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.

Elephants Who Marry Mice

Don’t you just hate when you’re forced to face up to the fact you’re not as virtuous as you think you are?

One of the courses I’m currently writing for the International Fund for Animal Welfare came back to me with some corrections. My reviewer had changed the following sentence, the change in capitals.

“Dogs WHO showed pessimistic behaviours were more depressed.”

And try as I might, my gaze kept tripping over that word. Dogs Who, Dogs Who, Dogs Who.

Let us momentarily leap backwards in time to our English classes. My education contained very little formal grammar training, which may be obvious to the casual reader, but even I know that personal pronouns (e.g. who, he, she, they) are reserved for people. Animal are referred to as objects (e.g. which, it, that).

“The dog which barked” is preferable to “The dog who barked”.

“It is lying in the cat basket” may be preferable to “she is lying in the cat basket”.

This can lead to the English language treating animals very strangely. For example, say you visit a new acquaintance. You know this acquaintance has two cats, Gin and Tonic (this friend might be a bit odd), but you see one cat on the windowsill. You want to know, is that cat Gin or is that cat Tonic? You may ask “What cat is that?” or “Which cat is that?” seeing as you know it is one of two. It would be wrong to say “Who is that?”

Is it problematic to refer to animals as objects? Well first we have to ask if grammar affects the way we think. (And before we go any further I want to tell you that journals on grammar and semantics are almost as impenetrable as journals on molecular genetics)

Boroditsky (2009) investigated the differences in how speakers of English and Mandarin thought about time. In English we speak of time as a horizontal construct (you look ahead to the good times and back on the bad times) whereas in Mandarin time is spoken of in a vertical manner (the paper gives the translated example “what is the year before the year of the tiger?”).

The experiment itself is a bit odd to get your head around, but first they primed English and Mandarin speakers with either vertical or horizontal concepts (i.e. the black worm is ahead of the white worm, the black ball is below the white ball) and then given ‘target’ statements about time ‘March is earlier than April’, ‘March is before April’.

English speakers answered these questions faster after hearing a horizontal prime (similar to how they think of time) and Mandarin speakers answered these questions faster after they had heard a vertical prime (similar to how they think of time). Boroditsky concludes that the way we speak frames the way we perceive the world.

But does this happen in animal welfare? Well I’m not the only one who wondered about this. Gilquin & Jacobs (2006) wrote a paper which is whimsically titled ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice’. They reviewed style standards in various publication manuals. For example, the Guardian’s, which you can find here, says:


pronoun “it” unless gender established


The Guardian also says:

any more

Please do not say “anymore” any more


So I don’t dream of writing a Comment Is Free column anymore.

Unsurprisingly, Gilquin and Jacobs found that it was the familiar animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc.) which scored a ‘who’ more often than the non familiar animals. Furthermore, publications aimed at animal-related interest groups were more likely to use ‘who’, e.g. Dogs Today.

They noted that in general texts or interviews, the personal pronoun was used when the author wanted to garner sympathy for the animal in question. It is “the poor cat who was stuck in a tree” rather than “the cat which was stuck in the tree”.

More interestingly, given some of my other posts on anthropomorphism, 60% of the sentences they found which used the personal pronoun for the animals attributed human-like characteristics to the animals.

Gilquin and Jacobs conclude that ‘who’ is used in English to refer to animals, although inconsistently. They suggest a wider adoption of this grammatical structure might engender more empathy for animals from humans, something which I think reflects what Ganea et al found in their work.

Should animal welfare scientists be calling for the personal pronoun usage?

I really can’t decide. I’m not convinced that it will completely change the way we think about animals. But it’s a nudge you might want to be aware of if you’re talking animal welfare science.


And for what it’s worth, I changed the text on the course.

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.


If Everybody Thought the Same

As a researcher with an interest in personality, I have been accused of anthropomorphising animals in the past. I argue that personality is an outcome of predictable behaviour patterns and statistical distributions. To me this is a perfectly formed argument that has emerged from years of PhD work, but PhDs never made anyone sane. That being said, there’s something in these warnings of anthropomorphism, particularly when we’re interacting with animals.

First off ‘anthropomorphism’ is when you assign human characteristics to non-human objects or animals. (Now, I’ll point out that the traditional definition of this doesn’t specify that it has to be a unique property of humans. For example, having eyes is a characteristic of humans. Is it anthropomorphic to say dogs have eyes? The rant about the definition is for another time). Sometimes, when we interact with animals, we assume they are interpreting the interaction in the same way we are. In essence – that we all think in the same way.

This week a few different posts crossed my virtual desk, all on the subject of different ways of thinking, and it got me thinking (I think).

Firstly: a friend shared this interesting blog post from dog trainer and blogger Michael Blough. It talks about how ‘hugging’ can be unpleasant for dogs and it reminded me about the press surrounding this paper, which came out as ‘stroking is stressful for cats’ and greatly worried my mother.

The advice I gave my mum, and the advice Blough gives his followers, is the same: listen to what your animal is saying. But of course there’s an inherent contradiction in this! How can you listen to your animal when I’m also telling you it doesn’t think like you? How are you supposed to interpret what your pet is saying to you when it’s fundamentally speaking a different language?

I will be the first to say it’s hard and I don’t interpret my animals’ behaviour correctly 100% of the time. I’d argue that anyone who says they’ve never gotten it wrong with an animal is fooling themselves (let me know in the comments if you’re sure you’re a regular Dolittle). However, I’d say I’m right a good 95% of the time and hey, I’m blogging on the internet right? Listen to me, and I’ll give you some tips.

