting with the animals because if we were to accidentally tame one, it would not be appropriate to release that animal back into the wild. This meant that for orphaned wildlife such as foxes we went to great lengths to get them to behave naturally, with so-called ‘soft releases’ where they’re given a cage outside and then allowed out of the cage, getting maintenance feed for a period. This enables the orphans  to learn how to fend for themselves in a manner that attempts to mimic their wild counterparts. 

I then went to work in the world of agriculture, where animals are production units. While I worked in the field of welfare in both of these roles, it is frowned upon, culturally, to show affection to the animals. Most animals would be distressed by what we think of as human affection.

So I have developed an idea about most animals that aren’t dogs, cats and horses, that they really don’t particularly want or need human attention. 

But this isn’t necessarily 100% true. Many exotic animals in the pet or zoo trade, have been raised by humans. While not domesticated (genetically selected for traits that make them more suited for human-association), they have learned to cope with humans, and even desire human contact. It is a bias I have had to confront myself, seeing instances, particularly in primates, where human contact appears to be enriching.

The most difficult part about a bias is that seeing your bias contradicted feels wrong. On my holiday I visited a parrot sanctuary, which rescued former pet parrots. I noticed my bias creeping in as dozens of birds chirruped “Hello” and “I’m a pretty boy then” at me, beckoning to climb up on my shoulder and engage with me. One little cockatoo wanted very much to play with my hair, a parakeet was reciting its full repertoire of phrases  to my aunt while it sat on her shoulder in a  behaviour I could only describe as ‘desperate for attention’.

These birds are very intelligent and, at most, only one or two generations away from their wild ancestors. My training tells me they need all the complexity and diversity of a wild environment.

But behaviourally, I can see that many of those individual birds desperately wanted and craved human affection. They found it enriching and pleasurable, possibly only because their environment was not sufficiently complex without it, but could it be that some animals can simply enjoy the company of humans, much as we enjoy theirs?

This is a difficult question for me to parse, going against the grain so to speak. And yet if we ask the question “what does this animal perceive”, the right kind of human attention must be very positive for them.

You can’t shed a bias overnight, and my (many) cultural biases will remain with me, affecting the way I think about animal welfare. I’ll try and talk more about them in the blog, and hopefully by recognising our own biases, we can move past them to help the animals that need it. 

Bird sits on shoulder

Some animals crave human attention

Fluffy Friday – Frankenstein MD

Did you know that the first science fiction story was written by a woman? I wrote my advanced higher English thesis on ‘monsters’ and The Modern Prometheus was one of the texts I chose.

So imagine my excitement when the team behind the excellent Lizzie Bennett diaries (a YouTube adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I adored) announced that, in partnership with PBS Digital Studios, they were making Frankenstein MD.

The cool twist is that Victor is now Victoria, which I think is awesome, particularly as women in STEM fields are a problem for us.

Unfortunately the first three episodes have fallen a bit flat for me. They’ve broken away from the Lizzie Bennet ‘video diary’ style and there are multiple camera angles. If you’re going to do that, why have the video diary format at all?

And it may be premature to judge, but I’m terribly worried about how they’ll handle Victoria ‘reaching too far’. Men may have hubris in science fiction, but women always seem to be reaching for knowledge they (or ‘man’kind) shouldn’t. This is an important theme in Frankenstein, but as Frankenstein will ultimately either have ‘reached too far’ or fail to take responsibility for the ‘life’ he has created, I find these troublesome tropes to be laying at the door of a female scientist. Too familiar.

Now I loved the Lizzie Bennett diaries, and I maintain some hope that they will deal with this sensitively (after all, ‘Its Okay To Be Smart’  is the science advisor), but already she’s being dismissive and cruel to her Igor who in this iteration is a man (why not another woman?) and who already appears to fancy Victoria and she seems to know it. Leading to some awkward moment when he kills himself in episode one.

Maybe this will all even out in time. I did think that the Lizzie Bennett diaries would never work. But, that being said, I never got into Emma Approved either.

