Saturday, July 4, 2009

Atlanta Science Tavern talk

These are the slides from a talk Nathan Nobis recently did for the Atlanta Science Tavern that addressed some ethical issues concerning animals:

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cherry-Picking Our Scientific Data

Yesterday I read a news story reporting on findings by a research team at Queen’s University Belfast in the prestigious journal Animal Behaviour providing evidence that hermit crabs feel pain and remember it. That is, there is a cognitive component to their reaction to various stimuli. To those who have witnessed the screams of lobsters dropped into pots of boiling water or take as an assumption that having a nervous system has something to do with feeling and perceiving… well, this is not news. But for those who demand their beliefs be based on objective scientific data… it is a revelation I suppose.

Okay, well, what do we do now? Those of us in science have spent lifetimes teaching our students that the beauty of the scientific enterprise is that it is self-correcting and adjusts conceptually to incoming data. Yet, there seems to be no response to the above findings. Of course this silence is just a microcosm of the broader stance that we take towards “inconvenient truths” – we ignore them. We have an overwhelming amount of evidence that other mammals feel pain and distress and yet we don’t take those findings into account when eating them, experimenting on them (to get even more data!), and poaching them. So why am I all bent out of shape (coming out of my shell) about hermit crabs? Two reasons.

One is that, despite the loose protections in existence for mammals and (some) vertebrates there is no protection against pain and suffering for invertebrates such as hermit crabs. There is not even an Animal Welfare Act to minimally guide how we treat them nor any substantive discussion of whether we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Up to now even the most empirically-minded scientists might have appealed to the fact that there was no clear evidence for the conscious experience of pain in invertebrates. Now their hand is forced because of these new data.

Two is the very unscientific nature of our response. The scientific study of other animals as models for human conditions is done from a cherry-picker. We use rats in depression research but refuse to acknowledge the very data that makes them valid subjects in such research. We use monkeys in studies of horrific neurological disorders that cause tremendous suffering in people yet choose to ignore the data that they are just as debilitated by these diseases as we are. And on and on. It is fair to say that our propensity to “keep the good data and throw out the bad data” is so imbedded in the scientific process that we are barely aware we are doing it at this point.

It will be interesting to see if the scientific community responds in the manner we prescribe for our students (to adjust to changing evidence) or whether we decide to, as we always have, cherry-pick those data that are consistent with our professional and personal objectives from those that represent an authentic challenge to our role as scholars and human beings. I wonder. How many of us will engage in a parlor debate over this issue at the seafood buffet?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Planet of the Apes Redux

By Lori Marino

As I read about the recent story of Santino, the chimpanzee at the Furuvik zoo in Sweden who was throwing stone disks at visitors I could not help but be taken back to the classic movie Planet Of The Apes. Santino is being given all this attention because he is planning his behavior, choosing, modifying and stockpiling appropriate rocks during the evening for throwing the next day when visitors are around. This obvious instance of foreplanning has sent shock waves through the scientific community because planning ahead is supposed to be a distinctly human trait and Santino is apparently in possession of it. Here’s the part that is like Planet Of The Apes. In the movie Charlton Heston is captured, collared, and confined by great apes who consider Heston “an animal”. When he tries to talk and show similar cognitive abilities to the apes their response, led by a close-minded orangutan named Dr. Zaius, is to silence him by threatening castration or a frontal lobotomy. All because they are deathly afraid of the obvious – that Heston thinks and feels the way they do. The implication is that if they admit this, their treatment of him is nothing short of immoral and they have to change.

This scenario was played out in real life in the case of Santino. The zoo’s response to his agitated behavior? Castration. They imagine this will make him more docile and less motivated to throw stones. It may work. But that is not the issue. It reminds me of the old, pre-Civil War diagnosis of "drapetomania" - the "psychiatric" disorder "possessed" by slaves who tried repeatedly to run away from their “owners”. Rather than listen to those who are imprisoned, we so often prefer to malign them, which is a good way of reducing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

The focus of attention on Santino is driven by the psychological traits he shares with us, and yet, the response of the human great apes is stunningly inconsistent with that fact. Like the apes in the movie, we avoid the obvious and try to “keep him quiet” with invasive procedures. There is no apparent attempt to use this discovery as the occasion for considering the fact that Santino might actually have a point. There is apparently no recognition of the fact that Santino is communicating loud and clear that he does not want to be in a zoo watched by unfamiliar people all day. Must he wear a sign? The author of the report , Mathias Osvath, in Current Biology (Vol 19, Issue 5, R190-R191, 10 March 2009) states that "These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way,". He adds that "It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events." Yet, apparently this discovery warrants a review of a scientific paper but not a review of how Santino is being treated.

