Of Denmark, Zoos and Lions

Lately I’ve had a song from the TV series ‘Nashville’ stuck in my head – titled I Just Can’t Get it Right.

Copenhagen Zoo was back in the news last week for another culling. The Guardian and the Independent report on the story.

What’s happened this time?

Copenhagen Zoo is receiving a new male lion.

That seems cool, so why are they back in the news? Are they feeding more giraffes to the lions?

Um. No. They’ve euthanised two older lions and two younger lions to make room for him.

You’re kidding.

Well the zoo have helpfully said they’re not going to have live dissections of these lions, because they don’t always publicly dissect animals. 


Seriously though, the Guardian reports that the zoo’s scientific director received death threats after the Marius story went viral. I wonder how hard the journalists had to search for the next story, and how the scientific director is feeling this week.

There is a solid, scientific motive behind this culling, and it’s much the same as it was last time around. The zoo highly prizes natural behaviours.

In the wild, lions live in harem structures called prides. We’ve all seen the Lion King. Typically one or two related males will guard a group of females (the females tend to be related to one another, mothers, daughters, sisters). When the cubs are born the pride takes care of them. When the male cubs mature they’re chased from the pride.

Two brothers might then wander the Savannah until they find a pride with an old male lion guarding it. With all the strength and vigour of youth they oust the old lion and set up their own pride. The quickest way to do this is for them to kill all the cubs and bring the lionesses back into oestrus. This means the lionesses waste no time on producing cubs that related to the male protecting their pride. And so the circle of life continues.

Copenhagen Zoo euthanised their two old lions and their two cubs because this would mimic what happens in the wild.

I spoke about Copenhagen Zoo during the Marius scandal and I mentioned that I don’t entirely agree with this ‘natural behaviour’ approach. Let me explain again:


Natural behaviours are a good thing – one of the Five Freedoms relates to the Freedom to Perform Natural Behaviours.

But natural behaviours do not show an ethical standpoint. Aggression is natural. Dying is natural. Stress is natural. When using this freedom to assess the welfare of captive animals, we mean that the animal’s behavioural repertoire, all the behaviours it is capable of performing, should not be artificially restricted. For example, keeping a pig in a farrowing crate that prevents her from turning over is severely restricting her natural mothering behaviours.

This new male who is coming to Copenhagen Zoo does not have to fight the two old males for his pride. In the wild, he can’t simply come in and have the humans do all the work for him. Vice versa, the two old males who have been euthanised have not had the chance to fight for their survival. They did not have the opportunity to display their aggression to newcomer males.

It’s obvious why the zoo did not allow these natural behaviours to occur. A fight between three male lions would have caused great suffering to the animals. The aggression and the fight would have induced pain and stress and resulted, most likely, in a slow death for the losing animals. The zoo has accepted it has a duty of care over the animals, and so will not allow the fight to occur.

The zoo inherently compromises its natural behaviour ethos by selecting what animals live and die.

The moment you take responsibility for the life and death of an animal, you have a duty to make sure it has a good life and dies well.

Now I want to emphasise that I do not have a problem with animal euthanasia. It’s a ‘good’ death. I use animal products every day, therefore I cannot be opposed to the ending of a healthy animal’s life for human benefit. I have a problem with how the zoo chooses to justify this euthanasia. I think the zoo is trying to wear two hats at once, and it’s not an attractive look.

If the zoo’s primary focus is conservation, it should act as a rehabilitation centre. The public are not allowed in. You don’t overstock on animals which are not going to contribute to the conservation effort. You don’t stock many high profile, popular species like lions and giraffes. You have pens which are designed wholly for natural behaviours, not for viewing purposes.

If the zoo is a business which seeks to educate and inspire people about animals, it must accept that the very practice of keeping animals for this purpose innately compromises natural behaviours. The animals are not being kept for their good but for ours, and therefore we owe them a very good life indeed.

The zoo would probably respond that it is both of these scenarios. That is would be impossible to work in conservation without the money-making business side of the enterprise. I don’t really agree.

Many of the pictures used on this blog are ones I’ve taken at Edinburgh Zoo. I use that zoo for teaching. I use that zoo for entertainment. I think it’s a good zoo. But it is still a zoo and I still accept, every time I cross those gates, that my demand to use these animals compromises their welfare.

It’s a relatively small compromise. Probably better than the welfare compromise I ask of the chickens I eat. But it still exists.

Cull the surplus, it’s better than a slow death. But don’t try to fool yourself into thinking its for any other reason than because they’re no longer satisfying a human need.

FluffyFriday – WolfQuest Part Three!

FluffyFriday returns! And this time I have actually queued up a few posts so hopefully FluffyFriday will become a regular occurrence.

Today I present you the third act in the epic saga of Fluffy and Diet Coke. It’s a nailbiting tale (tail?) of bears, eagles and glitched games. Part Four will conclude the story next week.