 

Before I go – I shall say that FluffySciences is on hiatus for the next three weeks as I will be away visiting old friends and family, as well as attending PAX! I’m very excited and can’t wait to be there, so enjoy your summer break all, and see you on the other side.

FoodInc – The Documentary Problem

I have mentioned a few times that I am a big fan of film, but that doesn’t always extend to documentaries. Why is this? Well I have an instinctive distrust of documentaries – I would not consider them a good source of information. In fact this was why I made my post on the Blackfish documentary. Much as I enjoyed it as a story, I wasn’t convinced it used the facts and science to the best possible way it did.

I am no expert in film, but I have spent a lot of my life consuming media and creating media to some extent. I’m a regular on TV Tropes. But it was this video by Every Frame a Painting (a great YouTube channel if you like film theory) that made me able to iterate what it is about FoodInc that makes me uncomfortable. Documentaries use the language of film to create an argument, and I think we have been trained not to argue with the language of film. Do you remember the uproar of Inception’s ending, was it real, was it not? Film critics talk about how the viewer is given no token to tell them where there is a dream and where there is reality in the film – which is unusual, because as audiences we are used to being told what to believe. The language of movies tells us to accept what is happening on the screen – this is suspension of disbelief. If you’re in a superhero movie, you don’t complain about the destruction of property unless it is egregious or you’re making a point.

Documentaries give us emotional reactions to facts – and when I see people bring them up as something to support their arguments, it sets my teeth on edge.

FoodInc is beautifully slick. That opening sequence is so stylish and borrows so much from the language of traditional films it might seem like an odd choice for a documentary. It uses music reminiscent of a psychological thriller. All of these are cues that a piece of fictional film would use to tell you to be afraid of what you’re about to see. It’s a great piece of film making, but it’s not a component of a rational, scientific argument.

It uses amazing infographics and zooms in and out of the labels, tying the identity of the stories to the situation you are used to being in every day – the supermarket. The message is that you should be afraid of this thing in your very own supermarket, like you should be afraid of the axe murderer undoubtedly waiting right behind you in the horror film.

Early on in the documentary there is a very powerful shot of a chicken in the foreground, prone, struggling to breathe, and the others behind it, out of focus. It’s like something from a Western movie, very stylised, not quite Sergio Leone but really striking – and so striking because the rest of that segment is very ‘documentary’, people talking to cameras, very traditional cinematography, and then suddenly this shot. It’s memorable.

The film works in chapters, each one snappily titled. This kind of style is now pretty well used in these kind of documentary cum educational programs, Crash Course comes to mind. The information is held in small, easily digestible chunks – really just a number of short acts strung together, each act with a different message, like each act has a different part of the story to tell.

For me as a scientist, watching something about an industry I am familiar with, FoodInc gives me a strange feeling. To see my industry treated with the language and style of a film, puts me on edge, even though I agree with a lot of its messages. We are much too disconnected with our food.

But documentaries are chiefly enjoyable because they use the language of film to tell us a story, not to teach us.

The final message – buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect – is powerful and important. But let’s not forget this film wasn’t Oscar nominated for its message, but the way it tells it.

And fundamentally, this is why I prefer not to use documentaries as evidence in an argument.

The Calgary Model

jilly:

This is very similar to a post that’s been knocking about inside my head, so while I play catch up after my week away, have this post instead!

Originally posted on :

In North America we do not have a problem with pet overpopulation, stray animals, nuisance or vicious animals – we have a problem with responsible pet ownership. Virtually every animal that ends up in a shelter or on the street is there because a human relationship failed them…It’s always the animal that pays in the end.

Bill BruceBill Bruce, Director of Calgary Animal and Bylaw Services attacks the problem head-on with a three-pronged approach to responsible pet ownership, incorporating licensing, public education and enforcement, with supporting agencies all working together to achieve the same goals.

As long as owners license their pets, have them spayed or neutered, take proper care of them and ensure they don’t show signs of aggression, such as charging or excessive barking, they won’t have to deal with Bill.

