Why Do We Continue To Abuse And Exploit Animals?

It’s a profoundly important question. I tend do go with the simple explanation that we can, we have retrograde beliefs about the moral consideration we should give animals, and doing so often yields profit or profits human in some way (allowing them, for example, to go around saying “MMMM. Bacon.”).

But Dr. Lori Marino and Michael Mountain go deeper. In an attempt to better understand our very troubled relationship with the other species on the planet, they argue that awareness of our own mortality plays a role. The result is a paper for Anthrozoos called “Denial of Death and the Relationship Between Humans and Other Animals.

Here is the abstract:

The focus of this paper is to explore how cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s claim that human behavior is largely motivated by fear of death may explain important aspects of our relationship with nonhuman animals. Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that when we humans are reminded of our personal mortality, we tend to deny our biological identity or creatureliness and distance ourselves from the other animals, since they remind us of our own mortal nature. In support of this, an abundance of peer-reviewed experimental literature shows that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal.” We contend that the denial of death is an important factor in driving how and why our relationships with other animals are fundamentally exploitive and harmful. Even though today there are more animal advocacy and protection organizations than ever, the situation for nonhuman animals continues to deteriorate (e.g. more factory farming, mass extinction of wildlife species, and ocean life under severe stress). We also suggest that developing a new and more appropriate relationship with the natural world would be a key factor in resolving the question that Becker was never able to answer: How can we deal with the existential anxiety that is engendered by the awareness of our own mortality?

Got it? Michael Mountain, in a blog post, explains further, in an effort to better understand whether this dynamic can help explain the disastrous and destructive trajectory of the human race:

Why are we doing this? Why have we created a way of living that’s destroying the only home we have and bringing on a mass extinction that will most likely consume us, too? And all in the name of “progress.” Why can’t we stop?

Those are the questions Dr. Lori Marino and I set out to answer in a paper that will be published in March in the journal Anthrozoos, but is already fast-tracked online here. (You need a subscription to Anthrozoos to access the full text.)

The paper, entitled Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals”, explores the psychology of how and why we humans feel compelled to treat our fellow animals as commodities and resources – and the whole natural world as our property.

The reason lies at the core of the human condition. It’s probably best summed up by the French author Albert Camus, who wrote:

“Humans are the only creatures who don’t want to be what they are.”

And what we absolutely don’t want to be is an animal.

Our central problem, as humans, is that as much as we reach for the stars and create profoundly beautiful works of art, we cannot escape the knowledge that, just like all the other animals, we are destined to die, go into the ground, and become food for worms.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that the awareness we humans have of our personal mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior. Certainly other animals experience bursts of terror in the face of death, but for us humans it’s a lifelong awareness, and one that brings about a chronic level of anxiety.

And so, to alleviate the anxiety we feel over our animal nature, we try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals and to exert control over the natural world. We tell ourselves that we’re superior to them and that they exist for our benefit. We treat them as commodities and resources, use them as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment.

I personally am comfortable with my animal nature (though that doesn’t mean I don’t try to better understand it and resist its more aggressive tendencies). And I experience joy at the connectedness I feel with regard to other creatures.

That connection is where true empathy comes from, and is the foundation of the idea that while we may be more powerful than other species our power should not be mistaken for moral superiority or the right of dominion. In fact, our power to dominate (and destroy) should be the moral basis for greater consideration and care for other species. We should be stewards, not exploiters. But since that is clearly not a view that our global culture accepts or promotes, I am glad that Lori Marino and Michael Mountain are making a bold intellectual bid to explain why.

Department Of Dubious Ideas: Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

Lori Marino digs into the long and twisted history of human belief in the healing and spiritual powers of dolphins, and then zeroes in on the claims (versus the ethics and reality) of “dolphin-assisted therapy” (DAT):

DAT typically involves several sessions either swimming or interacting with captive dolphins, often alongside more conventional therapeutic tasks, such as puzzle-solving or motor exercises. The standard price of DAT sessions, whose practitioners are not required by law to receive any special training or certification, is exorbitant, reaching into the thousands of dollars. It has become a highly lucrative international business, with facilities in Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China and the Bahamas, as well as the US. DAT practitioners claim to be particularly successful in treating depression and motor disorders, as well as childhood autism. But DAT is sometimes less scrupulously advertised as being effective with a range of other disorders, from cancer to infections, to developmental delays.