On our last Fluffy Friday I said I wanted your animal welfare questions for a possible Q&A vid with one my colleagues. I’m still looking for questions! Ask us anything, guys! I have one colleague who has almost agreed to show her face on YouTube with me so this is your chance! Anything you want to know about animal welfare, we’ll be happy to discuss it.

So until next week – have a good one.


Last week the drains in my flat were badly blocked. On Friday night I came home to the plumber triumphantly climbing out from underneath the bathtub, looking distinctly harrowed and proclaiming that he’d spent two hours sandwiched between my bath and the toilet, fixing the problem. I adore my plumber. Having a shower in my own flat, without the water lapping at my ankles, was a truly glorious feeling.

It got me thinking about personal grooming and fastidiousness, particularly in our domestic pets:


Head-directed self grooming, thank you Tumblr!

Eckstein and Hart, in 2000, decided to investigate exactly how cats clean themselves. It’s probably more remarkable that for such an adorable behaviour, they were one of the first to sit down and categorise it. When they weren’t sleeping, cats spent 8% of their day grooming. Which means they spent approximately an hour each day grooming. My long showers, in comparison, take less than half the time, and there’s a lot more of me to wash. And they spend a lot of time grooming their head and face.

This head-focussed grooming can lead to momentary lapses of concentration like this:

This happens.

For much of my life I had a beautiful little Tuxedo cat named Posie. Posie was a delicate flower in the wasteland and would groom herself obsessively, with all her paws neatly tucked beneath her body, one white pawed leg raised to anoint the back of her ears. She rarely got distracted mid session and would sometimes seem preoccupied with grooming the little black smudge on an otherwise white paw. In fact she liked grooming so much that it became a problem when she developed arthritis. Her redirected grooming to her stomach resulted in a bald patch which always grew worse in winter.

Posie couldn't abide wet paws
Posie couldn’t abide wet paws

By contrast, mum’s new cat, a little black and white girl, has only the vaguest notion that she should groom herself. She sits with legs splayed, hind leg pointing in the air, a slightly confused expression on her face as she gets distracted by somebody walking across the room. She even explored a cow pat once, though she came home quickly after and was appreciative of being bathed:

Post cowpat exploration, quite content with her cuddles
Post cowpat exploration, quite content with her cuddles

Over half of cats which live together will frequently groom one another (Voith and Borchelt, 1986). Mutual grooming, or allogrooming, as I prefer to call it, is a behaviour which builds social bonds. Why is this? Well imagine yourself a cat, being groomed by another cat. You may be held down by the groomer, you’re in close contact with the groomer’s teeth and claws, all the pointy bits that could hurt you. And yet the groomer is expending energy on your behalf. You would groom yourself if you weren’t being groomed. It’s a nice thing to do for someone.

Purr, purr, purr

Grooming is also a behaviour which reassures cats. Cats which spend time in stressful situations, such as a high density cat shelter, will spent more time grooming themselves than usual (Ng Yi Hui, 2011). This can lead to bald patches, like what happened to Posie, even in otherwise happy cats. Excessive grooming in any animal is a concerning sign.

Last week I was staring at a datasheet, trying to understand why a farm had gone missing between two questions in a survey. I was reclining back in my office chair and I had pulled my ponytail high up above my head. A colleague walked past and tugged on it, asking if I was stressed. We know intuitively that when we play with our own hair, we’re probably stressed by something. I have my own distinctive stereotypy when I’m feeling under pressure. I continually run my hand through my hair until I’ve pulled out all the knots, and then I pull it all around one side and brush the ends against my hand. And yet in the playground, I’m sure we’ve all seen lines of little girls braiding one another’s hair. Do boys have their own version of this allogrooming?  But I’m getting off topic . . .

So that’s cats – let’s turn to their natural enemy: the dog. Any pet owner knows that dogs are not quite so fastidious as their feline friends. Instead they would much rather anoint themselves with fox poo (or badger poo – always preferable in my dogs’ experience, for the extra muskiness component), and they never understand why we don’t want to rub our shoulder blades all over such a wonderful smell.

Dogs often show us a particular kind of allogrooming, affiliative licking, particularly directed to the mouth which for dogs is a sign of “I love you and respect you” and for us is more a token of disgust. There’s some evidence to suggest that stroking dogs produces a physiological change in us (Charnetski et al 2004) , but interestingly, dogs’ heart rates also drop while they’re being stroked (McGreevy et al 2012), possibly showing a reduction in stress. Mutual grooming works both ways it seems.

Grooming serves a multitude of functions. For cats, it keeps them from smelling too much, from giving themselves away to their prey. Dogs take the opposite tact, hiding their smell behind something stronger and marking their own smell on their territory. And for group living animals, grooming one another is a sign of relaxation, peace and comfort with one another. I’m not sure if this is what cats are thinking when they’re so determined to come in the shower with you, but as someone who has her shower back, all I can say is that a little self-grooming is blissful.

