Digital Pawprint

What rights do people have over their pet’s image?

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Our office conversations are usually pretty fascinating (if I do say so myself) but this week we’ve been really been outdoing ourselves in the animal welfare corridor of the vet school.

What rights do people have over their pet’s image?

Our conversation was, as so many of the best conversations are, the result of some interesting coincidences. Our new e-Learning developer at the vet school was the genesis of Edinburgh University’s ‘Digital Footprint‘ campaign, designed to help staff and students manage their awareness of their online presence. We’ve been thinking about this a lot ourselves as we build more and more e-resources (with our YouTube channels too!).

When we take footage of an animal for educational purposes, we get the owner’s consent. But a lot of the animals we record are strays, who hopefully will go on to become somebody’s pet after they get adopted. We also sometimes ‘misrepresent’, in the loosest sense of the word, what might be happening in a piece of footage.

For example, I have a great piece of footage of Athena scratching my hand, seemingly without warning. I use it to accompany lectures/resources of cat aggression. What this piece of footage doesn’t show is that we had been playing boisterously for a few minutes prior to the scratch and I knew full well what was going to happen. I also don’t show much of her reaction afterwards, where she immediately stops her playing and starts a whole host of affiliative behaviours that is a cat’s version of apologising when it knows it’s stepped over the line. The behaviour isn’t really aggression at all, just one component of Athena’s full behavioural repertoire, the same way that if I swear at my friends it isn’t really ‘aggression’ so much as part of our friendship. But I fully believe that as an educator, the clip I show makes my overall message stronger and a facsimile of the behaviour in question is far better than a visual-less description.

I can do this because I fully understand the implications of what I’m saying and what it means to pair that with an image of Athena. Can an owner do the same? For example, if we recorded a dog in the vet clinic and then were later to use that image to imply the dog was in pain (when in fact we know its pain was well managed and these behaviours actually have another cause), has the owner been able to give full, informed consent for this? The answer is ‘no’, and it makes our job really difficult as we try to find images that we have full control over. Which is why you see our animals more than any others in our MOOCs and videos.

It becomes even more complicated when we use images of animals in shelters. They will go on to become somebody’s pet, we hope. Can we use those images when their new owner has never consented? Worse, could we possibly damage a new pet-owner relationship by showing the animal out of context? If somebody watches one of our videos and sees their new dog being the poster child for ‘aggressive dogs’, will they immediately return their new dog? From a risk management point of view, while the risk severity of this is high, the likelihood of the risk is small. It still preys on our minds though. Our best practice is to seek informed consent, and we’re looking at improving this process as we talk with our MOOC team for super secret future projects that just happen to need lots of footage of cats and dogs . . .

But this argument is not just academic. You may have seen the article in the Guardian where the winners of a Thomas Cook selfie competition were contacted by the owners of the horse who featured in their selfie. The horse is performing a Flehmen’s Response (not ‘sticking its tongue out’ as the article claims), but the owners say they trained the horse to do this. While the owners may not be able to control their horse’s image while it is in a public place, do they have the intellectual property rights to the act of training their horse at all?

To go for another example, if I was to relinquish Athena (perhaps because she had jumped on my bladder one last time on a lazy Sunday morning), and one of her future owners then capitalised on her ability to carry out a conversation, could I claim the intellectual property rights as I was the one who had trained her to do that?

Of course there’s another argument, and that is that the animals themselves own their images. Certainly Wikipedia has been contending that the IP of this particular image belongs to no one, as the photographer is the macaque itself! Animal Rights groups, of course, disagree. (Check out my post ‘Value‘ if you want more chat about the ethics of animal use).

Finally, if I am aware of all of this, and the contention of ownership over image, and I post it on my blog anyway . . .

Monkey takes selfie

By Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female. See article. [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons

 

. . . have I just lost all my ethical street cred?

Ethical Eating – Quality of Human Life

If you’re based in the UK, you will have heard about the problems facing our dairy industry due to the plummeting price of milk, and even if you’re not, you’ll have seen me talk about it in the Ethical Eating Introduction. The welfare of our producers is another thorny issue.

