The Five Freedoms at Fifty – Part Two

Here at SRUC we’re having our Animal Welfare Day celebrating the Five Freedoms at Fifty – a packed day full of talks, demonstrations and a panel discussion.

You can watch the talks on our live stream: here!

And you can come join the conversation on twitter using the #Freedoms50 hashtag.


Chronicles of Athena – 40 Weeks

This week a man came into the house and played about with Athena’s favourite window. He even stood on her beautiful window sill with his boots on. I am sure you can imagine just how upset she was by the whole event.

Our new flat has the most beautiful light and I couldn’t resist taking advantage of it yesterday to demonstrate a cool little quirk of feline physiology. You might have seen this demonstrated on the BBC’s wonderful ‘Secret Life of Cats‘ but hopefully this video will show you how you can demonstrate this as a teacher or parent (or just to other people if you have a cat on hand!)

Watch how, despite no change in the light levels, Athena’s pupil size changes drastically before she pounces on Mr Ducky. She opens her pupils as wide as she can before pouncing so she can take in as much information as possible. It’s very obvious once you start looking for it, and would supplement a lesson on the physiology of the eye really well.



Animal science and behaviour science isn’t always easy to demonstrate, unlike chemistry or physics where you can set up experiments with a lot of household objects. I keep meaning to collect small examples of animal behaviour that work like this, so if you think this  kind of thing is useful, do let me know.

Get a Man To Help You!

This post was going to be an introduction to another blog run by a fellow knowledge transfer enthusiast,  Cultured Primate, but I got completely sidetracked by the last thing Lewis retweeted (but do check him out, he’s awesome):


Peer review is still broken, corrupt and outdated. In other news, the sky is blue and Athena needs more cuddles.

There’s really nothing to say to this. Not only did a peer reviewer think this was an acceptable thing to say, but an editorial team thought this was an acceptable thing to hand over to authors. Oi vay.

Games and Animals

I’ve been an avid gamer for the better part of my lifetime now and part of what I love about the hobby is how a good game can test you in situations you might not experience. This is, after all, why baby animals play – to test themselves and learn about themselves.

I think gaming can be a great tool for looking at empathy as well, and a game floated across my internet desk quite recently that I absolutely loved: Cat Petting Simulator 2014

The game’s premise is simple – interact with and stroke a cat. Through a text based interface you think about how you approach a cat, stroke the cat, and interact with it. It’s a funny game and I thought the escalation of the interactions was really clever. To that end I emailed the lovely Neongrey who made the game and asked her some questions.

What was your goal in creating the game?

I had a few, really. In part– it’s a bit of a silly extrapolation of something I do with friends online all the time. You know, if they’re feeling down or whatever, I would offer to pet [my] cat for them, and I would really go and hunt down one of my cats and pet them and tell them what happened– usually lots of purring. I hate seeing people feel badly, and I hate feeling like there’s nothing I can do about it, so this is my attempt to do that on a slightly more thorough scale. Sometimes there are people who need to pet cats that I don’t know about! Or I’m at work, and *I* need to pet a cat.

Did you think the game might be educational?

Not educational so much– more like therapeutic, really. I mean I wanted no part of the ‘aloof cat who hates you and wants to claw you’ cariacture; it would go against my intent of wanting the game to feel nice. Not that I much like that stereotype in the first place– as anyone who’s had a particularly affectionate cat will know, yes, absolutely, they can care about you beyond just where the food’s coming from.

Did you think about cat behaviour while making the game?

You know, I joke about how every pet in the game was playtested on a real cat, but it’s not a joke, really. Most of the game was written literally by petting her in the requisite manner and noting down her reactions.
There’s a bit more to it than that, too, though, insofar as measuring her reactions. From the ending score, you can see the bulk of the work is done through an affection meter. This is, you know, basically random. Every time you get a prompt there’ll be something with the potential for a better affection gain than other options, but luck plays a role. It’s not flawless but Twine isn’t the best medium to write AI in, so it was a decent kludge to represent the cat having her own ideas about what she likes.
[Ed note – LOVE this element of the game, which inadvertently alludes to the inherent random nature of decision making]
There’s not a lot of indication as to which she’ll like best– I hint at it a bit in some options, for careful readers– but again, it’s really hard sometimes to tell what a cat will like best, even when you know her, so that there’s a certain air of mystery is perfectly intentional.
I’ll also call attention to the belly pets. In the score menu, I do joke about the so-called ‘deadly belly trap’ but as I’m sure you gathered by now, it wouldn’t really further my intentions to have you clawed up by a cat– about the darkest emotion I try and convey in the game is ‘fond irritation’. So in all cases, the simulated cat does exactly what the real Cassie does– when she’s done with you petting her belly, she’ll push your hand away, and you’ll stop for the moment because you’re not a jerk.
Thing too is petting the belly is *wildly* random. Some options might give you no affection gain, if you’re unlucky, but only petting the belly can *reduce* affection. And I think that’s fair. But also too, it’s got the highest potential gain for affection. It’s quite intentional that the only way to get the elusive ending 6 is to give her cheeks and ears (the game begins with a mandatory back pet) a quick pet and then concentrate entirely on the belly. If you’re lucky– or she’s in exactly the right mood, as the case may be– you’ll get to pick her up and walk around with her a bit and she’ll cuddle right up to you.
Meanwhile the only way to get the “worst” (you still got to pet a cat, so it can’t be that bad) is if you bore her. And you bore her by entirely skipping out on petting a location entirely. You have to pet her back/sides, cheeks/chest, ears, and belly at least once each for her to not hop away up onto the cat tree and lick her butt in your general direction. I think a lot of people are getting that ending because they’re avoiding the belly entirely.