His mission is “To encourage a safe, healthy, vibrant community for people and pets through the development, education…

View original 979 more words

World Animal Protection in Asia: Key Drivers

image

Berocca and cake? I must be at a conference!

I’m honoured this week to have been invited to the annual key drivers in Animal Welfare for Asia conference, organised by World Animal Protection. (Formerly known as wspa). We’re half way through now and we have discussed the mooc, informal science education, animal welfare in Asia and much more. We’re also being very well fed by our generous and lovely host Ms lui.

I will post more about it later in the week, or possibly at the weekend but just thought I’d let you know that it’s all going very well. Really exciting stuff

When Bill Gates Pops Round For Tea

This post was going to be different, but I can’t resist sharing this story.

On Tuesday morning we received the usual “VIP Guest is coming round, make sure the place is clean” email, and summarily ignored it as we usually do. The gossip going round was that it was someone from the Gates Foundation.

So at lunch time, when these two maroon cars pull up outside the front door and a very recognisable gentleman walks through door accompanied by a flurry of dining researchers suddenly leaping to update Facebook/Twitter/Reddit/etc.

It was only Bill Gates popping round for coffee.

Oor Billy, as his good friends at the Easter Bush Research Consortium passed within ten feet of me, and then I possibly hung around outside the board room while he listened to the important people talk. The Gates Foundation is currently very interested in research, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where we have a lot of research links. They’re currently funding through the Program for Emerging Agricultural Research Leaders (PEARL) grant, the final proposals for which go in November. He visited our beef farm which is a world class methane emission centre, and while we were all greatly tempted to shoulder our way in there with some animal welfare grant proposals, the body guards were quite formidable. I still see this as a fabulous opportunity for animal welfare research, we’re so integrated, not only within SRUC, but the Easter Bush Research Consortium as a whole, that no one discipline of agricultural research is separated from the rest. While we have a lot of inter-team friendly ribbing, I don’t think we could make half the advances in animal welfare we have without the input from both the farming systems teams and the animal breeding teams.

The big take home story from this (aside from the unbelievably awesome fact that I was within ten feet of Bill Gates, the man whose hand has guided this century) is that agricultural research is earning the respect and serious funding it deserves.

It’s not so long ago that agricultural research was thought of as a ‘finished science’, that we knew everything, and there was no funding left there. My colleagues still clearly remember this. And now people are realising how we need to invest in agriculture to create a sustainable future. This is why both us at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh are interested in moving forward with closer relations, it’s why we’re taking part in international projects like the MOOC.

Overall, yesterday was an exciting day for us. And I’m definitely going to be exaggerating how close I was to Bill Gates when I’m telling this story in the pub!

Fluffy Friday – Internet Roundup

Fluffy Fridays have fallen by the wayside a bit as I keep up with the MOOC. This week has been a really interesting experience and in some ways, a lot of the discussions I was expecting, haven’t happened in the forums. The questions that spring to my mind when I think about measuring animal welfare clearly aren’t the questions that spring to my students’ mind.

For me this is one of the really valuable personal experiences I’m taking from the MOOC, being exposed to so many different students. I was never one of the panicking students, but I’ve had plenty of experience with them in my lectures – they’re usually  doing absolutely fine anyway, but because it’s important to them they doubt themselves very quickly. Take the undergraduates who email at midnight to tell you they just realised they used the wrong word in an essay.

It’s not a problem for lecturers (until the student starts to expect that lecturers will answer emails at midnight!) but I wonder about how the panickers feel about their education – if the stress of it detracts from the experience at all? I expect this is something I should be looking up and investigating, particularly as I’ve put in to supervise some Masters students this year.

But I always assumed that it was to do with the university experience, and yet I have panicky MOOC students too – it’s a free (or, at most, $40 course), and yet people still get very worked up if they’re worried about something. I think it just goes to show that the pastoral care of students is something that all lecturers need to be involved in.

