For my ongoing series with solutionaries and change makers, I recently interviewed trailblazing neuroscientist Lori Marino.
Lori is internationally known for her work on the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins and whales. Her work was featured in the documentary Blackfish, and – after years as a traditional researcher – she has become a vocal advocate for all animals, large and small.
Recently, Lori established the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy – the only organization focused exclusively on bridging the gap between academic research and scholarship and on-the-ground animal advocacy efforts – what Lori calls a “think and do tank.”
HF: Lori, you are one of a few – but growing number – of scientists who also identify as an advocate. Tell me more about how your roles as a scientist and an advocate come together, and the inspiration behind the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.
LM: I spent twenty years teaching really bright pre-med and pre-neuroscience students at Emory and I came to realize that the students were channeled into thinking that they had to choose between science and their concerns for other animals. But this is an unfair and unnecessary choice. And I began to realize that there should be a way for some of that talent to be co-opted and applied in the service of animals. I had read a few things about scholar-advocates in other fields and this became one of the central tenets of The Kimmela Center, to promote scholar-advocacy as a legitimate professional path for students who want to combine scientific expertise (or other academic scholarship) with animal advocacy.
We are only just beginning to build up Kimmela’s educational components, which will be aimed at moving scholar-advocacy for animals into the mainstream of academia where all the resources are! My hope is that we can help develop a generation of powerful scholar-advocates for other animals.
HF: You were one of the first scientists to show that cetaceans like dolphins and whales can recognize themselves in a mirror, showing that they are self-aware. Over the years, you’ve documented many of the cognitive and emotional capacities of cetaceans. How does keeping them in captivity – like at SeaWorld – affect their well-being?
Cetaceans (dolphins and whales) really suffer terribly in marine parks like SeaWorld. There is a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence showing that these animals cannot thrive in artificial settings. They are known to exhibit all of the earmarks of distress and psychological trauma we recognize in other animals who are in deprived settings – and in ourselves in similar situations. These include self-mutilation, hyper-aggression, loss of will to live, stereotypies (repetitive nonsensical stimulatory behaviors), ulcers, stress-related immune system dysfunction, and, ultimately, short lifespans.
If you consider their evolutionary and adaptive history it is not surprising that cetaceans cannot thrive in these kinds of settings. They need to live in the ocean where they can be challenged by different aspects of their lives. They need to hunt, they need to navigate their complex social relationships, they need to raise their babies in a family where they learn how to do that, and they need, most importantly, to be able to make choices about their lives. All of that is taken away in theme parks. I view all of this as a form of Failure To Thrive Syndrome, a recognized condition we see in humans and other animals who are brought up in deprived and neglectful settings.
HF: Tell me about what first influenced your decision to become a neuroscientist.
LM: To me there is nothing more interesting than thinking about what it would be like to be a member of another species. So, it was natural for me to gravitate towards studying the neurobiological basis of behavior in other animals in college, and then in graduate school. Once I started learning about brains, I was fascinated by questions about how brain structure and function relate to cognition, behavior and phenomenology. I realized that studying how the brain relates to behavior and thought is the central scientific issue I’ve always been interested in. And so I decided to study behavioral neuroscience.
HF: When did your career take a turn toward advocacy, and what inspired this transition?
LM: I’ve always loved other animals. I guess you could say, I’ve always been an animal activist at heart. But during the early years of my career I didn’t really make those concerns a big part of my professional life because I was taught that being a scientist and being an animal advocate are antithetical to each other. Later on I learned how wrong that is!
In 2001, Diana Reiss and I published a paper showing that bottlenose dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors. We tested two dolphins, Tab and Presley, who were kept at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. And, over the next couple of years, all of the ethical implications of this research came to a head. I started to think about what it would be like to be those two self-aware dolphins swimming around and around in a concrete tank. Then, shortly after being transferred to other facilities, both Presley and Tab died of captivity-related diseases. Around the same time, someone sent me a video of the annual Taiji, Japan dolphin slaughters subsidized by the global aquarium industry. Once I saw that video and made the connection to what had happened to Tab and Presley, I realized there wasn’t any option other than to do what I could to advocate for these animals. And I never conducted research with captive animals again.
There were other critical moments in the past few years, such as the death of Clint, a young chimpanzee I worked with at Yerkes National Primate Research Center close to twenty years ago when I first arrived at Emory University. After a few years of not seeing him, one day much later, in 2005, I happened upon his brain in a jar in someone’s lab. That is how I discovered he had died at the age of twenty-four of heart disease, a common ailment of captive great apes. I never went back to Yerkes after that day – even to do research that didn’t involve live animals. I saw the whole Center for what it was and didn’t want to have anything to do with it again.
HF: Last year, National Geographic profiled you as an innovator. In the article, you mentioned “there is abundant, unquestionable evidence for personhood for animals.” Tell me more about that.