While not always promising a cure, DAT facilities clearly market themselves as offering real therapy as opposed to recreation. Under minimal standards, authentic therapy must have some relationship to a specific condition and result in measurable remedial effects. By contrast, DAT proponents cite evidence that is, more accurately, anecdotal, offering a range of explanations for its purported efficacy, from increased concentration to brainwave changes, to the positive physiological effects of echolocation (high-frequency dolphin sonar) on the human body. Parents of autistic children and others who appear to benefit from DAT believe that these explanations are scientifically plausible. The photos of smiling children and the emotional testimonials from once-desperate parents are hard to resist. Even those sceptical of DAT’s scientific validity often just shrug and say: ‘What’s the harm?’ In the worst-case scenario a child who typically knows little enjoyment and accomplishment in life can find joy, a little bit of self-efficacy and connection with others for what is sometimes the first time in his life. But amid all the self-justification, the question most often left out is: what about the dolphins?

Great piece. Here is just one example what Marino and others who would debunk DAT are up against. It’s a classic example of human exploitation of other (needy) humans, and animals, for profit.

Marc Bekoff On The Taiji Slaughter

Bekoff, a leading ethologist, adds his voice to discussion of the newly published “A Veterinary and Behavioral Analysis of the Killing Methods Used in the Dolphin Drive Hunts in Taiji, Japan.” His main point–everyone needs to work together, and be patient, to change the painful reality of the drive hunts:

I realize that some people want much more action and they want it now. They are frustrated by the slow progress that is being made on the egregious and thoroughly unethical and inhumane murder of these amazing sentient beings. However, this press is a very good and much needed move for continuing to raise awareness of what is happening in Taiji. Many people really do not know about it. I surely understand the passion of those who want more and want it now. How could anyone sit back and let this brutal slaughter go on as if it isn’t really happening. It is, and countless gallons of the blood of these highly sentient beings are being spilled into the waters around Japan. Shame on those who kill the dolphins and shame on people who know about and who remain indifferent to this massacre. We all need to work together to stop the blood spills.

Those who share common goals must work for the animals and not against one another. There really is strength in numbers. For example, the frustratingly slow progress made over many years on gaining protection for chimpanzees is finally paying off (see also). A strong and unified community effort is needed to help the dolphins along and to stop this bloodthirsty, bloodcurdling bloodbath.

Hard to argue with that.

Here’s more from Bekoff on animal behavior and emotions:

The Story Of Bill And Lou, Meat Eating, And The Future Of Humanity

This is very well said. From Dr. Lori Marino, of the Kimmela Center For Animal Advocacy, in a compelling deconstruction (via the sad story of two oxen called Bill and Lou) of the belief that meat-eating is in any way sustainable:

The reason the planet and all of its inhabitants are in such a desperate state is because our species has continued to exploit everyone and everything without compassion. Killing other animals reinforces that insensitivity and the very attitudes that have led to global destruction. We are currently facing the sixth mass extinction event, human overpopulation and starvation, and devastating planetary destruction from rampant ecological exploitation and climate change. The same insensitivity that leads to lack of concern for Bill and Lou as individuals has led us to the brink of global devastation. They are intimately related and anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous. Every individual currently in factory farms is Bill and Lou and factory farms are not only engines of unspeakable suffering for the luxury wants of our species but are contributing substantially to global warming.

Check out the Kimmela Center’s Facebook page here. And blog here.

Communicating With Dolphins

The idea that we might be able to establish a two-way conversation with dolphins is so intriguing that I wrote a story about it. I came away convinced that it will happen. The only question is how long it will take to get there.

If you are interested in knowing more, then you should check out this interview with evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino.

She knows more about the dolphin brain, and dolphin cognition, than most. Here’s a taste:

What’s currently most difficult in understanding the language of the Bottlenose dolphin?

We don’t have the Rosetta stone or a basic understanding of the nature of their communication system. We don’t know whether they’re using dimensional information, or categorical information. We don’t know how they parse their communication system.
We don’t know if they’re putting different components together in ways that we don’t.

Do you think their whistle carries the most information content?

It’s likely. The dolphin’s whistles have been sampled, statistically-parsed and then analyzed to determine whether certain whistle types can be predicted from the same or another whistle type. Results show that dolphin whistle repertoires contain higher-order internal structure or organizational complexity. This suggests their whistle “language” contains elements loosely analogous to grammar or syntax in human language.

Read the rest. And if you want to stay on top of how efforts to communiocate with dolphins are progressing, then you need to check in with the Wild Dolphin Project.