The Rescuers – the pitfalls and potential of interspecies altruism

Since I published my blog about morality, I’ve been noticing lots of instances of humans demonstrating our extensive capacity for altruism (re-cap: acts that help others without any significant gain to ourselves).  Particularly, me being me, I’ve noticed how far we extend our altruism – far outside of our own social group, to include strangers, other animals and even ‘concepts’, such as a real concern for ‘nature’ as a whole.Brazilian Beachgoers Rescuing Stranded Dolphins

I’ve also noticed the conflict that this expansion of our empathy seems to initiate.  Not only does it create novel moral dilemmas for us when we project our own moral values onto other species (as discussed in my blog about cats as serial killers), it also produces dilemmas as to the reasonable limits of our altruism.  Without wanting to harp on about the cat issue again, I must highlight this quote from the extensive press relating to it:

“It is not humane treatment of animals to place a killing machine in their midst. Nor is it humane treatment of animals to allow one to live, with the knowledge that others will die painful deaths because of that act.” – Karin Kline, Los Angeles Times

Erm… I have an issue with the second sentence of that statement.  Allow me to jump off my fence and dust the sawdust of my backside for a moment while I point out that, by that logic, we should not be allowing any predators to live, at all, ever.  Such a level of intervention into the lives of others, I think most people would agree, would be a step too far and would likely have disastrous results for the functioning of our planet.

So, although I think most would agree that we can’t reasonably attempt to intervene in every violent and non-altruistic interaction that takes place, we are still left with the question: when is it OK to intervene?

The Crow and I have been watching the BBC’s ‘Africa’ for the past few weeks and in the most recent episode – regarding the future of the continent – a number of these issues were discussed.   Filmmakers and local conservationists watched a baby elephant die of starvation.  They did not intervene.  On another occasion, however, an adult female was stuck in mud unable to free herself; the team pulled her free using heavy machinery.  The explanation was that, during the drought, the team felt that there was nothing they could realistically do for the infant.  There was no food, no water and the calf was too weak to walk.  It was agreed that with so little chance of a positive outcome, it was not worth causing the mother the stress of their intervention; in such a situation the mother is not to know that humans are trying to help.  Their experience of humans may not always have been positive and the first part of a different video below – in which humans did intervene to save an elephant calf stuck in a well – shows how distressing such well intentioned actions can be (don’t worry – on this occasion it has a happy ending):

I don’t know of researchers, conservationists or filmmakers ever intervening in situations where an animal is threatened by a predator – some of the camera operators on ‘Africa’ said how emotionally difficult it had been to watch hundreds of young turtles snatched by crows and eagles.  Here, though, another of our most developed abilities – reasoned thought – often wins out over the initial empathic response.  Most people recognise that life functions on death and consumption, even if (like my mum) you’d rather not watch it happen.

The question of human intervention, then, is normally restricted to events that could be classified as ‘natural spite’ (such as elephants trapped in mud and beached whales) or situations caused by anthropogenic activity (such as dolphins trapped in fishing lines and birds coated in mystery substances probably of human origin).

Photo: Brendan McDermid/ReutersThe big dilemmas arise when we just don’t know what’s happened, or what is the best course of action.  Last week, in New York, a lone dolphin was discovered in the Gowanus Canal.  David Kirby of the Huffington Post has written a really thoughtful article considering both sides of the story, which is worth reading in full.  In short, though, the official advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to leave the dolphin alone until high tide to give him the chance to ‘rescue’ hisself.  Sadly, he didn’t survive that long.  Although there were many concerned onlookers, restricted access made it very difficult for anyone to reach the stranded dolphin and, even if they had, there was nowhere nearby to take him.  The general desire to help, though, was apparently evident  – the photo I’ve yoinked here (all credit to Brendan McDermid/Reuters) shows a man climbing over the barriers in an attempt to offer the dolphin some comfort.

Although we may be conflicted, I am heartened by the length and breadth of our compassion and altruism towards others, both within and across species.  It makes me hopeful that, by employing both this natural generosity and the aforementioned reason, we’re not entirely doomed to failure as a species and as (self-appointed) stewards of this planet.  Our emotions and reason mean that as well as acting selfishly, which heaven knows we’re also very good at, we also want to help – and for many of us, this extends to a desire to help not just our friends and family but other animals, plants, entire ecosystems or even the whole planet!  So, for me our capacity for altruism is one of the most fortunate of evolution’s branches: imagine what things might be like if we lacked it.