The archetypal story here is the middle class handwringing buzz around Bolivian quinoa farmers. Is it true that the Bolivian can no longer afford their staple grain because it’s suddenly the green food of choice in the west? The Slate has an interesting article explaining some of this but I’m not going to focus on this particular example (I confess I don’t think I’ve ever tasted quinoa). Instead I’m going to talk about the ubiquitous symbol of buying ethically, ‘Fairtrade’.

The Fairtrade Foundation (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/) describes their mark thusly:

When you buy products with the FAIRTRADE Mark, you support farmers and workers as they work to improve their lives and their communities. The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects 

Do you look for the Fairtrade mark when you shop? I do, particularly for the equitorial products like coffee and chocolate, which made this paper (Beuchelt & Zeller, 2011) depressing reading. From the abstract:

Certified producers are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers. Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fairtrade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers. We conclude that coffee yield levels, profitability and efficiency need to be increased, because prices for certified coffee cannot compensate for low productivity, land or labor constraints.

How can this be so? There’s another paper (Dolan, 2010), whose abstract contains the most amazing piece of writing:

the paper explores how certain neoliberal rationalities are emboldened through Fairtrade, as a process of mainstreaming installs new metrics of governance (standards, certification, participation) that are at once moral and technocratic, voluntary and coercive, and inclusionary and marginalizing

Holy Hera, how is anyone supposed to know what to buy? “A process at one voluntary and coercive, inclusionary and marginalising” – I mean I love it as a piece of prose, but as a communication piece it only tells me that I’m still confused.

Oh, and wine isn’t receiving a pass either, with the Argentinian Fairtrade wine market ‘further marginalising’ the sector (Staricco and Ponte, 2015

I should say that not all papers are critical, Fairtrade cotton in West Africa was found to empower women (Bassett, 2010), the same was also possible for coffee farmers in Mesoamerica (Lyon et al, 2010).

It may be that it is our supermarkets influencing the Fairtrade market that is causing the ethical problems (Smith, 2010), which is interesting because some of the researchers think that Fair Trade only works when building communities and empowering the community’s interactions (Renard, 2003). Something that many of us would say supermarkets really lack.

I am not a social scientist, though I am interested in the discipline, and I can’t review these articles as thoroughly as I can the animal welfare ones. But it’s interesting the path that a relatively cursory scholar search of Fairtrade has brought us to. Particularly when you think about the dairy issue from the introductory post. Monopolies have a staggering amount of bargaining power, and in some cases (such as nationalised health care) this works to the community’s advantage. But is it working to our global advantage here?

In my perfect, Pinterest lifestyle, I’d be shopping at farmers markets and growing my own carrots on my windowsill, and I’d also spend less money on frivolous items, make all my dinners from scratch, and stick to the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended intake of alcohol units in a week. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be the person you are on Pinterest?

But the person I am on Pinterest isn’t also on a quest to snap a selfie with a cow in GTA V online.

On the scale of personality responsibility to nanny state, I tend to fall on the Big Brother side of the spectrum. I fully support Scotland’s minimum alcohol unit pricing for example, and I tend to think the problem of encouraging individual to eat in a globally friendly way should be tackled through legislation.

But I know I’m on the extreme side of that spectrum, and I’d be interested to hear what more liberal readers might think. How would you solve this issue?

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.

In Defence of Cats

During Badger Fortnight an amazing blog post by climber Craig Armstrong came to my attention – detailing the climbing exploits of him and his cat Millie.

I particularly love the comments that express amazement or defend the cats’ loyalty.

As you might have guessed by reading this blog, I’m a big fan of animals, but if you forced me to choose, I’d describe myself as a cat person.

Legend (or family lore at the least) tells that when I was a baby, our two cats were fascinated by the new arrival. They would sit on either side of the changing mat, and sneak into the cot whenever they could manage it. My mum clearly wasn’t a subscriber to the old myth that cats suffocate babies. (Unless she was and she was hoping they might . . . she’ll undoubtedly comment on this so check below for her thoughts).

John Bradshaw’s ‘Cat Sense’, one of my favourite popular science books, talks about how cats have always polarised people. More recently, I’ve been arguing with our MOOC cameraman about how cats are awesome (he disagrees – let us know in the MOOC forums if you note a distinct dog bias in our glamour shots). Lastly, even a climbing cat couldn’t convince my sister, climber extrordinaire, that cats are just as awesome as dogs, if not more so.