I love the game, is there anything else you’d like to say?

I mean I think it’s important to note that this is by no means an attempt to represent all cats– it doesn’t even represent both my cats. Maddie, who makes a cameo in one of the endings, certainly wouldn’t act the way Cassie does here; she’s much more aloof, except when she decides she’s not.
But, I mean, the whole game mandates two specific conceits: a) the cat loves you, and b) she wants to be petted. And everything sort of falls out from there. I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by the response; there’s a lot of people who, you know, it seems like something like this is exactly what they needed. And I’m happy, and honoured, and you know, a bit surprised, that I can be the one to give that to them.
If you join our MOOC early next year I’m thinking of a short optional exercise surrounding the game so you can get a head start by exploring it and the different options.

Punishment is Dangerous

Last week I spoke about punishment as a training aid, and denounced the way some people say you should never punish when training.

But it’s very important to recognise that punishment is very dangerous and should be used sparingly.

I really wanted to put this in the last week’s post, but it was getting long enough. So I saved the rest in a draft which WordPress promptly went and lost. Harrumph. It’s difficult enough writing blog posts with Little Miss Princess Paws wanting constant dominion over my hands. (We are still at war over whether the laptop keyboard is a suitable place to sit).

I had written a post about dog aggression and how punishment can be dangerous when used to treat dog aggression, but now I’m faced afresh with a blank page, I think we’ll take a different tact.

Last week we talked about some of the punishments I’ve used for Athena, namely the chilli powder on the cables as positive punishment to stop her from chewing on the wires. I mentioned that the positive punishment wasn’t perceived as coming from me.

This is what I want to talk about today – the effect positive punishment has on the human-animal bond. Positive punishment is aversive, that is to say it presents the animal with a stimulus that it finds unpleasant. If the source of that stimulus is its owner, it can start to associate its owner with the unpleasant stimulus.

Inappropriate dog behaviours such as aggression to people, aggression to dogs, excessive fear and excessive excitement have been significantly associated with owners who use punishment to train their dogs (Hiby et al, 2004). Now this is a survey of owners and doesn’t distinguish between positive and negative punishment in its results. It is by no means saying that punishment causes these behavioural problems in dogs, but that owners who use mainly punishment to train their dogs report more behavioural problems. I find it particularly interesting that separation anxiety was linked with the frequency of punishment-based training methods.

Another survey of dog owners (Herron et al, 2009) asked the owners what kind of punishment they used when trying to modify the dog’s behaviour. The kinds of positive punishment used were:

  • Striking or kicking the dog
  • ‘Growl’ at the dog
  • Force the dog to release something from its mouth
  • The godawful ‘alpha roll’ (adjective mine)
  • Stare dog down
  • ‘Dominance down’
  • The ‘grab and shake’ dog.

Now depending on how you do it ‘growl’ at dog and ‘stare dog down’ are not much different than how I signal to an animal that I’m unhappy. Just like I would a child, when an animal is doing something I’m unhappy about my body language changes, I focus on them, and my expression becomes ‘arch’ or angry. This is simply human body language and works remarkably well with both pre-verbal children and animals. It’s held for a very short period and is followed by verbal cues that the individual’s in trouble if it’s not immediately heeded. (Though note it’s not immediately clear how these were defined in the survey or by the respondents).

Some of these other punishments, such as the ‘alpha roll’, have been taken down before. I was first introduced to this technique via the BBC show Dog Borstal and trainer Mic Martin. He used it sparingly, but I remember thinking at the time the show was quick to glamorise and sensationalise the technique. And I don’t think on this blog I need to go into the whole ‘dominance training techniques’ any more.

But the point is that at least 25% of the dogs which received these punishments then went on to show aggression to their owners.