The Selfie Cancer

Have you taken your make-up free selfie yet? Or are you rolling your eyes at the very thought? The split between the two camps is pretty much 50:50 on my Facebook wall.

Let me start with this. I am terrified of cancer. There are few diseases that frighten me. As a biologist, and with a family that comes in the medical flavour variety, I tend to view disease with more fascination than fear. But this obsession with the mechanics of the body breaks down when I’m confronted with the C word.

It’s not that I have bad experiences with cancer. The worst thing cancer has done to me is present a few non-malign tumours in close family members, which causes a few months of unease until the offending lump is excised. A grandfather died of an unknown primary tumour, a quick decline after a surprise diagnosis. And a grandmother who died of cancer before too many memories of her formed. Family lore says her radiation badge from her days working as a nurse in radiology was too often blackened, and that she ignored the signs for too long. I’ve been told we have the same hair.

But it still frightens me. Is it the chaotic nature of the disease? Cells which divide forever, heedless of the proper order of the body? Yes, I am a bit of a control freak. Is it the way it lurks? The lumps and bumps that might seem normal. Is it that, despite being shown by a nurse and looking at the diagrams, I’m still very unclear on whether I’m doing a breast exam right? Is it the vestigial cultural taboo of the C word?

But as a scientist, cancer holds other problems for me. If you forced me to give you my contribution to the world’s scientific knowledge I’d tell you I enhanced our understanding of how personality affects animal behaviour. Anonymous internet commenters have asked me why I didn’t spend my time curing cancer instead.

Build a Large Hadron Collider – why didn’t you spend that money curing cancer?

Define our theory of physics – why don’t you use that time to cure cancer?

Launch a telescope into space – shouldn’t you be curing cancer?

Work in cancer research – shouldn’t you be curing cancer faster?

I’m sure most of my fellow scientists will have had this accusation levelled at them once or twice. Never mind that markets don’t work like this, that scientific progress requires more than one discipline of study. Never mind that I’d be useless in a lab because my natural talents lie towards the empathy and big-picture-view that make me a good ethologist. Why don’t we all go cure cancer right now?

Here I direct you to another wonderful science communicator: Jorge Cham. As the creator of PhDComics.com he has plenty to say on the experience of being a scientist. When he visited a cancer centre he had to ask: why were they listening to him and not off curing cancer?

Please do visit that link. It’s one of the most informative links I’ll ever point you towards. To call this monster simply ‘Cancer’ provides a smoke screen that disguises the true problem. There are many, many cancers and there are many, many hurdles on the way to curing, or even treating, those many, many cancers.

This brings us to the selfie trend. Take a photo of yourself without makeup to raise awareness of cancer. The Telegraph reports the trend has already raised a million pounds. The Independent editorialises the death of vanity. And Closer magazine thinks we’re all missing the point (they helpfully tell me the point is to donate money).

It’s always easy to criticise. I’ll start my criticisms by saying this no-make up selfie bandwagon sensationalises women who choose not to wear make up. It is somehow ‘brave’ to appear as you do when you wake up in the morning. I have apparently been subjected to ‘horror’ if I’m to believe the self deprecatory captions on each selfie.

This is perhaps what offends me the most about this whole trend. I’m an avid selfie taker and I wear make up perhaps once a month. Last weekend I posted about five make-up free selfies in the course of a football match. Is this horrendous to you? Am I brave? No, I am not.

Because I am afraid of cancer.

And this is why the selfie craze is brave, just not quite in the way people might think. It’s not brave because you contravene some ridiculous preconception of beauty. It’s brave precisely because you frighten me. You remind me there is a terrifying disease out there. Stephanie Boyce is brave for reminding me that the disease is survivable.

The bravery is the same bravery that prompts people to stand on the street collecting money for cancer research. It’s an irritant. They know I don’t want to hear about it, they know I don’t want to confront the fear today, but still they ask for money.

When we talk about a ‘cancer awareness’ campaign it may seem like we’re implying there are people out there who are somehow unaware of our plague. Nobody is unaware of cancer. But there is still a desire to sweep the disease under the rug. It is so big, so complex and so terrifying that it’s easier to think that if all scientists simply put their heads together we’d have it kicked in a week.

It bothers me that your make-up less face is worthy of comment. It bothers me that we picked this method of getting people talking. But it bothers me that cancer is still so prevalent.

What’s the bigger evil? The disease, or being reminded that it exists?

More Science Communication from VoYS

Voice of Young Science, who were instrumental in prompting me to start Fluffy Sciences, ran another one of their excellent Science Communication workshops next week.


Check out Chemist By Choice’s write up of the event. If you’re a young scientist I really recommend you keep up with VoYS and their Standing Up For Science Media workshops. Very useful stuff!