Buckle your seatbelt, kitten, we’re having a Caturday.

When I first started composing this post it devolved into a long series of memories about this little lady, Posie. Adopted from an SSPCA shelter when I was five she’s the kind of cat who might have stepped out of a Homeward Bound film (except her homeward journey took her four years to travel six miles, but never mind). She would walk with us to the shops, and was one of the most affectionate little animals I’ve ever met. Hers is a story I’ll save for a Fluffy Friday.

Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.
Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.

Instead let’s talk about the cat-human bond. I talk about dogs a lot and in fact they’re one of my favourite examples to use when I’m explaining why humans and animals have long histories. Despite this, dogs are pretty understudied in animal welfare and cats receive even less attention. So this post will be a very potted summary of what we know of the human-cat bond.

A 9,500 year old grave in Cyprus contains a man buried with a cat (Vigne et al, 2004), and there’s archaeological evidence in China dating around 5,300 years ago of cats living with humans, eating leftovers and eating the rodents around our grain (Hu et al 2014). Much like dogs, but considerably later, cats started exploiting humans by making use of our environment. Particularly when we started farming and lots of little rodents started preying on our grains.

Like dogs, cats true wild ancestor no longer exists. Instead, the cats which could tolerate humans became our domesticated cats, those who couldn’t stayed far from humans, and became something else. But cats are a few thousand years behind dogs in this domesticated tree. While dogs were a product of the hunter gather, cats are a product of the farmer.

One of the little titbits in John Bradshaw’s book absolutely fascinated me. A tenth century Welsh statue says

“The price of a cat is fourpence. Her qualities are to see, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole, and to nurse and not devour her kittens. If she be deficient in any one of these qualities, one third of her price must be returned”

Good mothers, good mousers. This cat would fetch the same price as an untrained house-dog a sheep or a goat. Kittens were a penny, the same as a piglet or a lamb, and a young cat was two pence. And female cats were much more highly prized than toms (a strange quirk that I still buy into, I’ve always liked female cats more, for no real reason).

The good mother clause is interesting because cats are not, by nature, all good mothers. My old cat, Posie, had two litters of kittens. Her first litter she decided to have on my bed, in full view of the world, on a bedspread with a cat and kittens on it. I don’t think I was older than seven, and I remember being very touched that she chose to have her little little of black fluffballs in my bedroom. Looking back on it now, I still can’t decide if this was a demonstration of absolute trust and security, or simply a demonstration of her not quite having the right instincts during her pregnancy.

While she would feed them all, she was not particularly defensive of them. When they started to crawl, my mum and I experimented by taking one from her nest and taking it to the far side of the kitchen. Posie eventually came to get it after we called on her, evidently not greatly perturbed by the kitten’s plaintive mews.

Her second litter was born while we were temporarily living in a flat. We had only been in the flat for a few months and she seemed to need somewhere quieter to have her kittens. I opened my wardrobe not long before we were due to move back home and promptly informed my mother Posie had had kittens again, which was no small consternation considering it was a pet-free flat.

Being small and petite, Posie would drag her large fluffy kittens along the floor rather than pick them up. The only thing that ever seemed to arouse her mothering instincts was when they would get stuck under the bathroom sink and cry. Even years after she was spayed, the sounds of a crying kitten on the television would have her searching under the bathroom sink.

Related cats will happily share litters, and in a good environment, they’ll stay with their mothers for a long time. Girls are particularly social, staying with sisters for a long time. If this is reminding you of any other big cat structure there’s a reason – house cats and lions are the only felines which will typically naturally live in groups. Kittens which are socialised very early with humans, between 2 and 9 weeks, appear to give their owners more social support (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008).

So what is it about cats that makes them decide to pride-up with humans, in the same way dogs pack-up with us? I firmly believe that dog people are threatened by the cat’s ability to control. We understand that dogs get their way by being cute and adorable, but cats seem to be able to train us.