Positive punishment, particularly those which involve you threatening an animal, or posing an animal a threat, present a challenge to the animal. It needs to have the cognitive ability to figure out how to remove that challenge. The idea behind positive punishment is that the challenge will be removed when you stop showing the behaviour you’re showing, but if you threaten too much, you may well provoke another behaviour in response. After all, what human relationship would remain cordial if you started to behave aggressively? After all, much of these positive punishment methods, particularly those detailed in Herron et al, are definitely aggressive.

Used inappropriately, punishment is ineffective, if not downright dangerous. The punishment should be something the animal can control (i.e. Athena can control whether or not to eat the chilli coated wire) and it should not make the animal face some kind of conflict.

In some ways this kind of punishment is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Most normal people don’t go straight to the ‘alpha roll’ for things like stealing a biscuit or chewing on the furniture. A simple ‘no’ or a diversion is usually used. But these more extreme punishments seem more suitable for more dangerous behaviour, things like aggression or serious destruction. But what is it that’s causing these behaviours? Aggression usually comes from an animal feeling challenged by its environment. Aggression is, after all, a tool used for the animal to get its way. Some animals go for that tool more often than others.

When you present this kind of animal with another challenge (from a place where it should feel safe and secure, no less), is it any wonder it uses its favourite tool to try and respond to that challenge?

So yes, positive punishment works when it’s used appropriately, but the inappropriate uses of positive punishment are rife. My handy guide for the non professional?

  • Make sure the animal has choice in experiencing the positive punishment.
  • Make sure the positive punishment isn’t exacerbating the problem (don’t fight aggression with aggression).
  • Never use positive punishment on its own.
  • Make sure that the positive punishment is IMMEDIATELY removed the moment the animal ceases the undesired behaviour.

Punishment can work, but only when used properly.

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.

Do You Want to See a Magic Trick?

Do you want to see a magic trick?

As part of our Animal Welfare Indicators project I’m creating an online learning object which describes an experiment testing whether or not goats know an object is there when they can’t see it.

Now don’t go doubting the intelligence of goats just yet, this question is pretty multifaceted. It begins with human babies and the game of Peekaboo. If you’ve ever entertained a small baby, you might have fallen back on hiding behind your hands and enjoying the delighted giggles of this apparent magic trick.

There is some debate in the scientific community over whether babies are really fooled by this trick, or whether they don’t have an understanding of object permanence until they’re about two years old.

At some point babies develop the ability to understand that objects still exist even when they’re out of sight. Take a baby’s favourite toy and hide it behind a screen, the baby will look behind the screen. The fact that an object must exist outside of our perception of it can lead to some fun set ups. Check out this video to watch a magician performing a simple magic trick in front of some dogs. The dogs, fully expecting the object to reappear where it logically should, clearly act confused and start searching other logical places (such as beneath the hands, behind them, etc.)

The magic act Penn and Teller explain the anatomy of a trick that uses sleight of hand in this, slightly grainy video. The steps they include are: Palm – Switch – Ditch – Steal – Load – Simulation – Misdirection.

But none of these steps work if you can’t understand that an object should exist where you don’t know.

A psychologist named Piaget came up with a little experiment to test whether object permanance has developed in children – you can try it yourself with the nearest available baby or pet (please ask permission of the bill payer).

For this set up you will need an object and for an animal it will need to be something they’ll be motivated to look for. I suggest a treat (but preferably one which doesn’t smell too strongly).

Show your subject the object and then place it inside a cup or other container (or behind a makeshift screen, like a half open DVD case). Now for the magic trick. Place this container or screen, with the treat still hidden within, behind another screen (such as an open book propped up on the floor).

Watch what happens next. The theory goes that if your baby or pet understands that objects exist even when they cannot be observed, it will look for the treat behind the open book. This leap of logic means the subject must understand the object still exists when its inside the first container, and that when the first container is hidden, the hidden object persists even then.

Or you could hire a magician and get them to confuse the hell out of your pets and babies. Because that’s hilarious.


The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.


Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups


AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.


The Anthropomorphism High Horse

I rarely read a piece of scientific journalism and think “what absolute tosh”, in part because I tend not to use the word ‘tosh’ and in part because I know that science journalism involves digesting and reconfirming a complex idea. It’s not easy.

But this article had me gnashing my teeth. It’s a summary of a paper by Ganea et al 2014 [in press pdf download – only link I can find]. The essence of the paper is this: children which grow up in urban environments (in this case pre-school age children from Boston and Toronto) are not exposed to animals. When they’re given anthropomorphic stories about unfamiliar animals (cavys, handfish and oxpeckers) they will agree with statements that attribute complex emotions to those animals, but not statements which attribute human physical capabilities, e.g. talking, to the animals. The conclusion is that anthropomorphic animal stories inhibit a child’s ability to learn animal facts.