Fluffy Friday – WolfQuest Part Two

Welcome to FluffyScience’s ‘Fluffy Friday’! This will be a semi-regular slot on the blog reserved for silly pieces such as talking about educational gaming, personal stories, etc. I figure that by having a regular slot for it, we can keep a good balance between the fun stuff and the serious work.

So what have you got this week? First – we have the continuing adventures of Fluffy and her mate Diet Coke as they try to fulfil their genetic imperative on the slopes of Amethyst Mountain in Part Two of WolfQuest!



Secondly, Wednesday’s post on anthropology reminded me of something I’d written a few years ago. I’ve kept a diary throughout my PhD and my first experiment involved me spending 12 hours a day with a group of cows over a three week period. Much of this was because I wanted the cows to habituate to me before I started my behavioural observations. As a result you get to know the individuals very well indeed.

Somewhat facetiously, I must admit, I started recording my day-to-day interactions as if I was living with a tribe. A parody of the 19th Century Anthropologist. Based on this week’s discussion I’m amazed at how pertinent this four year old piece of writing is! I present the whole thing for your reading pleasure:

I had been lobbying for some months to visit the native cow tribes of the countryside. Visas took time, the locals were not willing to invite another documenter that will fall afoul of their own personal Everest – the Cow Tribe.

Still, after much negotiating, and agreeing that I would not bring a camera, I was able to gain access for three weeks. All I brought with me was a small, slim notebook, a palm computer and a selection of gifts for the Tribe if I was lucky enough to gain access.

Day One

I’m met by a friendly local. Like most of the villagers around here their language is almost incomprehensible to those raised in cities and I am thankful for my many years in other countrysides. I need no translator and with a small amount of effort at first I can make myself understood. The locals are wary, they know I will create more work for them, and they insist I stay with them and not in the Tribe. Previous researchers have been lost. I assure them this won’t happen to me and my guide leads me to the Tribe. My initial meeting with them is a dizzying blur of their peculiar naming system and splodgy faces. There’s evidently a strict hierarchy and communication that I am clueless of. The locals are sympathetic but they seem to expect this. I leave the Tribe with some relief that evening and return to my humble dwelling. It’s not perfect, but it is away from the Tribe, and gives me some time to collect my thoughts.

Day Two
I rise earlier than I would usually in order to be present for the Tribe’s morning rituals. Their milking is evidently an important routine, but they greet it with a strange mixture of impatience and irritation that I do not expect. I attempt to immerse myself in their culture, in their worship of Feed Truck. Feed Truck is displeased today and they are not allowed to reach their feed face. This displeases the matriarch 1019. She is a large, old cow with a grey face. She is almost dinosaur like in her physical appearance, with a large arching back and powerful shoulders. She is from another era, and she completely intimidates me.

Day Three
The Feed Truck is pleased with whatever penance the Tribe had paid and they are fed in time. However, the penance appears to be that one of the youngest members of the Tribe lost her sacred collar over night. These tokens appear to have religious symbology for the Tribe. I find the collar in one of their beds and return it to the young member, allowing her to once again approach the holy feed face. Although she reacts with annoyance, I feel as though I have done something for her that no one else could have. I hope her gods are happy with her now.

Day Four
Today is a day of celebration for the Tribe, one of their members is fertile. She is chasing all of the others, even the Matriarch at times. The Tribe tolerate this for a while, but will see her off when she becomes too persistent. I wonder at their behaviour. In her position, they are just as eager to show their amorous intentions. The Tribe appear to place great significance on their fertility, painting themselves differently when they are in-calf. I try to remember this.

The locals assign me an assistant, another traveller like myself. Girl and I are allowed access to the Tribe, although she must return to the locals more often, whereas I am allowed to be isolated with my Tribe.

I realise I begin to think of the Tribe as my own and know that I must curtail this line of thinking. I do not want to become one of those others . . .

Day Five
I am beginning to understand the Tribe. 1019 is the undisputed leader, deferred to in all manners relating to the Feed Truck God and feed face temple. Her ‘muscle’ as it were is 1405, an older Tribe Member who is quite simply massive. I expect some kind of power struggle between them, but 1405 is content in her place. The Tribe members then decrease in number to the youngest ones who are small and still slightly long haired. They are wariest of me and have no desire to communicate, whereas the older Tribe members have begun to approach me, and discuss the Feed Truck God, as well as the importance of their beds and the irritation that is the sludge scraper. I am honoured by their attention.

Day Six
The Matriarch has evidently passed some kind of judgement on me for her acolytes have accepted my presence in every facet of their lives. I am allowed to be present whenever I choose and I find their company soothing. When I return to the locals I am compelled to tell them of the Tribe’s activity. They are interested, but seem concerned at the amount of time I spend with the Tribe and continuously ask if ‘everything is going well?’ I reply that it is. My Tribe is fine. The Tribe members have started to groom me if I wait long enough with them. Their tongues are rough.

