Changing Views of Animals, Feb 04 | Research Indicates That They are More Like Us Than We Ever Imagined

BY JEREMY RIFKIN

Animal Tracks is a series of articles from Noah’sArk Animal Foundation exploring the human/animal connection. For informationabout dog or cat adoptions, visit www.noahsark.org.

Though much of big science has centered on breakthroughs in biotechnology,nanotechnology, and more esoteric questions like the age of our universe, aquieter story has been unfolding behind the scenes in laboratories around theworld—one whose effect on human perception and our understanding of lifeis likely to be profound.

What these researchers are finding is that many of our fellow creatures aremore like us than we had ever imagined. They feel pain, suffer, and experiencestress, affection, excitement, and even love—and these findings are changinghow we view animals.

Strangely enough, some of the research sponsors are fast-food purveyors,such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC. Pressured by animal rightsactivists and by growing public support for the humane treatment of animals,these companies have financed research into, among other things, the emotional,mental, and behavioral states of our fellow creatures.

Studies on pigs’ social behavior funded by McDonald’s at PurdueUniversity, for example, have found that they crave affection and are easilydepressed if isolated or denied playtime with each other. The lack of mentaland physical stimuli can result in deterioration of health.

Other funding sources have fueled the growing field of study into animalemotions and cognitive abilities.

Researchers were stunned recently by findings (published in the journalScience) on the conceptual abilities of New Caledonian crows. In controlledexperiments, scientists at Oxford University reported that two birds namedBetty and Abel were given a choice between using two tools, one a straightwire, the other a hooked wire, to snag a piece of meat from inside a tube.Both chose the hooked wire. Abel, the more dominant male, then stole Betty’shook, leaving her with only a straight wire. Betty then used her beak towedge the straight wire in a crack and bent it with her beak to producea hook. She then snagged the food from inside the tube. Researchers repeatedthe experiment and she fashioned a hook out of the wire nine of out often times.

Equally impressive is Koko, the 300-pound gorilla at the Gorilla Foundationin Northern California, who was taught sign language and has mastered morethan 1,000 signs and understands several thousand English words. On humanIQ tests, she scores between 70 and 95.

Tool-making and the development of sophisticated language skills are justtwo of the many attributes we thought were exclusive to our species. Self-awarenessis another.

Some philosophers and animal behaviorists have long argued that otheranimals are not capable of self-awareness because they lack a sense ofindividualism. Not so, according to new studies. At the Washington NationalZoo, orangutans given mirrors explore parts of their bodies they can’totherwise see, showing a sense of self. An orangutan named Chantek wholives at the Atlanta Zoo used a mirror to groom his teeth and adjust hissunglasses.

Of course, when it comes to the ultimate test of what distinguishes humansfrom the other creatures, scientists have long believed that mourning forthe dead represents the real divide. It’s commonly believed thatother animals have no sense of their mortality and are unable to comprehendthe concept of their own death. Not necessarily so. Animals, it appears,experience grief. Elephants will often stand next to their dead kin fordays, occasionally touching their bodies with their trunks.

Until very recently, scientists were still advancing the idea that mostcreatures behaved by sheer instinct and that what appeared to be learnedbehavior was merely genetically wired activity. Now we know that geesehave to teach their goslings their migration routes. In fact, we are findingthat learning is passed on from parent to offspring far more often thannot and that most animals engage in all kinds of learned experience broughton by continued experimentation.

So what does all of this portend for the way we treat our fellow creatures?And for the thousands of animals subjected each year to painful laboratoryexperiments? Or the millions of domestic animals raised under the mostinhumane conditions and destined for slaughter and human consumption? Shouldwe discourage the sale and purchase of fur coats? What about fox huntingin the English countryside, bull fighting in Spain? Should wild lions becaged in zoos?

Such questions are being raised. Harvard and 25 other U.S. law schoolshave introduced law courses on animal rights, and an increasing numberof animal rights lawsuits are being filed. Germany recently became thefirst nation to guarantee animal rights in its constitution.

The human journey is, at its core, about the extension of empathy to broaderand more inclusive domains. At first, the empathy extended only to kinand tribe. Eventually it was extended to people of like-minded values.In the 19th century, the first animal humane societies were established.The current studies open up a new phase, allowing us to expand and deepenour empathy to include the broader community of creatures with whom weshare the Earth.

Reprinted with permission. Jeremy Rifkin, author of The BiotechCentury (Tarcher Putnam, 1998), is the president of the Foundationon Economic Trends in Washington, D.C.