Do animals have personalities? How about mental illnesses? A science historian explains
By Malcolm Harris, The New Inquiry
This piece originally appeared in The New Inquiry Magazine, Vol. 8: Other Animals.
New Inquiry Senior Editor Malcolm Harris talked with science historian Laurel Braitman about her work on animal personality and taste. Braitman is a 2012 TED fellow, finishing her PhD at M.I.T., and the author of the forthcoming book “Animal Madness.”
Malcolm Harris: Anthropomorphism has become this huge sin for scientists studying non-human animals, but you haven’t been shy about using the phrase “animal personality.” Why foreground the contradiction/controversy like that? Do biologists and anthropologists need to reexamine the taboo?
Laurel Braitman: Anthropomorism – the ascription of human characteristics to other animals – has been problematized for a long time, certainly within the behavioral sciences. I think it’s high time we do away with the taboo. Some of the people doing the most interesting work about other animal minds have already done this, because it’s limiting. It’s impossible to look at them without using a human mind. If we’re trying to understand the behavior of another animal who is in some ways very similar to us and we refuse to use our own experience as a place to come from, I think that’s actually poor science. If we’re looking at a gorilla and that gorilla is acting sad in some of the same ways that we know ourselves to act sad, then refusing to acknowledge that link makes us less apt to understand the gorilla at hand.
MH: When we talk about animal communication in the United States, at least among non-specialists, the focus is usually on intelligence. Gorillas and dolphins have thoughts, squirrels and birds not so much. But in your work you don’t seem interested in drawing those sorts of distinctions. Is intelligence the wrong way to think about the interior lives of non-human animals?
LB: Yes, thinking about intelligence as a kind of hierarchy of biological progression is boring first of all. And intelligence like so many other things is fairly relative. It’s an interesting thing to look at, but we can only ever measure intelligence if it’s like human intelligence because that’s how we understand it. We look at certain kinds of problem solving and say whether or not an animal is intelligent or not, but there’s so much more we can gain access to when we look at other animal behavior. Additionally, when we make decisions on how we treat animals based on intelligence, it can be disastrous. As Jeremy Bentham observed in 1789, regarding consideration for other animals: “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?”
This is related to something we’ve dealt with when it comes to humans. For a long time people didn’t think infants could experience pain, and that’s because we couldn’t understand how they expressed it. Now of course we give them anesthetic and all sorts of other things. Debates like these have real ramifications for how various creatures are treated. Intelligence is the wrong way to think about interior lives of other animals because it measures with a human yardstick, we’re missing their other unique abilities that we may not call intelligence.
People ask me all the time “What’s the smartest animal?” and it makes me crack up a bit because what on earth does that mean? How do you compare a bat’s ability to use sonar to hunt at night to our ability to knit or arrange flowers or write a novel? When we compare different animal abilities we’re trying to compare the incomparable. As a measure of who’s related to whom, or who deserves what, or who can be in a cage and who can be on a plate or who should be the focus of an ecotourism adventure, that’s a really weird measure. It’s much more interesting to think about the different ways animals have adapted to our environments and all of the various things and wonderful things we can do. Intelligence is worth looking at, but it shouldn’t be a barometer for treatment or who sits next to whom on the branches of the trees we draw up to make sense of our world.
MH: How did you get involved in writing about mental illness in other animals in particular?
LB: I was doing something completely different but I had gone to graduate school for history of science at MIT. I had originally gone there to do research on the aquarium fishery in the Amazon basin. But I had a dog at the time, my partner and I had adopted a Burnese Mountain Dog. And he was fine for the first six months and then he went spectacularly crazy. He developed a debilitating case of separation anxiety. If we left him alone he would destroy himself, the house, anything in the way. He nearly killed himself at least once. So I had to take him to the vet hospital after he jumped out of our 4th floor apartment, and they said I had to take him to a veterinary behaviorist who would give him a prescription for Prozac and Valium. I was stopped in my tracks. I had heard there were some animals taking these drugs, but I never thought of myself as the kind of person who would put an animal on Prozac. But I found myself in a desperate situation with a 120 pound dog and I tried all these things and they didn’t work, so I became that person that puts her dog on antidepressants. Prozac didn’t work for him really, but the Valium did, at least in the short term. And I began to get curious about how these drugs got into vet clinics in the first place and if there was something to this. Was my dog responding to these drugs in the some of the same ways that people do?