The time has come for us to listen to these beings who are expressing their feelings about captivity and their experiences. They may not speak the words in English or some other human language but the message is obvious. We can, like the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” apes in the movie, choose to suppress the obvious with strong-arm tactics or we can choose the truly educated and enlightened path and listen to what Santino and his kin are telling us. The choice is ours.

At the end of the movie Dr. Zaius discovers a human doll that talks. It says’ “mama” and he knows the justification for his treatment of human apes is crumbling before him. Well, we have heard our “mama” in the form of Santino’s stone throwing. The question is whether we will answer our fellow great ape with consistency in thought and compassion or, as Dr. Zaius does in the end of the movie, blow up the mine and forever seal the truth and our fates.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This blog will appear in edited form in the Los Angeles Times Blowback section on Monday, December 15, 2008.

Zoos without elephants would be a lesson in compassion for the children of L.A.

Lori Marino, Ph.D.

Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program

Emory University

Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D.

The Kerulos Center

Randy Malamud, Ph.D.

Department of English

Georgia State University

In his recent article entitled “Zoos without elephants would be a loss for the children of L.A.” (Dec 9, 2008, Los Angeles Times) Hector Tobar protests the possibility that Billy, a 23-year old, Malaysian elephant held captive at the LA Zoo for nearly two decades might go to sanctuary and the exhibit might be closed forever. You see, Billy’s two remaining elephant companions recently died. Thirteen elephants have died at the LA Zoo since 1975. About half of them died before they reached the age of 20 even though the natural lifespan of elephants is 65-70 years. Given these statistics, Billy’s age is concerning. In light of the mountain of evidence that has accumulated over the past three decades showing the extensive and profoundly adverse effects of animals’ emotions on their physical health, this is not at all surprising.

Despite his youth, Billy already shows signs of aging and hardship. Beyond suffering from tail abscesses and other infections, he has developed a stereotypy – a repetitive head tic that is indicative of severe duress commonly found in confined animals and humans. This is not unexpected. Elephants share common brain structures and functions with us. They recognize themselves in mirrors and thus share a similar sense of self with us. Elephants also suffer from the stress of forced incarceration, physical deprivation, social isolation and other trauma. Consequently, when children see Billy they are looking at someone not too much different from the children they see on the news who are victims of war and genocide—sentenced to live without family and friends under harsh conditions resembling a prison.

Mr. Tobar is aware of all this evidence for trauma and suffering on the part of this animal, which makes his response nothing short of stunningly callous. He seems to think that people have a right to see and do whatever they want, even if it means great harm to another individual, in this case, an elephant. We are sure Mr. Tobar would not concede that this is his viewpoint but he appears oblivious to his own insensitivity. His argument is a chilling example of how our institutions of captivity (i.e. zoos and marine parks) have been successful at “breaking us in”, that is, conditioning us to think in ways that culminated in such attitudes.

Tobar claims he is concerned about the impact of losing the elephant exhibit on children. In doing so he attempts to frame the issue as “elephants versus children”. He knows better than that. He knows that there are many things that his and other children will never experience. Most children do not grow up to pet a dinosaur (indeed none do!), climb Mt. Everest, or dance in the American Ballet Theater. And Mr. Tobar knows that no child suffers because of lack of these experiences. They will grow up to lead happy meaningful lives without these experiences. The same is true of seeing elephants in zoos.

We argue that, in fact, seeing suffering animals held in confinement in zoos has a negative impact on children. They come to learn that other animals are commodities, to be controlled and exploited. They come to learn that we need not be concerned about suffering as long as we are entertained. Yet we expect these children to become ethical caring adults. It is irrational to do so.