 

Anyway I would like to introduce you to two fellow bloggers:

Sam Hardman of Ecologica Blog blogs about animal behaviour and has been commenting over here for the last week with some really interesting resources and insights. I’m hoping he expands on one of his comments in a future blog post.

And second is ComparativelyPsyched who I met a few months ago at a science communication event. He works on some really interesting psychology research and also an excellent science communicator.

 

I’ll be adding both these blogs to the sideroll so I thought I should introduce them.

 

Salvador Dumbo

I’ve spoken before about how YouTube and the explosion of camera phones has given animal behaviour researchers a a way of quantifying behaviour that is rarely seen, or would once have been thought of as anecdotal. Well here’s a short example of (what looks to be) a very strange behaviour that is prolifegate on YouTube and the interwebs.

Animal art!

Hey, don’t leave. This is a science blog. Sit down and watch these videos of elephants painting with sticks.

 

In that second video, at around 09:20, I wonder if that’s a bit of stereotypic behaviour going on.

By my thinking, as animal behaviour and welfare scientists, we’re interested in two or three main questions here:

  1. Are these animals creating art?
  2. Does the animal know what it is depicting?
  3. Is the process rewarding for the animal?

 

Firstly, we’ll define ‘art’ in a somewhat simplistic manner for the sake of this blog post – it should be a piece designed to provoke feelings in the viewer. This would require the elephants to have a theory of mind and to understand that someone ‘other’ than them perceives things and feels emotions. This is a pretty complex concept to grasp. There’s some evidence (Edgar et al 2012) to suggest that some species are capable of empathy (or proto-empathy), i.e. understanding that another individual has an emotional response comparable to your own, and yet different from yours. Strictly speaking empathy doesn’t mean you understand you can influence the emotional state of others, just that you understand they have it.

So are the elephants trying to manipulate our emotional state through their actions? Probably not. Could the elephants be doing this because they get rewarded afterwards – most likely.

Now both these elephants paint what looks like another elephant. Do they know this is what they’re painting? Are they deliberately trying to paint themselves? (Or their mothers, sisters, etc.) Well there’s two aspects to this question – yes animals can recognise other members of their own species, but they don’t see in the same way we do. For example, you have to take very high definition photographs of a chicken before it will recognise it (D’Eath, 1998). In that case, unless something looks ‘realistic’ to a chicken, they don’t recognise it as a representation of their species.

You can train dogs and parrots to recognise that the phrase ‘blue’ refers to the colour ‘blue’ and various shapes (Pepperberg et al, 2000) but I question the difference between being able to identify the concepts and knowing the sound-object-colour associations. You could train an elephant to associate that particular shape with other elephants, but that doesn’t mean that it conceptually indicates elephants.

However, it is considerably simpler to imagine that these elephants have been taught to paint this shape (considering they all seem to paint the same thing), which is pretty cognitively impressive regardless.

Lastly – is it rewarding for the animal? I already pointed out what looks like a bit of a stereotypy and by all my interpretations above these are captive wild animals performing for their supper. From my point of view, I decry Blackfish for this exact thing. This is just marketed as earthy and vaguely ‘ethnic’, and not at all corporate like SeaWorld. Here we have a very intelligent animal being given a series of instructions that it has learned the appropriate responses to. I don’t see it as anything more.

 

However cats painting looks hilarious.

Fluffy Friday – Personality and Trait Theory

Oh, hey, Crash Course have done a video about measuring personality

 

That’s kind of my thing.  Although the video talks more about trait theory and self than concepts behind how we measure it, which is what I’m interested in, it’s pretty cool. It notes that traits are used to ‘predict behaviour and attitude’ but it doesn’t really get into the idea that we’re only using models and hence the models are infinitely variable. The simpler your model (e.g. the big five personality traits) you have less power to predict specific behaviours, but it’s general enough to apply to most humans and even some other animal species. That’s why we tend to go for the two-trait model for animals (also known as active/passive coping).

Anyway, I’m just bitter because my massive paper on the subject hasn’t been published yet.

And it would be really cool if we could try floating imaginary scenarios past animals . . .