LM: The concept of personhood has both a philosophical and a legal dimension. Philosophical ideas are not enforceable. But legal personhood is powerful precisely because it is enforceable. No nonhuman animals have rights anywhere. So, animal rights is a wish – not a reality yet. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is the only effort actively engaged in changing this situation. Someone must be a legal person before they become eligible for any rights at all, even simple ones like bodily liberty and bodily integrity. Presently, the NhRP is engaged in three lawsuits in New York on behalf of captive chimpanzees. They’ve already achieved a historic legal milestone with the recent ruling that the State University of New York at Stony Brook must “show cause” for keeping two young chimpanzees confined in a lab. That’s a first!
All of these suits by the NhRP are based on scientific evidence for personhood in certain animals. It is not a matter of opinion or favoring one species over another. It is simply a very pragmatic matter of choosing species for which there is an abundance of scientific evidence showing that they possess the same psychological characteristics which we profess to view as indicative of personhood in humans. Those features, such as autonomy, planning for the future, self-awareness, emotionality, social complexity, etc. are all in evidence in great apes, dolphins and whales, and elephants from years of scientific investigation. So, this doesn’t mean that other animals are not persons, but it does mean that the NhRP has more than enough credible empirical evidence to show that, at the very least, these species must be regarded as legal persons if we are to be consistent in the law.
HF: Recently, you published a paper in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology about “Thinking Pigs” – a review of pigs’ cognitive and emotional capacities and their personality traits. What from that paper surprised you?
LM: Yes, Christina Colvin and I co-authored a paper sponsored by The Someone Project– a joint project of Farm Sanctuary and The Kimmela Center. In the paper we reviewed current knowledge about who pigs are and what kinds of cognitive, emotional and social capacities they appear to have from the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Our goal was, and is, to bring our understanding of pigs into the mainstream so that they can be seen for who they are – as intelligent beings with lives to lead – rather than as products for the meat industry or sources of organs for the biomedical industry.
Interestingly, most of the work done on pig intelligence or emotionality, for instance, is conducted in the context of how to get them to produce more meat and more pigs. Most of the time pigs are not studied on their own terms. We want to change that by exploring some of the cutting-edge work that has been done with pigs and suggesting areas where future noninvasive and sanctuary-based research might elucidate pig intelligence and personality even more.
As we wrote the paper I was struck by several findings. One of the most compelling areas is social cognition.
We found that, just like chimpanzees, pigs will strategize and counter-strategize when competing for food with other pigs. In other words, they use tactical deception in these situations, “faking out” competitors and competitors, in turn, countering with their own strategies. This kind of behavior involves some form of perspective-taking and is a very high-level cognitive ability. We see the same kinds of behaviors in chimpanzees and when we do we call it Machiavellian intelligence!
I was also struck by the fact pigs are able to understand symbols and simple sentences composed of symbols presented in various orders. They can use a joystick to move a cursor on a screen. And, they also seem very sensitive to the emotions of other pigs.
Pigs possess many of the characteristics we recognize in ourselves and other highly intelligent species as indicators of a complex intelligence and sensitive nature.
HF: In recent years, we’ve seen a fairly dramatic change in the way the public views nonhuman animals. This is evident in the positive public responses to documentaries like Blackfish, The Cove, Parrot Confidential, and Project Nim, and in a 2015 Gallup poll, which showed that one-third of Americans believe “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” What do you think the future holds for nonhuman animals?
LM: I’m not ready to break out the champagne at this point. From a broader viewpoint we have to acknowledge that along with this change in attitude comes data showing that we are exploiting more individual animals than ever before and, importantly, that we are in a mass extinction event. That is difficult to reconcile with claims that things are improving overall. The Gallup poll was interesting because it shows that what people say on a survey is not necessarily what they do in reality. If that were the case, according to this poll, one third of Americans should be vegan. So, there is a disconnect somewhere.
I’m not sure what the future holds for other animals. I think we will see the end of the use of animals for entertainment and we will see a continued increase in vegetarianism/veganism. There will be other victories. Of course, I think the NhRP will eventually succeed and that will be a qualitative game-changer for how we relate to other animals in many ways. But we have a long, long way to go and I’m afraid that, for many, if not most, animals (including humans) the future is not promising. There are two competing parallel stances towards life – one is respectful and the other is exploitive. I think the end might come before the benign path has a chance to really develop. If our actions were limited to consequences for just our own species, then that’s, of course, tragic but just the way it is. The really awful part, however, is that the human species has “made its bed” and now is forcing all the other animals to “lie in it.” Talk about moral injustice!
HF: Despite having that view, you continue to work toward change. How do you still stay hopeful and motivated about the future – for both humans and nonhuman animals?
LM: I stay motivated to keep doing what I can to help the situation because that is the only thing I can do. That is the only thing anyone can do. Giving up is not an option. I know many advocates, in many domains (human and nonhuman) who know, in their core, that there really isn’t anything else to do but to keep doing what you think is right. That’s the bottom line.