We agree with Mr. Tobar on one point. Zoos without elephants would indeed have an impact on children. It would be a lesson in compassion.

Signatories (in alphabetical order):

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder

Ron Broglio, Ph.D., Asst. Professor, School of Literature, Communication and Culture, Georgia Institute of Technology

Brenda McCowan, Ph.D., Assoc. Professor, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

Franklin D. McMillan, DVM, Director of Well-Being Studies, Best Friends Animal Society

Henry Melvyn Richardson, DVM, Former Zoo Veterinarian

Michael Mountain, Former President and Co-Founder, Best Friends Animal Society

Carrie Packwood Freeman, Ph.D., Asst. Professor of Communication, Georgia State University

Kenneth Shapiro, PhD, ABPP, Executive Director. Animals & Society Institute

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Recreational conservation

Lori Marino, Ph.D.

We are currently in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction event in our planet's history. The die-off of species is occurring at 100 to 1000 times the natural background rate and is largely due to human activities. At the current rate 1 in 4 mammal species (and numerous other animal groups) will be gone in thirty years.

The journal Nature recently unveiled its special edition entitled Darwin 200 (November 20, 2008, issue 256) in celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday. In this issue Miller et al. report on successful reconstruction of most of the genome sequence of the extinct woolly mammoth (2008, 256, 387-390). The Miller et al finding is being heralded by some as a potential solution to the problem of extinction – resurrecting long-gone groups of animals like the mammoth, the dinosaurs, and orangutans or the myriad of others that are sliding precipitously down the extinction slope. In the same issue, science writer Henry Nicholls considers the scientific complexities of cloning a mammoth in his commentary “Let’s make a mammoth”, asks whether the dream of doing so is now within reach (2008,256, 310-314) and ponders wistfully that “By 2059, who knows what may be returned rebooted to walk the earth?” (2008, 314). And, calling the Miller et al. achievement a “breathtaking” measure of progress, evolutionary anthropologist Michael Hofreiter presages that the next genome to be sequenced will be that of our close relatives, neanderthals (2008, 256, 330 – 331).

The viewpoint expressed by these authors supports the notion that scientific know-how will allow us to skirt the issue of vanishing species under the false confidence that we can bring them back into the world when we deem it worthwhile to do so. This peculiar form of ”conservation” manifests itself in cloning efforts like the one above but also in efforts to collect, preserve and store DNA and viable cells from animals in danger of extinction such as The Frozen Ark Project by the University of Nottingham, Natural History Museum, Zoological Society of London. Moreover, zoos and aquaria have squarely situated themselves in the middle of this effort by branding themselves as bastions of protection and preservation for the animals they hold captive. Through their captive breeding programs they claim to be in the business of safe-keeping those species who are bound for extinction in the natural setting.

How realistic are these efforts? More importantly, what do they tell us about our regard for members of other species and, ultimately, their success? Turning to the practical matter, all life forms, and especially animals, are complex organisms that thrive in a highly intricate dynamic milieu with each other and the planet's ecosystems. Although DNA preserves the genetic template of any given species it does not preserve the way these genetic instructions unfold in the physical, social and psychological context to yield the whole animal in all of its essence. Moreover, it is the disappearance of natural habitats that is the major cause of most of these extinctions. These realities make it highly unlikely that species will be able to be restored in their original form in their natural environment to lead natural lives. Even if some semblance of extinct life forms could be made to survive, there will be no place for them to go. Although this issue is given lip-service, it is taken in stride by cloning enthusiasts.