It also seems that this adaptation is not just a one-off.  Evolution is full of patterns and parallel solutions to common problems (I like to thing of parallel evolution as the theory of ‘if it ain’t broke..’)  As I discussed in ‘Moral(animal)ity‘, there is a growing body of data regarding other social animals exhibiting altruism and the foundations of moral systems.  It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most ‘socially intelligent’ of these animals have also been recorded to generalise their altruistic behaviour to other species, including humans.  It’s the usual suspects – elephants, cetaceans, great apes – with a couple of less-obvious inputs, for example, from pigs and parrots (again, though, both highly social species).

Dolphins, in particular, have been observed on multiple occasions helping both humans and other cetaceans out of sticky situations, suggesting that they either have a particularly strong capacity for altruistic action or that people watch them a lot.  Could be a little from column A, a little from column B…  I’ve put some links to examples below.  Many of these accounts are anecdotal, but they have considerable potential for further study and – as Marc Bekoff says – the plural of anecdote is data.Cookie.  Photo: Wales News Service

Finally, a touching (and local to the Battcave) example of true animal nonhuman altruism, whether intended as such or not; it was reported today that Cookie the Cockatiel woke his owner in the middle of a house fire by repeatedly dive-bombing him, saving the boy’s life.  Tragically, Cookie did not make it out of the fire and has therefore become an ultimate altruist, by giving his life to save another’s.

Aubrey Manning – Animal Magic: Why Species Give Each Other a Helping Hand  /  Dolphins Save Surfer from Becoming Shark Bait  /  Beluga Whale ‘Saves’ Diver  /

(This one is interesting, because I’m not sure whether or not the gorilla intended to save the duckling or was just really interested in it; what do you think?)


For the Love of Camels


Anyone who knows me will by now have learned that I have an unusual fondness for camels.  As I’ve picked up some new readers (thank you all, by the way, for stopping by), I decided I should probably bring this up to, you know, put my cards on the table.

I love camels.

Of course, that fact in itself is not worthy of a blog post in anyone’s mind but mine.  What IS worthy of a post, though, is the inevitable response whenever this idiosyncrasy of mine comes up, which happens more than you’d think.  Except at the International Camel Conference (yes, there is one and yes, I’ve been) the next question is pretty much always, “erm… why?”

Why indeed.  The irreplaceable Sir David Attenborough was on the Jonathan Ross show on Saturday night – UK readers can catch up here for the next month (by which time it will probably be on YouTube anyway).  Although, as ever, he spoke many words of wisdom (Sir Dave, not Jonathan Ross, he rarely speaks words of wisdom), the exchange I found particularly interesting was this:

JR: “Would you call yourself an animal lover, or is it just an academic interest?”

DA: “I am absolutely fascinated by animals… I mean the word ‘lover’ is, you know, a funny old word… [laughter] – well it is, isn’t it? I don’t love snails, particularly, but they are very interesting.  Have you ever seen snails mating?”

This is more along the lines of what I mean when I say I ‘love’ camels, though not quite the whole picture.  The word ‘love’ has many of interpretations. I don’t, for example, love camels in the same way that I love the Crow (i.e. romantically), my parents (i.e. familiarly) or even the Masked Bandits; our love for pets, incidentally, is an interesting one as it’s almost a halfway house between the love for friends and family. There are elements of both bonding and of a desire to nurture… but I digress.

When we say we ‘love’ animals, then, what are we getting at?  Surely, as Sir Dave notes, we rarely love ALL animals.  I’m certainly not a fan of crane flies, or (as noted in my first blog) mosquitoes.  Equally, many people are not a fan of camels, particularly in the Western hemisphere.  In these parts, if I said, “I love dogs” or (slightly more contentiously at the moment) “I love cats”, many people would say, “Awww, me too.”  This is not generally the response with camels.

I have read, written and spoken at length on various camel-related issues and in this time have learned a great deal about them.  The more I have learned, the more fascinated I have become.  Did you know, for example, that camels can sense water from up to 3 km away?  That they have three eyelids?  That their milk naturally contains an insulin-type protein that can be used to treat diabetes? That they pee ‘backwards’ (i.e. between their back legs, in the opposite direction to cows, horses etc.)? That they are one of a select few animals observed to respond to music?  All true. However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like camels, but to ask you to reconsider why you might not ‘love’ camels like you do dogs, or cats, or horses. If you aren’t interested in animals at all, of course, there’s little for you here: sorry. If you already love camels, you’ll enjoy this post, so please continue!

Camel Face. Photo Credit: eNil I will grant you that camels smell.  That is inescapable, but then so do many mammals (wet dog, particularly, is not a pleasant scent, nor are various human… odours).  Some dislike camels because of their ability to spit a delicious concoction of partially chewed food, saliva and digestive juices.  Fair enough, if one has spat at you.  Has that happened to you?  What were you doing at the time?  I would put money on whatever it was being fairly irritating.  Still others see camels as ‘grumpy’, or ‘aloof’.  Well, if your eyes were similarly positioned in relation to your nose and your head was seven to eight feet off the ground, people might think you were aloof, too.