McComb et al (2009) did one of my favourite studies because it confirmed something I had long recognised in Posie’s relationship with me. She had a specific purr which incorporated a quiet, high pitched chirrup, a rolling r and a little uplift at the end. We used to call it ‘purring with excitement’ and it was given in anticipation of food, when she thought food might be included in Tesco shopping bags, when she was about to be let out of the door and when she was desperate for a cuddle (the ‘prrroing’ noise would escape as she leapt up onto the sofa or bed, soon giving way to a deep, rhythmic purring as she reached her goal).

McComb et al investigated how these solicitation purrs sounded to cat owners and non-cat owners. All identified these solicitation purrs as being more urgent and less pleasant than the same cat’s relaxed purr. But cat-owners were significantly better dentifying the same cat’s solicitation purr and relaxed purr than non-owners, suggesting that owners learn this. McComb et all went on to investigate the auditory properties of these solicitation purrs and the peak of the cry lies at around 300-600Hz, the same as a human baby’s hungry wail.

Yep, cats vocalise at the same pitch as our babies, a sound that we are incapable of habituating to, thanks to that pesky evolution.

Cats play their affection for us coolly. While we can use infant human attachment tests to measure a dog’s obsession with its owner, cats which are isolated from their owner do not respond to their owner’s voice with body language or vocalisation, but by a tiny ear swivel in the direction of their owner’s voice (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013). I haven’t found any evidence of people using separation tests in cats (let me know if you know of a study) but there is evidence of cats showing separation related behaviours when left alone, such as excessive grooming, vocalisation and defecation (Schwartz, 2002).

Dogs share a lot of traits with us, trained in ways we understand instinctively, motivated by affection and praise like we are, but cats have a different kind of intelligence, less comparable to ours.

Teach a dog and a cat to pull a string for a food reward. They both quickly take to pulling the string. Give them two strings and show them that food exists at the end of one string. Dogs are reasonably able to deduce that they want to pull the string attached to the food. Cats, not so much. Pull string, get food. Cats don’t understand they need to link the food to the string, whereas dogs seem to be able to grasp this at a rudimentary level. Finally, if you cross the strings, cats are still playing their little string games and the dog geniuses are entirely confused. Causal understanding is not a cat’s strong point (Whitt et al, 2009).  Dogs and babies can do object permanance tests, cats struggle (and some cats don’t even bother).

So, emotionally manipulative, intelligence alien to our own, and only barely able to tolerate other cats and humans if given the right amount of socialisation as kittens. Why do we love them?

What I love about a cat is its ability to be selective in its affection. I like to feel important in a pet’s life. My mum’s new cat, adopted from a friend who could no longer look after her, greets me with raised tail and chirrups when I walk up the road with an overnight bag. She sniffs my face and then promptly investigates all the bags and treasures I have brought. While I’ve known her for four years now, her affection for me has only recently developed. Earning the trust of a cat I see infrequently feels more rewarding for me than the instant love of a dog I’ve just met.

In my opinion its this small personality difference that distinguishes dog and cat people. Dog people are more extraverted, socialising easily and freely. Introverts value that socialness no less, but like it a different, more concentrated source.

Bradshaw finishes his book with a surprising statement that doesn’t come naturally from most animal welfare scientisits. He suggests that we start breeding for a truly domesticated cat, teaching people how to train their cats, and stop neutering the excellent housecats we have indiscriminately. He points to his 1999 paper which found that an area with a high population of neutered cats was producing moggie kittens that didn’t have particularly sociable genes.

Bradshaw argues that if we want the domestic cat to survive as a pet, we must use our knowledge of animal welfare to produce an animal more suited for its new environment. He suggests that we can avoid making the mistakes we made with dogs and take a scientific approach to producing the animal we want, affectionate, relaxed, and with little hunting motivation.

 

I find that an interesting idea, and it has certainly affected my thinking about any future cats I will own.

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?

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?!

Why Do We Care About Animal Welfare?

Every so often, usually late at night or early in the morning, when I’m on a farm and I’m cold and miserable, I wonder why we care about animal welfare.

After all, they’re not human. Why do we worry about their lives? Why do we want them to have the freedom from pain, freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear, or the freedom to behave in a natural way?