Beyond these critical pragmatic and scientific issues, I argue that these efforts are representative of a mindset that has contributed greatly to the extinction trend in the first place. I also argue that these kinds of efforts tell us something about the stunning disregard we have for the animals we share the planet with. This dangerous viewpoint is part of a cultural ill I call “recreational conservation”, societal beliefs and practices that superficially resemble genuine conservation efforts but, instead, reflect and promote a demeaning commoditization of other animals for the purposes of our entertainment and edification. Zoos, marine parks, captive breeding programs, frozen DNA banks, and extinct species cloning programs all promote themselves as modern-day Noah’s Arks. But the danger is that these human-created contexts of cement and steel, test tubes, and incubators are all sending the message that natural habitats are irrelevant. And if the animals’ natural context is implicitly presented as unimportant, then these institutions are actually contradicting the message they claim to affirm. Moreover, these types of efforts palliate people's concerns about a vanishing natural world, instead of forcing us to confront the imminent dangers to animals. In this way they create a false sense of security about the survival and welfare of other animals. Hence the notion that species can be reconstituted or “rebooted” sometime in the future. Zoos and marine parks, especially, often explicitly convey to the visitor that by patronizing their facility they are contributing to conservation. Visitors, in turn, are not only entertained but they can leave the zoo with a sense of self-satisfaction that they are “doing their part”. The opportunity loss for real conservation efforts is obvious. Instead of doing the real work of conservation, “recreational conservation” entertains under the guise of education and leads us to look forward to the day when we can be “conservationists” once again by gawking at even more exotic commodities such as the woolly mammoth, tyrannosaurus rex, the saber-toothed tiger, and neanderthals. Recreational conservation ensures failure because it is a continuation of the same mindset that brought other animals to this precipice in the first place. What is needed is the hard work of real conservation – shifting to a non-anthropocentric view that takes seriously the inherent value of the other animals on this planet.

As I read about these touted efforts to bring back extinct species I envision a dystopic future that repeats the ignorance and abuses of the past. In 1902 the Bronx zoo featured an abducted pygmy man, Ota Benga, in the primate display. Mr. Benga eventually committed suicide. In addition to all the other animals trying to eek out a life in confinement, this is a particularly tragic reminder of the sordid past of our institutions of captivity. Now we are closing in on the cusp of further perversions of entertainment – “rebooted” displaced beings, e.g., mammoths and neanderthals, to keep us mired in the diversionary past and ensuring a future wiped bare by entitlement and disregard. But all is not lost. Tickets will be half-price on holidays and children under two are admitted free.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Whale sharks turned into carnival ride
Georgia Aquarium endangering its animals with new program

Published on: 02/14/08

Recently, the Georgia Aquarium sponsored a contest whereby visitors won a chance to swim or dive with the whale sharks. In fact, NBC touted this exploit on "Today," showing the three winners diving in the tank with the whale sharks. Now the aquarium has announced an ongoing program to provide paying customers an opportunity to swim with these animals.

We are disturbed that, after the deaths last year of two whale sharks in its charge, Ralph and Norton, the Georgia Aquarium has so little concern for the welfare of the remaining animals. A careful professional stance would have been for the Georgia Aquarium to minimize all possible negative impacts on the remaining sharks in order to maximize their chances of survival, which, we already know from Asian aquariums, are not good in captivity.

John Spink/Staff
'Today' (with Meredith Vieira) brought its cameras to the Georgia Aquarium on Tuesday, when winners of a contest with the prize of swimming with the whale sharks were announced. Allowing people to swim with the sharks stresses and endangers the animals, the writers say.

Instead, the Georgia Aquarium chose to promote a highly commercial circus atmosphere and make the animals into an amusement park ride. How could anyone concerned about the welfare of these animals support the risks of contamination and stress associated with having people (who may carry diseases and germs) invade these animals' delicate environment? While divers in the Pacific occasionally swim alongside whale sharks, entering the enclosed space of captive animals has very different implications and consequences for the animals, who have no escape.

We wonder if anyone at the aquarium has considered the psychological effects of this intrusion into the whale sharks' already compromised personal space.

On its Web site the aquarium presents 25 frequently asked questions about the dive program. We would add one more: How do you think the animals feel about the paying guests who pop into their water every afternoon?

The aquarium markets this contest as a way to educate the public and preserve whale sharks. The sincerity of this claim is belied by the blatant exploitation of these animals at a price of $190 to $290 a swim or dive for nonmembers.

The aquarium has produced no credible evidence supporting the claim that visits to their whale shark exhibit (or any other exhibit, for that matter) translate into better understanding of whale sharks (or any other species). Also, there is no evidence that swimming with captive animals (such as fish and mammals) increases understanding and appreciation for them. Even if there were such evidence, would it be a risk worth taking?