Western explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be scathing and even vicious about the camels they encountered on their travels:

“In almost everything written on life in the desert the camel bears a bad name, and indeed he richly deserves it… he has the combined malice and stupidity of the worst kind of Georgia mule.  He is ugly as sin… his black heart is filled with melancholy hatred.”  – W. Seabrook, 1927

I sense Seabrook rode a rather bad-tempered camel; camels display the same amount of individual variation in personality and temperament as most species, especially social vertebrates.  However, his enthusiasm to denigrate an entire genus in this way suggests a certain cultural prejudice not necessarily related to real camel behaviour.  Fortunately, other explorers were more sensitive to their surroundings:

 “Many Englishmen have written about camels.  When I open a book and see the familiar disparagement, the well-worn humour, I realised that the author’s knowledge of them is slight, that he has never lived among the Bedu, who know the camel’s worth.” – W Thesiger, 1959

In news reports and on the internet at large, camels are still portrayed as a bit of a joke – long, gangly legs, droopy lips, interesting noises and, of course, the hump (or two).  In fact, their relationship with humans has been one of the most extensive and enduring of all such associations and their centrality to certain cultures can hardly be overstated.   Anthropologist Teka found that many Afar families in Ethiopia, were:

 “unanimous to endorse the idea that they prefer to lose a son than a camel.  According to them, if a son dies you bury him and you may or may not get another son, but life continues… but if a camel dies everything is left where it is, and there is no movement which means there is no life and the household collapses.” (Teka, 1991)

Al Dhafra Camel Festival.  Photo Credit: A RahmanSimilarly, until comparatively recently many Arabian peoples relied on the camel’s provision of transport, milk and general all-round assistance with a desert lifestyle. In the modern Middle East the dromedary is still considered a gift of Allah and its cultural history and symbolism continue to be celebrated through beauty contests, heritage festivals and camel racing, a modern form of an old Bedouin pastime.

If we all take a step back, though, away from our cultural baggage and projection of our learned ideals of beautiful and desirable characteristics, the true camel comes into focus.  As with cats in my previous post: camels are camels, they are this regardless.

When I think of camels, I think of an incredible, exemplar culmination of powerful evolutionary pressures, I think of the incredible (to me) feats of endurance they are able to achieve on a daily basis, I think of their individual, humorous characters and I think of their ability to form bonds with each other and with humans.  I think of their unique way of maintaining life in desolate lands.  I also think of Shilan, the camel so small, white and fluffy he was more like a large llama, who carried me uncomplainingly for days across quiet desert sands.  My research and experience of camels has extended my interest into something that is a form of love – interest, admiration, pleasure in their company.  I think that counts.

I don’t see love and hate as external forces.  I see humans as learners, absorbers, flexible and moulded by our experiences and the world in which we are immersed.  For me this is a connection with the camel, perhaps surprisingly given my cultural background.  I would not pressure or presume anyone else to feel the same.

Still: when the next person asks me why on earth I am so engrossed by camels, I will point them to this extremely self-indulgent blog and reply: why on earth not?


Breaking News: Cats are Carnivores

The human-cat relationship appears to have hit a rough patch. Photo Credit: Viriditas

Recent research estimates that free-ranging  cats in the US kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals each year.  A quick Google News search of the term ‘killer cats’ brought back thousands of results, with headlines like, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think“.  I have to admit, my first reaction was surprise. Not, initially, at the numbers of animals killed, but that this is apparently big news.  I think my favourite quote (from the same article) is this one:

“For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.”  – Natalie Angier, New York Times

That is the voice of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and not much time with cats.  Personally, I’m fairly convinced that the domestic cat’s spread and success across the modern world is not borne of their musical talents.  In fact, I would say that their ability to catch and kill a large amount of small, furry creatures has more than a fair bit to do with it.

Apologies for the flippancy; it does seem that the numbers provided by this study are significant, if rather broad (there is a lot of difference between the quoted ranges of 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals).  What struck me about the situation, though, was the irony in the idea that the very feature of cats that may have accelerated their domestication – and consequently their success – is now (in some circles) a reviled and unwanted characteristic.