Day Seven
The Tribe were greatly disturbed today by a festival that the locals put on. This involved some kind of appearance by someone the locals worship, but who the Tribe regards as a devil. The Foot Trimmer Daemon selected six of the Tribe and I was complicit in this, wishing to observe every aspect of their lives. The Tribe were not pleased with me and I was forced to sacrifice my left index finger by having it jammed between a steel bar and one of the Tribe’s horn butt. The pain is intense but I cannot react as I would normally for the local children are there, and the Tribe know this. I nurse my wounds and retreat, I feel this festival has set my entire study back.

Day Eight
The Matriarch has announced that I may stay an extra day, a reprieve for my sins yesterday. I get the sense that the Tribe has some affection for me as 1825, one of the youngest, starts to eat my sleeve. I record of this in my palm computer which they have taken to calling my little demon. The Tribe accept me and my strange ways as I accept they and theirs. It is a comforting relationship and when I leave in the evening, I am somehow . . . tense.

Day Nine
One of the Tribe’s sister groups roams in a pen near to my Tribe. One of the locals discovered that one of the sisters had trapped her head in a pen. I go to assist, and though she frees herself, I get the feeling the Matriarch is pleased with me. I enjoy my time with the Tribe more than with the locals, and I feel they even enjoy spending time with Girl.

Day Ten
It strikes me today that I misjudged many of the Tribe when I first arrived. I wonder now why I ever thought 1405 was only the ‘muscle’. She is second in command, constantly at 1019’s side and pushing the smaller Tribe members aside. Today she initiates a grooming session with me. I can barely move for excitement, although her strong licks almost send me flying.

Day Eleven
Disaster strikes. The Feed Truck God makes a delay before his morning appearance. 1586, the best singer in the Tribe, raises her voices to the heavens in order to inform them they have forgotten to send their blessed angel. I try to reassure the Tribe that their Feed Truck God will come soon, he has just been delayed, but they disagree. One of them, 1541, who is small and strange looking, suggests we must sacrifice Girl to appease him. I discourage this firmly, and sure enough Feed Truck God appears. 1541 subsides, but she does not go to the feed face temple for some time. I am concerned. Later that evening I realise she is not as young as I first thought, in fact she is one of the older Tribe members, though small. She is also wearing the paint of an in-calf Tribe member, and I am surprised for some reason. She then disappears under my nose and reappears on the wrong side of the gates I promised to man for the locals. I fetch her with little difficulty, but I am informed by the others that she is their shaman.

I return to my dwelling and wonder about this.

Day Twelve
Today my ‘demon’, my palm computer that so fascinates the Tribe breaks. 1541 is watching me from her bed, saying nothing. I spend some time fixing it but I have lost precious notes. I am concerned that the Tribe are saying 1541 caused my demon to flee. I observe their rituals, but I do not believe. If I believed I would be in danger of losing myself. When Girl comes in, 1541 says nothing, but merely turns away.

Day Thirteen
Yet again my ‘demon’ breaks. I replace it with another that the locals have gifted me and it breaks also. I am terrified, and 1541 is watching everything I do. She wants the Girl. I cannot give her that, but I can wake Girl early for an emergency as I try to fix the demons frantically. My demons work suddenly and I sense that 1541 is appeased by Girl’s missed sleep, although I am later told she would have preferred spilled blood.

Day Fourteen
Girl attends the whole of the morning milking ritual, which greatly appeased 1541. I gift the Tribe with the jewellery I have brought and hope they like it. As we are waiting for the afternoon milking ritual to begin, I tentatively begin to groom 1541. The Matriarch is revealed to be in-calf yet again and her paint is changed. This is some celebration for the Tribe, and the Feed Truck God is lenient. I am content to sit among the Tribe that evening, in the sweltering heat, listening to 1584 gently singing as she eats.

Day Fifteen
The jewellery I have provided the Tribe with is now encased with dirt and sawdust, as everything is that the Tribe appreciates. I realise that I am one with the Tribe, that I am Tribe. I lean against 1541 as we wait for the afternoon milking ritual, and one of the younger Tribe members licks the left over feed from my arm.

Day Sixteen
A local invades the Tribe’s territory to provide some essential maintenance. 1599, the Tribe’s best hunter, is assigned to investigate. She once followed a flightless pigeon all the way through the pen, and I watched as she almost caught it before it escape through the fence. The Tribe and I all agreed it was a marvellous feat to even have her nose so close to its tail feathers, though 1599 is a proud individual, and was saddened to lose the bird. Today she investigates the man very slowly, and his power tools. She captures one successfully and he is forced to move.

I have negotiated for extra food from the Food Truck God, and this wins me great approval. With 1599’s success and my own, the Tribe is content this evening.

Day Seventeen
I am supposed to be returning soon, and I barely remember civilisation. I barely remember non-Tribe living. The fumbling of the afternoon milking ritual by the new young local priest irritates the Tribe, and I share their annoyance, share their jubilation when they finally return to the pens. As we wait, I find myself falling asleep against 1541’s flank and she takes me on a dream walk. We are interrupted by a laughing local, but I am oddly touched by 1541’s power.