Whale sharks live in deep water, swim for hundreds of miles to feed and mate, and do not typically interact with people. It seems to us that the truly important conservation message that people need to learn is how to value these animals without needing to commodify them.

P.T. Barnum once said, "Clowns and elephants are the pegs on which the circus is hung." Were he alive today and in Atlanta, he might add "30-foot sharks" to his equation.

— Lori Marino is a senior lecturer at Emory University's Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program. Randy Malamud is professor and associate chair of Modern Literature, Ecocriticism and Cultural Studies at Georgia State University. Ron Broglio is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Dec. 18, 2007

Beverly Cox Clark: 404-712-8780, 404-275-4771 (cell),


People suffering from chronic mental or physical disabilities should not resort to a dolphin "healing" experience, warn two researchers from Emory University. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, has teamed with Scott Lilienfeld, professor in the Department of Psychology, to launch an educational campaign countering claims made by purveyors of what is known as dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT).

"Dolphin-assisted therapy is not a valid treatment for any disorder," says Marino, a leading dolphin and whale researcher. "We want to get the word out that it's a lose-lose situation – for people and for dolphins."

While swimming with dolphins may be a fun, novel experience, no scientific evidence exists for any long-term benefit from DAT, Marino says. She adds that people who spend thousands of dollars for DAT don't just lose out financially – they put themselves, and the dolphin, at risk of injury or infection. And they are supporting an industry that – outside of the United States – takes dolphins from the wild in a brutal process that often leaves several dolphins dead for every surviving captive.

Marino and Lilienfeld reviewed five studies published during the past eight years and found that the claims for efficacy for DAT were invalid. Their conclusions were published recently in Anthrozoƶs, the journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology, in a paper entitled "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions."

"We found that all five studies were methodologically flawed and plagued by several threats to both internal and construct validity," wrote Marino and Lilienfeld, who conducted a similar review in 1998. "We conclude that nearly a decade following our initial review, there remains no compelling evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy, or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood."

An upcoming issue of the newsletter of the American Psychological Association's Division of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities will feature another article by Marino and Lilienfeld, entitled "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy for Autism and Other Developmental Disorders: A Dangerous Fad."

"We want to reach psychologists with this message, because DAT is increasingly being applied to children with developmental disabilities, although there is no good evidence that it works," said Lilienfeld, a clinical psychologist. "It's hard to imagine the rationale for a technique that, at best, makes a child feel good in the short run, but could put the child at risk of harm."

The Emory scientists have timed their campaign to coincide with a recent call by two UK-based non-profits – the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Research Autism – to ban the practice of DAT.

While Marino is against taking dolphins from the wild and holding them captive for any purpose, she finds DAT especially egregious, because the people who are being exploited are the most vulnerable – including desperate parents who are willing to try anything to help a child with a disability.

Many people are under the impression that dolphins would never harm a human. "In reality, injury is a very real possibility when you place a child in a tank with a 400-pound wild animal that may be traumatized from being captured," Marino says.

Dolphins are bred in captivity in U.S. marine parks, but in other countries they are often taken from the wild. "If people knew how these animals were captured, I don't think they would want to swim with them in a tank or participate in DAT," Marino says, referring to an annual "dolphin drive" in Japan. "During the dolphin drives hundreds of animals are killed, or panicked and die of heart attacks, in water that's red with their blood, while trainers from facilities around the world pick out young animals for their marine parks. They hoist them out of the water, sometimes by their tail flukes, and take them away."

Each live dolphin can bring a fisherman $50,000 or more, she says. "The marine parks make millions off of dolphins, so that's a drop in the bucket. It's an irony that dolphins are among the most beloved, and the most exploited, animals in the world," Marino says.


Emory University is one of the nation's leading private research universities and a member of the Association of American Universities. Known for its demanding academics, outstanding undergraduate college of arts and sciences, highly ranked professional schools and state-of-the-art research facilities, Emory is ranked as one of the country's top 20 national universities by U.S. News & World Report. In addition to its nine schools, the university encompasses The Carter Center, Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory Healthcare, the state's largest and most comprehensive health care system.

Subscribe to News@Emory RSS feeds for automatic updates of the latest news at Emory.