And we clearly do care about animal welfare. The RSPCA was the 12th most popular UK charity in 2012, if you judge by donations. They surpassed the British Heart Foundation, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Barnardo’s, one of my personal favourite charities. Now, financial spending is a relatively poor way to judge how much a community cares about something (all you need is a few people with big purses and you can earn quite a lot of money without much support at all *insert joke about your least favourite political party*). So how can we appropriately gauge the public’s interest in animal welfare?

Historically, animal welfare legislation in the UK started with the passions of one or two people. In 1822 an MP succeeded in having  the ‘Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle’ passed by the House of Commons. Somewhat predictably, the wording quickly needed amending to make sure people realised when they said ‘cattle’ they also meant bulls. Politics.co.uk has an interesting history of animal welfare legislation. Note how this MP went on to form the RSPCA (after receiving Queen Vic’s patronage).

More recently, many people talk about Ruth Harrison’s ‘Animal Machines’ opening their eyes to how our food is produced. Here we begin to see something more tangible. The change in consumer practices shows that consumers are willing to pay for animal welfare (Verbeke & Viaene, 2000) and that consumer choice is affected by many different things: the information they receive on animal welfare, the taste of a product (Napolitano et al 2008), how they feel about their own health and, importantly, because they place a value on animal welfare (Blokhuis et al 2003).

This concern for animal welfare therefore must exist in society, enough to change our consumer habits in measurable ways, but why?

We have a bond with animals which forms at some point in our lives. Think about yourself. When did you first realise you cared about animal welfare? Was it when the family dog sat beside you at the dinner table and gave you big, sad eyes because it wasn’t getting any food and your dinner smelled so good? And you realised that this dog, your playmate, your friend, wanted something? Think how difficult a concept that is for a child to grasp, that something other than themselves wants something. Think how amazing it is that they can grasp this about a ‘something’ which can’t even speak, or share our facial expressions.

In 2003, Melson wrote a paper about the relationship between child development and the human-animal bond. It opens with three quotes demonstrating the capacity have for caring, but also their capacity for cruelty. It’s a fascinating paper and I think it’s a strong argument for more research into this area. She talks about research that shows children with pets show more informed reasoning of the natural world, the social support children get from their pets, and most importantly – how it teaches them to care.

We’ve all heard our parents say it “Getting a dog/cat/pony/dragon is a big responsibility, are you sure you’re ready for it?” Most likely our parents knew full well they would be the one getting up in the mornings. And of course it’s usually the parents who make the final decision, regardless of how responsible the children are. Still this phrase is somewhat of a right of passage, a declaration that pet-owning is a responsibility. We accept there is a moral duty to owning a pet.

Yes there are some people who don’t care about animal welfare. But there are some people who don’t care about human welfare either. In fact, the relationship between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans might be the key to explaining why we care about animal welfare.

Daly & Morton (2008) asked a group of students how they felt about watching animals being killed. Unsurprisingly they were discomforted by it, but those who were more empathetic (including women, as they tend to score higher on empathy scores), and those who were more likely to relate to fictional characters, liked it least. The question of ‘why are we an empathic species?’ is  a slightly different topic, fascinating, but for another post. The point here is that empathy allows us to care about animal welfare.

Arluke et al (1999) used the term ‘graduate’ to describe how people move from committing animal cruelty to violent crime, because animal cruelty is a form of training. Lacking the empathy to appreciate how hurting an animal is wrong is a fairly good indicator of whether someone will go on to hurt people (although Arluke et al are quick to point, and I should be too, that animal cruelty does not always lead to violent crime). Most horrible of all, prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes who have been exposed to and sometimes participated in animal abuse as children were also often abused through childhood (Miller & Knutson, 1997).

Sometimes in discussing animal welfare we get very caught up in issues such as animal consciousness, whether animal can feel pain, or to what extent we should be legislating all of this. It’s important sometimes to step back and to question why we care – especially as there’s so little research on it. But it’s equally important to note that all the research we do have shows us that caring about animals is an important part of being human, about growing up human, and about caring for other humans.

So if, over Christmas, you feel a little caught up in all the commercialism and you get to wondering about the size of the turkey on the dinner plate, take heart. You’re only wondering because you’re human. And it’s human to care.