Blough starts with a pic of him hugging his dog. The dog is looking away, eye white is just visible, and you can clearly see the dog is about to leap from his arms. In this case it’s obvious the dog wants to end this form of physical contact.

Now have a pic of me and my dad’s dog receiving a hug.

Me and Rosa
Me and Rosa

This is Rosa and me a few years ago. We’re sitting at the kitchen table and Rosa (the size of a border collie) is sitting upright on my lap while my younger sister is sitting opposite us talking animatedly about her impending departure to uni. I happen to remember this because this pose would be classed a ‘nervous’ hug for Rosa. My sister’s animation worried her so she sat upright. Normally she’d be lying on her back like a baby, tongue lolling out one side of her face, a small glob of drool descending onto my t-shirt.

Rosa is not a typical dog. The difference between this photo and Bough’s is pretty clear, Rosa doesn’t look like she’s about to leap from my arms, her eye whites are hidden (even from this angle). She’s not leaning in any particular direction.

If we were being very critical we could say my arm is clearly restraining her and it is – it’s restraining her from falling off my lap as she’s a little too big. I’d hold a child in the same way.

So these are all the visual cues I’m using to assess this situation and come to the conclusion Rosa is happy in this situation. And Rosa frequently requests hugs (sometimes a little too eagerly – she’ll be half on my lap before I’ve sat down and has cracked my chin with her thick skull). If a pet requests something, it’s a safe bet that it likes it. Now occasionally owners will say the infamous line “Oh they like it!” of their clearly unimpressed pet, the pictures of cats with hats on the internet are proof enough of that. In this case I’m saying Rosa has a particular, unique set of behaviours which are unambiguous and precede her attempting to sit on my lap. It involves eye contact, gaze direction towards my lap, and pawing. Sometimes I will sit and invite her up with a similarly unambiguous signal where I’ll pat my knee repeatedly and call her name. If she chooses not to come up, there’s no penalty. So here when I’m saying Rosa ‘requests’ a hug, I’m saying she initiates the contact with signals that have developed over the course of our relationship.

But what is Rosa thinking here? This is a fascinating question for me. And coincidentally I came across a blogpost on PopSci about this video. In essence it appears that the baby is reacting to the emotional content of the song the mum is singing. I like the expert PopSci have consulted who says:

…the baby’s facial expressions are more consistent with a conflict between sociality and fear – perhaps a positive social response to her mother’s face, and fear in response to her mother’s low and loud singing voice, which is not like her speaking voice. Babies at this age often react negatively to unfamiliar things, including new people, and familiar people with something out of whack (e.g., wearing a hat)

Which I think is a great interpretation of what’s happening in that baby’s mind. It takes into account the baby’s behaviours, its expressions, and prior knowledge of how babies process things. I wonder, can I interpret Rosa’s thought processes?

I really enjoyed reading John Bradshaws ‘In Defence of Dogs’ and the companion book ‘Cat Sense’ which gives a brief natural history of our most common pets and talks about their behaviour. In it, Bradshaw points out the common fallacy of believing dogs are simply wolves – they’re not. They’re the wolves who chose to associate with humans, who’ve been with us for 20,000 years (Sablin & Khlopachev, 2002), and who are capable of understanding us and interacting with us in ways that even hand-reared wolves can’t comprehend (Gacsi et al 13, Viranyi et al 2008). And yet we don’t know if our dogs love us. In fact there is a paper out there which suggests that the closeness between dog and owner, as perceived by the owner, has no relationship with how attached the dog appears to be to the owner (Rehn et al, 2014). In essence, you may like your dog, but your dog might not like you.

But before you get too depressed about this – I have hope. And it doesn’t come from the fact we use the same social separation test to judge attachment in dogs as we do in babies (Rehn et al 2013) or that individual personalities in dogs and humans changes the attachment (Zilcha-Mano et al 2011) in the same way unique human friendships have different levels of attachment. It’s not even that, as the PopSci article shows, we’re just as good at misunderstanding our own babies as we are dogs (and babies aren’t hugely scarred by that).

So I’m going to give some interpretation a shot, just as an exercise. Rosa, like the baby, isn’t verbal. She doesn’t think in language (and while she might understand words like ‘walk’, ‘out’, ‘dinner’, ‘dad’, I doubt she’s capable of putting these things into sentences). What is Rosa thinking when she asks for a hug?

I don’t believe she’s thinking about ‘love’ or abstract concepts like that. I think her thought processes run more along the lines of “It’s she-who-is-sometimes-here-and-smells-like-and-talks-like-my-daddy-and-who-gives-me-food-lots [Jill, for short]. She lets me sit on her, which is comfortable and maybe she will scratch my ears or rub my belly”. And then I think she initiates the interaction she wants, she approaches me, she gets to sit on my lap, and usually I will arrange her so she can lie back and observe everybody else in the room because I know she likes to keep an eye on what they’re doing. Now I think her mind is going along the lines of “there is my pack, here it is comfortable, I can smell food, my ears are being nicely scratched, my daddy is happy”. I’m sure much of her contentedness relies on the fact she adores my dad and when I visit my dad we’re usually laughing and talking and enjoying ourselves.

In essence I think dogs, cat, other animals, babies and even drunk people live in the moment for the most part, with only a vague understanding of consequence at the very best. As the only sober ones at the party, the onus is on us to make sure they’re all okay, and not to take advantage of them by hugging them when they don’t want it.

Put like that, it seems simple enough to me!