The science I think is interesting – it is the conclusion and the bandying about of the word ‘anthropomorphism’ that get my goat. Let rant at you.

The article’s author says:

Setting aside the shades of grey as to whether non-human animals have analogues for things like friends, the findings suggest that for young kids, “exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.”



This anthropomorphism spectre infuriates me at times. Let me put it this way, one of the questions asked of the children was “do oxpeckers have friends?” I’m asked relatively frequently if cows have friends, and if I want to answer that question accurately, I have to dance around terminology and use baffling scientific language to answer it in a way that means ‘yes but I can’t really say that because I’m a scientist’.

Cows have preferential associations within their herd. Being with these other individuals makes them more capable of physiologically coping with stressful events (Boissy & Le Neindre, 1997) such as being reintroduced to the milking herd (Neisen et al, 2009), being milked (Hasegawa et al, 1997), or feed competition (Patison et al, 2010a). They will preferentially engage in social interactions with these preferred associations, and these associations go on for longer than with other animals (Faerevik et al 2005, Patison et al, 2010b).

How do you explain this to a 2-5 year old child from Boston without using the word ‘friend’ or any synonym of it? Is it any wonder a child might reasonably assume that animals can have friends? Is it wrong to say that an animal can have a friend?

My irritation here lies with the writer of the article saying children believed ‘falsehoods’ about animals, based on anthropomorphism. We get one link, to a website I can’t access being based in the UK, to research which might suggest animals are similar to us in some ways. Then we move on to a paper I’ve referenced before talking about how dogs’ guilty looks are based on our behaviour (Hecht et al, 2012). The underlying assumption is still that animals are so different from us that children are wrong to believe that animals have the capacity for friendship and caring.

Now I’m fascinated by dogs for precisely this reason. They are so excellent at communicating with us, and reading us, that they are almost in-animal as much as they are in-human. They’re a possible model for human-child behaviour they’re so adept at this. I wouldn’t necessarily use dogs as an example for how the rest of the animal kingdom thinks if I was very worried about making cross species comparisons.

Anthropomorphism is either the attribution of human characteristics to animals. In which case it cannot be used pejoratively. For example, to say “This cow has eyes” would be anthropomorphic.

Or anthropomorphism is the inappropriate attribution of human characteristics to animals, in which case you must carefully consider why the characteristic is inappropriate when given to animals. It is not anthropomorphic in this case to say “This cow feels fear”, because fear, as we understand it, is an evolutionary mechanism to increase your chances of survival, it has physiological and behavioural components and the cow meets all of these. Ergo, this cow feels fear, and that is not an inappropriate characteristic.

Much as I lament the fact urban children have very little contact with the natural world, and I think this is a major issue for animal welfare, food sustainability, and the mental health of the children, I don’t fully agree with the paper’s conclusions, or the writing up in the Scientific American blog.

Firstly, the study found that all children learned new facts regardless of whether they read the anthropomorphic story or the non-anthropomorphic story. The results appear to indicate to me there was less fact-retention in the anthropromorphic story (and while I’m not a psychologist, I have worked with children and I do now work in education, I wonder if the anthropomorphic story, being similar to entertainment, indicated ‘you do not need to pay attention here’ to the kids. This does not appear to be discussed in the paper.).

Secondly, the study found that the children who had anthropoorphic stories told to them were more likely to describe animals in anthropomorphic terms immediately afterwards. Now again I’m no psychologist, but after I went to see Captain America I was partially convinced I was a superhero. It faded after the walk home. I’d like to know more about the extent of this effect over time before I declared anthropomorphic stories as damaging to children’s learning.

Thirdly, the Scientific American article presents some ‘realistic’ and ‘anthropomorphised’ images of the animals side by side. This is not what happened in the paper. In the first experiment the children were shown ‘realistic images and factual language books’ or ‘realistic images and anthropomoprhic language books’. The second study used ‘anthropomorphic images and factual language’ and ‘anthropomorphic images and anthropomorphic language’. The upshot of this is that the realistic image condition was not directly compared to the anthropormphic image condition, regardless of how it seems when you read the Scientific American article.

The paper says at one point:

This reveals that, like adults, young children seem to have a less clear conception of differences between humans and other animals in regard to mental characteristics, as opposed to behaviors. However, exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.



Well there’s little wonder about that because even we scientists don’t have a particularly clear conception of the mental differences between humans and other animals. The paper itself is interesting and well worth a read, but it falls into the trap of thinking about anthropomorphism as a wholly negative thing. If I was a reviewer I’d suggest Serpell (2002) as an excellent starting point for a more balanced view of the phenomenon.

And I’d also suggest they watch this video before assuming that kids are daft for thinking animals feel emotions.