ETHICS IN THE NEWS - FOCUS
One news story brought into focus through a Q & A session with an expert at the Center for Ethics
Today's Focus is with Dr. Lori Marino who talks about ethical considerations in regards to the animal captivity industry.
The stories of two captive animals have hit national and international headlines recently. The first story, covered in a recent , is about a chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo named Santino. Over time, the thirty-two year old dominant male began hurling projectiles at zoo goers. His actions give fascinating clues about animal self-awareness to scientists. He is also sending (hurling) a clear message that challenges the ethics of animal captivity. Recently at the Georgia Aquarium an infant beluga whale died within days of birth. The story was covered in last week’s . The Aquarium has released public statements emphasizing the normality of infant death for belugas. Many scientists believe the death was directly related to the stress of captivity for Maris, the mother. Both of these stories uniquely contest the animal captivity industry.
|Dr. Lori Marino|
Dr. Lori Marino asks questions like, if animals and humans are self-aware individuals, I look at animals in captivity and wonder - would I want to be locked in a cement tank? Below is an excerpt from a conversation with Dr. Marino. She is a neuroscientist and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Emory and a faculty affiliate at the . She has spent the past two decades researching and teaching about the relationship between humans and non-human individuals. As an advocate for the ethical treatment of animals, she has shared critical insights about the animal captivity industry.
Could you talk about how the Georgia Aquarium reacted to the recent loss?
The Georgia Aquarium is a money-making business. It’s a commercial business and they are going to be very sensitive to what the public thinks of them. Whenever something bad happens, like the loss of this infant, they will try to put it in the best light possible for the sake of the Aquarium’s reputation. The problem is that when they do that, they are leaving out critical pieces of information or trying to confuse the public with explanations that aren’t relevant.
What information is getting left out or muddled?
|Maris and her baby, Source: AJC|
The medical issues that resulted in the loss of this baby and their loss of other belugas and whale sharks are all issues that have to do with captivity. To be more specific, Maris was born in captivity and she doesn’t know how to be a mother. She gave birth under highly artificial circumstances. To say that somehow this infant death is a natural occurrence for a first time beluga mom is misleading. First time mothers in the wild are subject to high infant mortality because of pollutants and toxins in the water that are transferred to the first-born when nursing. Barring pollution, belugas know how to take care of their babies. At the Georgia Aquarium pollution wasn’t her problem at all. She wasn’t subject to pollutants and toxins. The Aquarium skirted around the artificiality of the circumstance. It’s very important from an ethical point of view to be honest with the public, especially if you’re claiming to be in the business of educating the public.
Are the stories about Maris and Santino related?
They are related in the sense that these individuals can’t do much about their situation. They are stuck there. I know from years of studying the peer reviewed literature, captivity is devastating. Animals don’t live long healthy lives in captivity. There is little they can do about being in captivity short of losing the will to live.
What Santino is doing is interesting. Scientifically, he is showing the ability to do complex foreplanning. Santino is making a statement. He doesn’t want to be there or to be gawked at by people. I don’t know exactly what’s going on in his mind. But what he seems to be saying is - stop looking at me. He’s not welcoming the crowd. He’s doing something about his captivity and throwing rocks is one of the clearest statements anyone can make.
What do Santino’s actions say about the direction of scientific research in this field?
|Santino and his projectiles, Source: ScienceMag|
He’s gotten a lot of attention for a few reasons. His behavior has impacted our scientific understandings of chimpanzee cognitive capacity. This is a special case because we recognize that he has the option of doing anything he wants and he is choosing to do something that is an obvious statement.
I did some noninvasive work with chimpanzees at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory many years ago. Anyone that works with chimpanzees knows they like to throw things, sometimes feces or food, and they like to spit. Behind bars they have a sense of themselves as being not in control. What is different about Santino is the clear longterm foreplanning on his part.
Santino is saying - get me out of here. From an ethics point of view, it’s not so much about the fact that he can plan ahead. Santino’s actions provoke ethical minded people to ask questions like: what is he trying to communicate? Is this something that we really need to take seriously? What is causing him to spend so much time to make this statement?
Has there been any improvement in the treatment of animals in the last few decades?
I believe there has been very little improvement in the treatment of animals. We still have chimpanzees in captivity. We still have dolphins and whales in captivity. Advocates keep trying to change things. What we do see is a change in the mindset of the public. Universities are still keeping primates captive and the Georgia Aquarium is still keeping dolphins and whales captive but the public is starting to become much more aware of animal treatment.
I’m a faculty member at the Center for Ethics because we need to start extending ethical consideration to other animals. Some call this topic the last forefront of rights and ethics (although we still have a long way to go in terms of human-to-human ethics). The public will decide what the future will look like for these animals.
Was there a particular moment that launched you into animal advocacy?
The moment I decided this had to be a priority in my professional life was about ten years ago. I co-authored a paper on dolphin self-recognition in which we found that bottlenose dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors. It was a seminal paper because it was the first definitive demonstration of mirror self-recognition in a non-primate. I received a lot of letters from activists and advocates who encouraged me to use the publicity as an opportunity to speak out for dolphins. After the buzz from the article died down the two dolphins we worked with were transferred to another aquarium and died of diseases that are common to captive dolphins. That hit hard.
Their deaths made me think about whether we should be keeping self-aware individuals in concrete tanks. Their sensitivities are not unlike our own. I wouldn’t want to be kept in captivity. From there on, I didn’t do any more work with captive animals. I was determined to use my expertise to somehow help them. These revelations compelled me to change the nature of my research and professional life and devote a lot of my time to science-based advocacy. What I teach my students now is that scientists can also be advocates. They shouldn’t let anyone tell them otherwise.