How will I leave the Tribe when they have so much to teach me?

Day Eighteen
The Tribe do not want me to leave. They are incessantly grooming me, their rough tongues curling around my arms and pulling me into their mouths. I am concerned suddenly about why they were so keen to sacrifice Girl. The Feed Truck God is equally displeased and is late again, the Tribe sing for him and I find myself begging 1541 as my demon begins to play up. I think I will stay.

Day Nineteen
The locals have come for me. They say the Tribe must move on to newer pastures where I may not follow. I notice 1019 has a scratch on her hip that she did not have yesterday and I am suddenly afraid for the old Matriarch. I hope she continues her long and wise life. I hope 1541 remains strong and small. I want to know which of the young Tribe will grow to be as big as 1405, and if 1599 will ever catch her pigeon or if 1586 will ever stop singing. Will 1494 stop kneeling all the time and will 1825 learn that she doesn’t need to perch on the ridge of the feed face temple to get in? All these questions I can not answer because I must leave.

I return to civilisation and it feels odd, strange. I wonder what I will do tomorrow when there is no morning milking ritual for me, and yet for the Tribe it will continue. Their lives will continue as mine does not. I will miss them.

The Other

One of my colleagues recently took a sabbatical year and worked with another university’s anthropology department. This week she gave us a fascinating seminar about how anthropologists view human-animal relations and how different it is from the ethologist’s view.

I can only simplify what my colleague had already simplified for me (if you’re all interested we can harass her to write a guest blog post for us), but anthropologists don’t seek to understand and quantify their subjects like we do. Instead its more about a holistic documentation that incorporates the feelings and inherent biases of the observer. This is because the observer is coming in with their own culture and can never fully escape all those biases.

To me it seems as though anthropology does a lot of case studies, and as an ethologist I’ve been trained to look down on case studies. I’m not entirely au fait with everything that anthropology does (I worry about the inevitable changing of anything you observe so intimately) but I really like that they take the time to look at cases, and that they acknowledge how our own culture biases us.

But I do take issue with one thing in particular. They talk about their subjects as the ‘Other’. I don’t fully understand this concept from the brief seminar I got this week, but to the best of my understanding they are very concerned about their subjects being objectified. Therefore when they study animals they are reluctant to do anything that would objectify them, e.g. keeping them as a pet. The equivalence given was that you wouldn’t keep a woman or a tribesperson as a pet, so you can’t study an animal, ethically speaking, in that context.

I think this is forgetting just how ‘other’ the nature of animals can be. For example my colleague at the seminar quoted a paper by Smuts (2001 – and incidentally, what a wonderful name).  In the paper, Smuts investigates human-animal relationships. She details a revelation that occurred when the baboons she studied started to treat her like a baboon.

As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signalled a profound change from being treated as an object that elicited a unilateral response  (avoidance), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate. Over time they treated me more and more as a social being like themselves, subject to the demands and rewards of relationship. This meant that I sometimes had to be willing to give more weight to their demands (e.g., a signal to ‘get lost!’) than to my desire to collect data. But it also meant that I was increasingly often welcomed into their midst, not as a barely-tolerated intruder but as a casual acquaintance or even, on occasion, a familiar friend. Being treated like a fellow baboon proved immensely useful to my research…

To me this final sentence is a fundamental misunderstanding. We do not know that the baboons treated her like a baboon. I think they recognised her as an ‘other’, an ‘agent’ in anthropological speak (which, in fairness to Smuts, she does say in her lead in). They communicated with her in the only way they could and she responded as a human, therefore they knew she could understand some form of their communication. That doesn’t mean they recognised her as baboon, with all the inherent baboon culture. (I guess this then raises the question anthropologically speaking as to whether baboons tell science fiction stories of other species that have hugely different cultures – without the concept of another culture, can you truly have a culture of your own? I wonder).

We see this every day with pets – I’ve spoken before about how a special language can evolve between two members of a completely different species. Dogs, my favourite example for this kind of stuff, have so clearly adapted to us that they’ve survived across different human cultures, and yet they have their own dog language that they use within their species. When they don’t know this language they have huge problems interacting with their fellow dogs. When they don’t know the human language they have huge problems interacting with us. But do dogs understand the difference between dogs and humans, or do they just accept that humans are entities that are capable of interacting with them. (Possibly they accept that humans are entities that they can love, be loved by, etc., if dogs have a concept of love – I leave that for you to judge for now).

With that critique aside it is a very interesting paper.

Why do I go into all of this? Well there’s another interesting example of strange animal behaviour on the internet today. An Indian elephant was on a rampage, destroying houses as elephants are wont to do. At one house its wreckage disturbed a baby’s cot and the baby began to cry. The elephant stopped and picked rubble off the cot until the baby was freed.