I ended up switching what I was studying because I couldn’t find anything written about the history of this. My PhD research is now the story of what the last 150 years have to tell us about mental illness in other animals. Can they be crazy? Who says they’re crazy? How did the industry around animal mental health come to be? And how do we make other animals feel better? That’s the question that interests me most. Once you notice that another animal is disturbed or anxious– what do we do then? I’ve spent the last few years traveling all over the world to talk to people who are making it their life’s work to help these animals – whether they are elephants or dogs or birds.
MH: We think about this mostly as an issue for domesticated animals or pets, but does the question of animal mental illness and its treatment extend beyond animals that humans are individually responsible for?
LB: Absolutely. This isn’t just a question of captive animals. I get that question a lot. “Well, we know zoo animals can be crazy, and I’m pretty sure that my cat is crazy, but is this just people driving animals insane?” I think that for the most part abnormal behavior in other animals has to do with captivity. But that said, I wouldn’t say that domestic animals are necessarily captive – cats, dogs, etc. wouldn’t exist if they didn’t live with us closely. The natural environment for a cat might be a barn or a house, same with a dog. As most people who live with other animals can attest, you can have two dogs with an identical upbringing in the same house, and one might develop a debilitating fear of vacuum cleaners, and the other could be just fine. This might not have much to do with the environment, and that’s where personality and individual difference come in. We see that in people all the time, you can have two people exposed to the same event, and it could haunt one person and not the other. It’s a pan-animal sort of mystery: Why some of us are more susceptible to certain experiences than others, and what are our triggers. It extends far beyond the human species. It’s not just humans driving other animals crazy, they are more than capable of doing it themselves.
When it comes to free-living animals, it’s obviously harder to tell, precisely because in order for us to notice abnormal behavior we have to have a normal baseline. If we’re not living with a free-ranging creature, we’re not going to know when their behavior becomes say obsessive compulsive. That being said, there are traces all over the place. The behaviorist Mark Bekoff has written about a possibly bipolar wolf, I’ve spoken to an orca researcher who has noted oddly behaving whales over a long course of study. One place where I’m looking at this particularly is in the context of dolphins and whales. Ideas about mental illness pop up again and again in the popular imagination when seemingly healthy dolphins and whales beach themselves. It’s called mass-stranding and it happens all the time. For at least 100 years these strandings have often been described as mass suicides because that’s what they look like. You can have hundreds of dolphins coming up on shore for a variety of reasons, often because they are ill or injured but not always. These are very self-aware creatures, and I don’t think we can rule out that they don’t know they’re killing themselves. Some of the necropsies on these animals have shown that only a few in a pod are ill or injured, so what’s going on with all the others? Is that suicide? That is only one example of abnormal behavior in the non-human animal kingdom that looks a lot like human mental illness but they are many more. Obviously some of these things are mysteries we will never know the answers to, but I don’t think that makes them any less interesting to pursue.
MH: Lately it seems you’ve been interested in understanding non-human animals as spectators or as an audience rather than as performers for humans. So what’s particularly insufficient of misguided about, say, “Beethoven for Dogs?”
LB: I got into this because it’s very separate from what I spend most of my time doing: looking in archives, speaking to behaviorists, the work of a historian. And I began to feel like I needed to involve myself in a different way – I see a lot of animals whose job it is to entertain people all day. If you get to know a group of primates at the zoo, it’s very obvious they know when they’re going to work in the morning. Most captive animals have a behind-the-scenes quarters. Those places tend to look nothing like the more photo-friendly displays, the outside habitats for humans to photograph and then post on Facebook wherever.