So how did we get here?  Well, as with dogs, the prevalent theory is that cats were domesticated by assimilation.  They are thought to have first began an association with humans in the near east about 8,500 years ago, possibly drawn to human settlements by the resident populations of commensals – rats, mice etc. – therein.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat.  Photo Credit: Larazoni As is well documented, cats enjoyed significant success in ancient Egypt where they had a variety of mostly positive religious associations; as goddesses (the female cats’ obvious promiscuity may have resulted in their being linked with fertility), as incarnations of the sun god Ra (who was believed to do battle on a nightly basis with the serpent of darkness, as cats would have been observed killing snakes) and as unearthly beings in their own right, perhaps due to the fascinating way in which their eyes react to light.

Their elusive and independent qualities, however, have also led cats to be vilified by humans over the course of our unorthodox symbiosis.  In Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, under the scrutiny of Christianity, cats were associated with heretical sects (who were thought to worship the Devil in feline form) and, later, labelled as the demon familiars of witches; their prevalence as a Hallowe’en costume continues to this day.  Even in the 19th century cats’ reluctance to submit to human will – unlike dogs – was seen as malicious and they were little trusted, particularly by those men who saw them as in unfavourable cahoots with ‘womankind’.  Their reputation for independence, however, also made them popular with the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe; it is thought this significantly influenced their adoption as house-pets (in contrast to their previous, much wider role as – yep – rodent catchers).  These opposing roles – pets versus pest-control – have caused conflict ever since – I vividly recall waking in the middle of the night to the uneasy scenario of listening to my much-loved cat Jimmy chomping on some unfortunate rodent on my bedroom floor.

There remains today conflict of opinion when it comes to cats.  They have enormous (and slightly disturbing) popularity as memes and in viral videos, most of which have little correspondence with ‘normal’ cat behaviour (although Maru, admittedly, is hilarious).  Yet they are still not generally kept as pets in countries such as South Korea and, even where common, they are notably less popular than dogs – one survey by Stephen Kellert and colleagues found that 17.4% of the sample US population reported disliking cats (as opposed to 2.6% who disliked dogs).  Still, too, they engender hatred: there are several ‘I Hate Cats’ blogs and websites, not to mention a number of books such as the extremely popular 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (which is probably mostly tongue-in-cheek, but rather dark nonetheless).

African Wildcat. Photo Credit: Rute Martins European Wildcat. Photo Credit: Michael Gäbler Behaviourally, cats are talented predators and will hunt a wide range of prey, more varied than their (very close) cousins the European wildcats, though they tend to hunt smaller creatures than wildcats, suggesting they are less skillful hunters.  In addition, even feral domestic cats tend to live in the vicinity of human settlements and obtain more food from scavenging than do wildcats (though wildcats will also scavenge from humans on occasion).  Interestingly, there is continuous debate as to how different three of the small cat ‘species’ actually are, i.e. African and European wildcats and domestic cats.  They interbreed without apparent difficulty.  Their lack of significant genetic or behavioural distinctions (with the exception of hunting habits and human-association) suggests to some that cats have retained – as seems fitting to their independent nature – some distance from their human symbiotes, weaving in and out of various levels and types of association with humans.

Now we have a dilemma, though.  Sometimes, it seems, the last thing a species should do – unless it is human – is be successful.  Domestic cats now inflame debate because they do not fit with certain human ideals of morality, or understand the difference between an endangered robin and an ‘verminous’ rat.  Of course, it’s apparently not the pets that are to blame so much as the feral members of the domestic population, those who – for whatever reason – live outside of human control.

Cats are cats.  They have changed, a bit, as a result of their enduring association with humans, arguably the world’s most destructive species; and they have prospered and found pastures and prey new as a result.  I feel, though, that this new judgement of them is a consequence of our changing, of our inconsistencies, of our transformations and conflicts as to what we value, what is natural and what we should control.

I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done; but I would like to believe that we could approach this dilemma, this domestic with one of our oldest domesticates, in a sensible fashion.  That means not being horrified or outraged that cats kill birds, and lots of them, but accepting it as the way of things and moving forward towards a solution – or a compromise.  It means acknowledging that the biggest threat to endangered species in the States and the rest of the world is still widely understood not to be cats, but (mostly anthropogenic) habitat destruction.  Cats go where humans go; as we have seen, even feral cats remain near human settlements. These studies might provide clues as to how we might best tackle this problem – but please let’s do so with clear thinking and humanity, rather than attributing judgement and blame.
Cat & Mouse. Photo Credit: Lxowle

Let’s not turn cats back into ‘demons’ because we have changed our mind about what’s important; let us consider them as cats and make sure that, in equal part, we continue to consider ourselves.