Does the elephant recognise that the crying infant is an ‘other’? Does the elephant recognise that it has done something which has caused pain? (I’ve often wondered if cats recognise they hurt people when they scratch – or if it’s simply our emotional reaction they’re responding to). That’s quite a cognitive leap. We drill into children that our actions can hurt others and yet we’re forever hurting peoples’ feelings inadvertently.

Or has the elephant been distracted by an unusual noise and investigated (thus freeing the baby) until its curiosity was satisfied? With its energies so directed the rampage stopped.

I don’t  know because I cannot understand elephants. To me, the best way of getting to know elephants is to observe their behaviour, to objectify them, and to gather data on them (how often to elephants respond to infant cries, do elephants respond to any cries, etc.)

But I do like talking about the other possibilities.

LolCats and Doge, YouTube and Animal Behaviour

In 2013 Nelson & Fijn published an absolutely brilliant paper in Animal Behaviour. It’s called ‘The use of visual media as a tool for investigating animal behaviour‘ and it’s about watching animals on YouTube.

I watch a lot of animals on YouTube so I love this paper. It provides a methodology for using YouTube videos in animal studies, all very simple rules, like not using videos with editing and the like.

Why is this important? How can YouTube contribute to the study of animal behaviour? Well have you seen this video? It was doing the rounds on the internet recently.

The video’s description says that the dog has become protective of the unborn baby, going so far as to defend the baby bump from the soon-to-be-dad. It’s a cute story and makes for good internet memes. I have to be honest that as a behaviour scientist my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.

How does a dog know what pregnancy is, or that it will result in a baby that will be part of the family? How does a dog even know that a baby is a thing to be protected?  But as I thought about this I remembered our old cat who became fascinated with my mum’s belly when she was pregnant. According to my mum all her cats have been fascinated by her pregnancies. I’m sure they hear the second heart beat and it must be a fascinating thing for them.

This dog, I thought, is probably just responding to some weird behavioural cue that its owner is giving it. Like the well known story of Clever Hans, the horse who could count by reading its owner’s behaviour. This is actually a well known behavioural phenomenon, and is blamed for things like your dog looking guilty when its done something wrong (Horowitz, 2009).

Oh if only in this age of connectivity, I could somehow ask the owner if she might be aware of any cues . . .

It turns out the protective dog in this video is called Tebow, a 2 year old dog owned by Mekesha and her partner Justin. 3 weeks from her due date, Mekesha found the time to answer some of my questions.

As it turns out, Tebow is fascinated with Mekesha’s belly at the moment, just as I remember my cat being fascinated by my mum’s. Tebow will sit beside Mekesha with his head on her belly, or will lick it if he gets the chance. He’s also devoted to Justin’s young nephew and their younger dog, also in the video.

Something I thought was really interesting is that Mekesha wanted people to know Tebow isn’t an aggressive or mean dog. In fact she’s pretty upset that people think he might be. In the video you can see she’s laughing and she says everyone found it funny. As for whether she might be anxious in some way that Tebow is picking up on . . .

We have found it hilarious ever since, not threatening. I have no anxiety about my belly being touched and I actually don’t mind people doing it, I do know that certain pregnant woman who hate it, I am not that way.

I think that seems pretty certain! Of course, you can always argue that perhaps there’s some subconscious anxiety, that perhaps the anxiety is coming from Justin and not Mekesha – there are a hundred ways to interpret this video. But it’s interesting that most people who view it go with the ‘anthropomorphic’ one. That Tebow is protecting his family, even the ones he might not quite understand.

It might be easy to say “well this is somebody and their pet, of course they’re going to think the best of them”, but for another video doing the rounds this week:

National Geographic photographer describes a leopard seal’s attempts to feed him, graduating from live prey, to hurt prey, to dead prey, to partially eaten prey, as the seal becomes more and more convinced the photographer was incapable of feeding himself.

We should never forget that animals don’t think like we do. They don’t process the world like we do. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the similarities we do have in common. Videos like this get to the very essence of animal behaviour science – why do animals behave in the way the do? YouTube, and the internet, will help us by showing us more and more examples of these strange behaviours. What was once an odd story about something your friend’s dog did, becomes something an animal behaviour scientist might be able to analyse.

Plus I just want to get some funding to sit around on YouTube all day. Ethologists of the world, who’s with me?!

The Empathetic Spreadsheet

Serendipity smiles on FluffyScience. I said I wanted to talk about the peer review scandal and the very next day I’m asked to act as the peer reviewer for the first time! If I ever needed an excuse to talk about peer review, I certainly have it now.

The peer review scandal everyone has been talking about is this: 120 computer generated conference papers were withdrawn by Springer. Including a delightful sounding paper about an empathetic spreadsheet. It sounds shocking. But it’s probably not quite as shocking as you think it is.