MH: The monkeys are smoking in the greenroom?
LB: Well they’re more like bedrooms, but they can look like prison cells. Ironically these spaces are often the most comfortable for the animals because they’re not on display, there are no concrete rocks, lush plants, or painted backdrops that make humans feel better about going to the zoo but the animals may not care about those things anyway. Most of these animals know when their day starts and ends, they line up ready to go on exhibit in the morning, they get tired and ready to get off exhibit at night. I observed a lot of this, and realized I hadn’t thought a lot about animal jobs. I began to wonder what would happen if we took these working creatures and tried to entertain them instead of forcing them to entertain us all the time.
I’m not a musician, not at all. But I’ve always wanted to be – not in a way that’s forced me to pick up an instrument, but I love collaborating with people who are good at things that I’m not. I was also finding in some of the bizarre corners of the animal mental health industry there are a lot of cds that you’re supposed to put on when you leave the house that are purported to be calming. I always thought this was silly because we don’t really know what calming sounds are for a hound dog or a parrot. As with us, it depends on the hound dog or the parrot. Some of the calming CDs that are sold for people certainly wouldn’t calm you if you don’t like Bach. Or let’s say you’re scared of the ocean – maybe ocean sounds aren’t what you want as you go to sleep.
We are comfortable going to the petting zoo or the farm and think about other animals as conscious feeling creatures with capability to be happy or sad. But I don’t think a lot of us have made the leap to thinking about other animals as individuals the way we think of ourselves. Outside of the animals that live with us that is, like our dogs and cats. I don’t know many people who see a bunch of deer and wonder “which one likes country-punk, which one is the adventurous one, which is shy?” as they cross the road. Music is one way at getting that individuality. When you play a certain song for a group of animals, some are going to be into it, I have found, and some are not.
MH: As someone who thinks of and cares for animals as individuals, how do you deal with the ethical questions in your field? When you’re playing music for animals, how do you think about their consent?
LB: Well, Music for Animals is far from a scientific experiment. It’s somewhere between a trickster prank and performance art probably. But I do have a couple metrics: I don’t feed anyone to keep them there, I want them to always feel free to leave if they don’t like it and go to a place where they can’t hear it. If you’re playing for an animals that can’t leave or has had another enticement to be there, there’s no way to know if they like what they’re hearing. Even them staying around doesn’t mean they like it, but they don’t dislike it enough to leave. Part of the fun of this is trying to figure out what they don’t like and thinking about where I’ve gone wrong. I wouldn’t say I have consent, but I’d say they’re free to leave or move away.
I think you can’t have meaningful consent with a captive animal. And I realize that’s controversial. In a lot of work now – psychology research, behavioral research – there’s a lot of lip-service given to behavioral enrichment. Meaning you are enriching an animal’s environment by giving them opportunities to enrich their mind and giving them things to do. They can play with colored blocks, engage in research tasks, and it’s something to do. This is better than sitting in a cage doing nothing, but it’s if that is the alternative then having them participate in your research activity is not the same as getting consent. The alternative is to be in a cage. As controversial as that is, one of the best comparisons is doing voluntary experiments on or with incarcerated humans. It’s a false choice if your other option is to be locked up. Yes you can participate, but if you don’t, you go back to a cell with nothing or little else to do. I wouldn’t say these experiments with captive animals are necessarily terrible, but dressing it up as voluntary behavioral enrichment isn’t exactly fair.
MH: What are some of the terms you use to think through questions of non-human animal freedom, rights, liberation, or what have you?