My academic training means I can’t help but  reference my sources for some of the above information, however loosely!  Some are linked above; those that are not are shown below.  Academic Sources:

Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Podberscek, Anthony (2009). Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in South Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3): 615–632  /  Zeder, M. A. 2012. Pathways to Domestication. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Ed. P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

News Articles (note the emotive titles):

“Killer cats: deadly pets murder nearly 4 billion birds a year”  /  “Cats are ruthless killers: should they be killed?” /  “The Feline Killer that Stalks the Streets” / “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US” / “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in US every year”


“Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.”
– E. O. Wilson

On Thursday night I started to write a post about eating meat.  It is still saved in my box of drafts, but it will remain there for the time being because I became mired in issues of morality I don’t think my fledgling blog can cope with at this stage.  Nevertheless, ever since that failed effort at writing clearly about a ethically sensitive issue, I have been thinking about why it was such a difficult piece to write.  The answer is two-fold, I think.  Firstly, it seems that morality is an area that demonstrates the extent and depth of variety in human understanding, belief and emotional responses in relation to an issue. Secondly, because we are what we are – a highly social, empathetic species – morality seeps into almost every aspect of our life.

What relevance does this have to a blog that claims to be about interactions between species?  Well, ethics are fairly well inescapable in any field of study (just ask any researcher who’s had to fill in an ‘ethical approval form’).  That aside, I think a consideration of morality in its fundamental form is informative in understanding any interaction, be it between species or just between individuals.

My understanding of ‘morality’ and ‘moral actions’ is that where social groups exist, there also exist rules and norms of social interaction which are built on a combination of emotion, experience and reasoned thought.   I see morality, at its simplest level, as the WD40 of society; we agree not to kill one another and things tend to go more smoothly.  I am not of the philosophy that morality exists outside of the social and interactive sphere (‘transcendentalism’): alone in a desert, it doesn’t matter what your morals are.  Although I am convinced that forms of morality and altruism exist within and between many species, I do not think there is one universal morality.  I will try and explain how I have reached this stance in this blog.

This, then, is where E. O. Wilson’s quote (above) comes into play.  When Wilson speaks of altruism, he is referring to an interaction in which one party ‘self-sacrifices’ for the other’s benefit.  As with all of these terms, there are various types of altruism.  ‘Kin altruism’ is self-sacrifice that benefits a relative, and is relatively common across a variety of species (including eusocial insects such as termites and ants, birds like the chestnut-crowned babbler, meerkats, wolves and, of course, humans)Particularly noteworthy for this blog is ‘reciprocal altruism’: essentially mutualism in the short term.   This is an interaction in which everyone benefits, in the long run, from their sacrifice;  the classic example of this is the principle of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Mutually Grooming New Forest Ponies.  Photo Credit: Jim ChampionIn some cases, the benefit may not be immediately apparent, but it is normally there somewhere.  There are occasions or associations in which ‘true altruism’ is demonstrated – self-sacrifice with no benefit, or even negative consequences, for the altruist.  This is fairly rare, however, even in the highly morally-conscious human (the Friends episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” is a nice demonstration of how hard it is to find a truly selfless act).

Essentially, altruism is rarely advantageous in an individualistic or competitive society; if everyone is out for themselves except you, you will lose out.  Because the natural world is so often seen as “red in tooth and claw” (thanks for that one, Tennyson), it has become ‘common knowledge’ that selfishness and competitive success is the key to evolution.  Indeed, this often holds true; it is clear that, for example, the winning male in a fight between bull elephants is more likely to mate with females and pass on his genes.   Similarly, kleptoparasitism – the stealing of food, as seen in a number of spiders, cuckoos, coots and hyenas – is demonstrably a successful strategy for survival.  However, ‘the Selfish Gene’, as Richard Dawkins famously refers to it, is also likely to be the foundation of altruism – and of morality.

If you have a moment, please take the time to watch this 15-minute presentation by one of my heroes, primatologist Frans de Waal.  It shows some great examples of how the basics of morality can form in social species and how it can be evolutionary beneficial to be beneficent.

“If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity, … a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.”  – Frans de Waal

The suggestion – and one that makes me less dispirited about the nature of the world in general – is that morality is itself adaptive, just a different way of doing things.  We can be just as successful if we work together and demonstrate cooperation and  compassion than we can through competition.

Of course, normally animals (humans included, most of the time) are not thinking about the long term evolutionary advantage of cooperation and compassion when we act in this way.  It has not been suggested that we are, rather, that we have evolved a tendency towards developing positive social behaviours which benefit others and ourselves.  As ever, we are not alone in this: this video, released this week, is a touching example of compassionate behaviour in dolphins.  Many primate species have complex rules governing their interactions that can take years for infants to learn.   This sort of cooperative behaviour doesn’t even require a big brain; recent studies suggest that rats demonstrate empathy-driven behaviour too (should we try this with the Masked Bandits?)