Let me explain using my own first hand knowledge of peer review. I don’t pretend to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but by fortunate happenstance I have enough publications, and enough different kinds of publications, to walk you through the process.

Have you checked out my Google Scholar profile? The link’s over on the right hand sidebar. Or just click here. You’ll see that there are currently five items in my profile. You can use Web of Knowledge instead but that requires an academic log-in, doesn’t update as quickly and isn’t as comprehensive in its record keeping. Therefore we’ll stick with Google.

All five of those publications have a Digital Object Identifier which basically means they have a permanent presence online. And they’re all linked to my name. The top three publications on that list are scientific papers. There’s MacKay et al 2012, MacKay et al 2013 and MacKay et al 2014. Then there’s a conference proceedings and a book chapter about the video game Halo (that’s another story).

Therefore I have publications in three categories: Papers, Conference Proceedings and Book Chapters. Now. Which publication wasn’t peer reviewed?

If you guessed the video game chapter, you’re correct. Video games, much as I love them, are not known for their rigorous peer review. You might be surprised to find that the Conference Proceedings (this one for the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) 2012 conference in Nottingham) were, in fact, peer reviewed.

I’ve presented at two International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) conferences, two BSAS conferences, and two regional ISAE conferences. For all six conferences I have had to submit an abstract, a short description of what I intend to talk about. For BSAS the abstract is a page long, with references, subheadings and must present data in table or graph form.

This is quite unusual for my field, ISAE by contrast is something like 2000 keystrokes and frowns on references. On the other side of the fence, many of my colleagues have just submitted papers to the World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production (doesn’t it sound thrilling?) and these have been three pages in length. They’re papers more than abstracts.  But WCGALP only runs every four years and it is a very large conference, hence the extra work.

All of these conference papers will get comments back on them. Even the regional ones (although my last regional one was a comment simply saying I needed to be more explicit about what behaviour I was recording). The point being that a human has read these papers and passed judgement on it.

Here we stop and acknowledge the scientific committees of these conferences who have an extremely hard job reviewing so many small pieces of science.

So these 120 conference papers that were removed from Springer – what went wrong?

Well first off, many of the authors on these conference proceedings did not know they were co-authors. Someone submitted papers with their name on it without them knowing

But wait – I hear you say. Jill, your conference paper is on your Google Scholar profile. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if an extra publication cropped up? Yes, reader, I would. But note that despite publishing in six conferences only one of them is on Scholar. Why is this paper the lucky one? If I had to guess I’d say someone referenced something in that Proceedings, forcing Scholar to index it. But I may be wrong – Google’s not particularly clear on this. And some of these authors may be in the lucky position of having so many publications they genuinely don’t notice a few extra ones.

So why submit a fake paper with somebody else’s name on it? I’d be surprised if these papers are being presented at the conferences (although I’d love to hear the talk on empathetic spreadsheets). But what I do know is that those fake-papers have to cite other papers and another very important research metric is the number of citations you have. (Mine is a glorious 1).

Yes – fake papers are a problem. But it’s not a problem of bad results getting out there, it’s a problem of the system being gamed, and people using these kinds of research metrics as the only gauge of a researcher’s quality.

Research Metrics

There are ways around this. In the UK we have a new system for assessing research quality in Higher Education Institutes. It’s called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Funding bodies use this to help them decide how to allocate funds over the next few years.

You enter REF as an institute. REF grades the papers submitted to them based on this framework.

  • A four star paper is world leading research, original, with great impact and the highest quality science.
  • A three star paper is pretty damn good, internationally recognised, good impact and high quality science.
  • A two star paper is internationally recognised as being original research, good impact and high quality science.
  • A one star paper is nationally recognised as being original research, good impact locally and high quality science.


The difference between these stars is really all about the impact of the science, which is great. Of course, REF has its own drawbacks. In the next few years you’re going to see a lot of UK papers with sweeping, statement titles instead of informative titles. A paper which would have been titled “The effect of indoor housing on behaviours in the UK dairy herd” will now be titled “Management systems affect dairy cow behaviour [and industry if I could wrangle that in there]”. You’ll also see a lot of new roles being created just before a REF exercise because the papers stay with the primary author. If you have a 4 star publication under your belt you become a Premier League footballer during the transfer season.

But one thing REF is  not vulnerable to is false publications. A panel of experts reviews all the papers that the institute chooses to put forward. No empathetic spreadsheets allowed.

We’ve just finished the first round of REF and it will be interesting to see how it affects research going forward. As animal welfare scientists we’re excited about the emphasis on impact, something we’re good at demonstrating.

Lastly, while 120 papers sounds like a lot, I’d like to direct you towards Arif Jinha’s 2010 paper which estimated that there are 50 million published articles out there. We are talking about less than 0.000001% of articles even if these were papers, never mind conference publications.


By that logic, my own publication records contributes 0.00000008% of the world’s papers. I’d better get cracking.