LB: I wouldn’t say I’m part of a particular lineage, but I believe that in an ideal world we wouldn’t have captive animals at all, particularly in zoos and aquariums or amusement parks. That being said, it’s not an ideal world. Especially when it comes to who we eat. Donna Haraway once said she believes that veganism is a subtle policy of extermination, and I agree with her. Chickens and cows exist because we eat them. If we didn’t eat them they probably wouldn’t be here, at least in the same numbers. I don’t think humans are going to stop eating other animals any time soon, and I don’t think they should. But the system as it exists is sick and broken and nobody should be eating a distraught, unhappy, abused animal. We are literally making ourselves ill with them. One way that I see that a lot is when it comes to the emotional lives of captive animals or animals trapped inside the fur or meat industries. I think that’s unconscionable. But I don’t think that means we need to stop eating meat or wearing leather, instead we need to completely reevaluate the process, and there are so many great minds doing that right now. It may mean that we can’t wear leather or eat meat at the scale or in the ways we do now.
When it comes to captive animals – institutionalized animals in places like zoos and aquariums – I don’t think that exotic wildlife should be in those situations. We do need places for people to interact with animals though but I’m not sure where the arrogance came from that said every US city needs a giraffe or a gorilla. Who gave us the right to demand such a thing?
MH: You don’t buy the idea that zoos expose people to animals in ways that make them more likely to empathize with the creatures?
LB: No, not at all. In order to continue to exist, the animal display industry went into crisis in the 1970s. Zoo visitorship was falling off, and they needed a new way to draw crowds. Back then we’re talking about depressing concrete pits in most zoos. Meanwhile people were reading “Silent Spring” and the environmental movement was dawning; many people were beginning to find zoos depressing. In order to survive, these institutions switched to a rhetoric of conservation. They begin to self justify as safeguarding the biodiversity of the future by conserving endangered animals (in captivity or with a tiny portion of ticket sales) and inspiring visitors to support conservation.
Obviously there’s a continuum, some zoos are doing better than others but in general, if this worked then many endangered animals would be less endangered now than they were in the past and this is not the case. I should also say that zookeepers are my heroes. Even if I’m opposed to the animal display industry, these are people who spend all their time with non-human coworkers trying to make their lives more interesting and richer. But the system as a whole is flawed. I would love to see all exotic wildlife in zoos allowed to live out their lives in peace and comfort and the not be replaced. Instead, have the zoos and aquariums be places where people – especially children – go to interact with animals that actually like us and want to be around us and not have to be on medication to deal with their lives behind the glass or bars. There are lots of animals who enjoy us, and I think children and adults would have a more meaningful experience interacting with animals who are interested in us.
When you go to a zoo and see a sad elephant, most kids will be the first ones to tell you it’s depressing. As we get older we do all this self-justification: Yeah that elephant is sad, but he’s a representative for all elephants and helping to educate us…But kids just notice the elephant is looking odd or its eyes are vacant. You don’t learn about elephants by looking at one sad elephant. There was a study on the amount of time the average person stands at a display at the zoo – I believe it’s less than a minute. Most people go to zoos for entertainment, not for education, though the zoo industry will tell you otherwise. At worst, zoos can even give you a false sense of alls-well-in-the-world. If you watch a polar bear play with a plastic ball, they look like they’re doing okay, and then see you see the drastic signage about how the bears are at risk of extinction due to climate change. No one’s ever going to let me really do this, but I what I want to do is take the bear out of the exhibit and put a big sign that says “A polar bear used to be here but they went extinct.” That might work better as a means of education, though it would be depressing.
MH: By the time this comes out, you’ll have finished your TED talk, there’s a big book coming, are you worried at all about the way the “ideas industry” can treat work like yours like marketable curiosities without dealing with their more radical implications?
So are animals marketable curiosities? Did “Marley and Me” sell a million copies? Books about the cat that was put through the library slot, etc. The cynical view is that it’s escapist: It’s easier to think of a rescued cat looking cute than the wars we’re waging all over the world. That’s definitely true. But I wouldn’t say cat videos aren’t radical, I think they are. If we’re spending all this time watching animals do cute things online – is it a shallow dismissable time-waster? Sure. But it also shows how much space animals take up in our collective imagination, and how much time we want to spend with them. Even though we are spending so much time in these virtual spaces, we’ve chosen to populate them with animals and this is meaningful. We want them alongside us in our cubicles just like we wanted or needed them alongside us in the fields.