Humans, with our extensive demonstrations of communication, cultural transmission and cognition, have then hit the snag of disagreeing amongst ourselves about which moral system is the ‘right’ one and what types of behaviours are acceptable in our societies.  We generalise, too, which means that we apply our own moral values outside of our immediate (human) group to other species and choose the level of moral consideration we think they should receive; note that the animals that receive the most human protection are often those ones considered most similar to humans (something I’ve done a bit of research on).   Sometimes, in our generalising, we attribute moral behaviour to animals who may not have the same values as we do; how often have you heard a fox called ‘wasteful’ for killing a cage full of chickens, or a pig ‘filthy’ for bathing in mud?

The upside (or another downside, depending on your moral stance…) is, of course, that many of us widen our compassion and our moral sphere to include nonhumans and even whole ecosystems, so much value do we place on being ‘good’.

However, conflicts between individuals, between societies, between species and between the opposing evolutionary powers of selfishness and altruism make the moral world, in every sense, a dangerous one to walk through.

Nb. If you’re interested in this topic, Prof Marc Bekoff often blogs about morality in animals in his Psychology Today blog.

“Dog evolved ‘on the waste dump'” – ?

This BBC article by Jonathan Amos tells us that new evidence appears to support the ‘dogs as scavengers’ hypothesis (i.e., that the human-dog relationship evolved through a process of assimilation; dogs hung around the food generated by human settlements, so hung around human settlements and moved from a commensal to a mutualistic relationship with humans by gradually involving themselves in human existence.  The most docile and cooperative would be more successful and may therefore have benefited from additional human benefaction.

The ‘opposing’ hypothesis is that we humans were the agents in the interaction; some humans adopted wolves (as puppies, it is often suggested, which allowed them to be more easily tamed) and began to use them for hunting or possibly security, selecting for traits that served the humans best. Photo Credit: Przykuta

If I had to pick one, I would go for the scavenger hypothesis; not just because of this recent evidence, which is interesting, but also because in some cultures dogs still are, essentially, commensals.  They hang around villages, not owned and not wanted, and scavenge.  Genetically, these dogs are as closely related to wolves as they are domestic dogs; the researchers think this indicates that they have been more ‘naturally selected’ than other domestic dogs, with less human input into their evolutionary development. (This suggests, though, that human involvement in an association automatically makes the result ‘unnatural’, a line of thought I don’t tend to agree with – more on that another time).

The human preferences in question have led, it is thought, to ‘neoteny’ in dogs. This means they appear to have evolved into permanent wolf-pups, with many youthful characteristics, (that would in wolves be ‘grown out of’) preserved into adulthood.  Examples are obedience, docility, flatter faces and floppy ears, though this obviously varies between breeds and individuals.

Personally, I don’t think the two theories are necessarily mutually-exclusive; if I remember rightly, there is also evidence to suggest that wolves were domesticated almost concurrently in multiple cultures; this being the case, there’s no reason why different processes could have prevailed in different areas.  There’s also nothing to say that humans chose to feed, raise and employ certain individuals from the local scavenger pack, which could have accelerated a symbiotic process.

Acknowledging, then, that the dog is not a chosen domesticate or companion everywhere, for those cultures (like mine) which have an enduring and generally positive relationship with them, I prefer to think in terms of ‘co-evolution’: we didn’t pin them down and force them to associate with us and they didn’t coerce us into it…. I like to think we chose one another.

Zoonomastics: or, what’s in a name?

Today I’m thinking about names.  As a result, I have made up a name for this blog post that is a squishing-together (‘combination’ probably would have worked, but clearly I’m feeling simple today) of ‘zoo’ (animal) and ‘onomastics’ – the study of names.

I was inspired to write this by a jolt to the memory by Twitter, of all things.  This story might seem odd, but it comes around to a point.  A friend of mine informed me that a favourite boyband of old (well, mid-90s) had reformed for a TV programme.  I was thus inspired to follow them on Twitter (something I really haven’t got the hang of as much as I probably should).  Their reappearance in my consciousness led me to thinking of the extent of my youthful fandom and also made me think about my old cat, Jimmy. Jimmy the Pink Cat

You might be thinking that Jimmy is an odd name for a cat (although I’ve heard weirder).  You might also be wondering why thinking about boybands made me think about cats.  Well, the truth is, Jimmy was named after a member of said boyband.  I can hear you laughing from here; I’m OK with it.  I was 12.

Why did I name a pink tabby after a pop star?  It was hardly flattering for either party.  Fortunately, neither was ever in a position to appreciate the implications of this dubious honour (though thanks to Twitter, that’s now changed…)  It was often joked, nevertheless, that Jim the Cat – who sadly died in 2008 – acted in a particularly macho fashion, all whipping tail and narrowed eyes, to overcome his multiple handicaps to masculinity: no balls, boyband namesake and to top it all off, distinctly pink fur.

What is it that influences our choice of personal names for pets and other animals?  Celebrity worship aside, it has been suggested that the growing trend for allocating dogs and cats names that have traditionally been reserved for humans means we increasingly view pets as valued or equal family members.  This is particularly interesting because at the same time, at least in ‘Western’ cultures, there is an observable trend towards more unusual names for human children.

One obvious influence is appearance, especially, I think, for children.  I named my first pet, a rabbit, Blacky; possibly the world’s most unoriginal name, as well as being politically dubious (one step short of the name of the dog in Dambusters… that’s dropped off the top ten list).  I had a toy Koala that I named Koaly and a toy parrot named Beaky.  I don’t think I’m alone in my ‘add a y’ technique: Sooty, Smokey, Fluffy, Snowy, Wolfie… any of those sound familiar?

It has been suggested that personality might play a role, but if you are naming a young animal, much like naming a young human, you can’t really surmise much about personality from a sleepy, whiny bundle of warm.

I’m being very mammal-centric here, though… what about the less fluffy amongst our animal friends? Although not as widely studied as cats and dogs,a quick browse for gecko and lizard names highlighted things like Rex, Godzilla (yep), Lizzie (see what you did there), Spikes and Rango… so a couple more nods to popular culture.Leopard Gecko: definitely looks like a Godzilla.  Photo: Fritz Geller-Grimm  Indeed, it is reassuring to know that I was not alone in my culturally influenced choice; according to this article, Bella has topped the list of female puppy names ever since Twilight was released.  I will leave you to reach your own conclusions as to why Bella but neither Edward nor Jacob has hit the top ten list.  Worth noting, thought, that it has the coveted ‘vowel-ending’ that makes calling the name easier…

A lighthearted post today, but before I go, a couple of anthrozoological bits and pieces I’ve thought about as a result of this topic.  Firstly – and I might look into this further at some point – I am interested in the level of interaction we need to have with a nonhuman to decide that it is worthy of a personal name.  I think it is probably key that the object of our naming demonstrates a certain level of individuality;  without much thought, I named all of my demodex Dexter in the recognition that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, even under a microscope.   I don’t know much about the psychology of names and it’s too late at night to start reading up on it now, but I would suspect that our penchant for labelling things falls under a similar scope as our need to categorise.

Secondly – and finally – from a less anthropocentric (human-centred) point of view, do other animals have names for one another?  As mentioned before, our capacity and application for language is one of our most notable features.  Yet just because there is no direct comparison in the nonhuman world, this doesn’t mean other species don’t have individual labels for one another.    In fact, solely in terms of auditory communication, as I mentioned in a previous post, dolphins are thought to have unique identifying whistles comparable to names.   Similar findings exist in parrots and also crows, elephants and certain primates; all social animals who, like us, may benefit from being able to recognise who is who, who is friend and who is foe.

As I’ve given so much away about my own (terrible, apparently) naming principles, I think you should share too – please leave any anecdotes in the comments below, or just fill in my little poll!

As for The Masked Bandits – their occupation as thieving little hobbitses means their identities must, for now, remain undisclosed. Sorry.

Jumping on the (horse-drawn) burger-wagon…

I am extremely inconsistent when it comes to my ethical principals.  I am also known for sitting on the fence.  Hal Herzog (a fellow anthrozoologist whose book explores this issue in its very first chapter) calls people like me “the troubled middle” and explains that we see the world in shades of grey (no, not 50 shades of grey… that’s a different kind of book).

So, I have watched from my fence with fascination and a little delight for the last couple of days as the ‘horse burger’ story has exploded around me; anthrozoology in the news!  What a treat!  For my friends outside the UK, who probably haven’t been subject to the bombardment of comments and puns (to which I am now adding, so my apologies), read the full story here.

Although everyone and their mother has felt the need to write a commentary on why the British public has issues with eating horse, I feel the need to stick my meandering oar in.

Suffice to say, this blog neither advocates nor contests the morality of eating horse, but just so I don’t get accused of too much fence-sitting – though putting myself at risk of losing friends – I’m going to start by climbing down from my fence, temporarily, and stating that my personal moral standpoint is, it’s OK to eat a (dead) horse if you choose to.  I can imagine that there would be circumstances in which I would eat horse, though no such circumstances have yet arisen.   Also, I have no qualms in admitting, I wouldn’t eat a horse that I had a personal or emotional attachment to, or even one that someone I knew had a personal or emotional attachment to.  Yep, inconsistent – I told you so – but I’m OK with it; I don’t consider inconsistency equivalent to immorality.  I will slink back to the cover of my shades of grey when it comes to the consideration of how horses are kept prior to slaughter and the methods by which they are killed.  I’m sure my mixed ethics will raise their conflicted head again at some point, but I don’t want to get into that any further right now.

In case you missed this in the news, slaughtering horses for meat does happen in the UK, even thought we don’t (knowingly!) eat them here.  The Metro did this pretty diagram to demonstrate how many slaughtered horses are exported to Europe where it is more culturally palatable and shows the numbers of horses consumed in other cultures. No one has denied that the ‘outcry’ at the discovery of horse-meat in beef burgers is primarily a cultural one.

It’s worth noting at this stage that many of the concerns raised about ‘horse burgers’ stem from the incorrect labelling of products: as someone wrote to the Guardian, supermarkets may have been better off just writing, ‘May Contain Horse’ on the label and letting consumers decide their own standpoint on the issue.  As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.  So, acknowledging the labelling problem, I am going to stick with thinking about the cultural taboo attached to eating horse in the UK.

To their credit, the majority of media reports I’ve read have made it clear that there is no health risk associated with eating horse meat per se and that it is not illegal to sell or eat horse meat in the UK or Ireland.  However, Tesco’s official statement said:

“The safety and quality of our food is of the highest importance to Tesco. We will not tolerate any compromise in the quality of the food we sell. The presence of illegal meat in our products is extremely serious.”

Firstly, this suggests that selling horse meat is illegal – whoops – and secondly, that the inclusion of horse meat compromises the quality and/or safety of their burgers.  Many reports (such as this one) call the burgers ‘contaminated’ which means ‘to make impure or pollute’, another refers to them as  ‘adulterated’, which means ‘to render something poorer in quality by adding another substance, typically an inferior one’.  Although it is true that horse is not generally consumed in the UK because it has, over the past hundred or so years, become culturally taboo, it is interesting that this meat is now apparently also considered unsavoury, unpalatable, or disgust-worthy (I wonder how the French feel about that condemnation?).

I’ve often referred in academic work about the influential work of Mary Douglas who, in the 1960s, wrote about the concept of food taboos in society.  Many – dare I say most – cultures have certain animals that are not to be eaten, or only to be eaten under strict conditions.  Douglas suggested that species that don’t fit neatly into our cultural classification systems are designated as ‘out of place’ and become pollutants, ‘unclean’ species – so, back to categorisation again.  A classic example is the pig in Judaism and Islam (also relevant to the recent news, as traces of pork were also found in beef products; this has been treated as rather a secondary story, however).  In theory, the horse would fit into this model because it has in recent years reached an odd position of no longer being a farm or working animal, but not quite being a ‘full’ companion animal.  This would render horses taboo, though not because they are unclean: rather, because they are too clean, too ‘noble’ and too closely linked to humans to be consumed in the same way as other domesticates.  Yet conversely, the media reporting all suggests that we are physically disgusted with the idea of eating horse, as we are disgusted by the thought of other contaminants in our food, such as salmonella.

Are we, though?  I haven’t actually seen one comments section (from the few I could manage to trawl through this evening) that wasn’t dominated by people simply making horse puns or other jokes about the situation.  Others, like me, simply weren’t surprised and assumed that most cheap meat had unidentifiable animal parts in it.  So I think there’s more to it than the fact that we see horses as ‘friends, not food’; after all, rabbits are both cuddled and consumed in this country without significant difficulty.

The conclusion I’ve drawn, whilst writing this, is: most people simply haven’t thought about it.  We’ve not had to think about it in a long time, perhaps our whole lives.  Most of us (myself included, despite my food-label-obsession) are so far removed from the sourcing and processing of our meat that, if we eat it, we barely relate it to the species from which it purportedly comes.  Although there is an element of cultural distaste for horse meat, here and now, I don’t think this is the ingrained part of our psychology the press would have us believe.  I sense that we normally feel we have a handle on things in this country, because we can choose outdoor bred pork and free range chicken.  We are confused though, by the shake-up of another ethical problem that we might not have known existed until now.

It could, then, be enlightening to see the fallout from this story, although it has happened before without any apparent repercussions. Could it be that eating horse becomes culturally acceptable once again?  Given the amount of racehorses slaughtered each year, would purposeful consumption of them be less wasteful than current processes?  Should we just stick with improving the farming systems we already struggle with before bringing in another one?  Will this lead more people to think about what is in their food and where it comes from – could vegetarianism increase?  Should we stop exporting horses to Europe for their consumption?   With all this now on the table, sometimes it’s just easier to make a pun.