Nonhuman animals (‘animals’) continue to amaze us as we learn more and more about their remarkable cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities. The ‘boundary’ between ‘them’ and ‘us’ keeps shrinking and it seems as if the only two activities that separate us is that we are the only individuals who cook our food (and have horrific eating habits and suffer from rampant obesity that we mistakenly study using other animals) and repeatedly perform reprehensible and regrettable acts of violence.
Many people feel that science is continually catching up with what we already know about other animals. As researchers become more creative and pay increasing attention to what individuals need to do to live in natural social groups in the wild we continually see that we’ve underestimated just who other animals are and what know and are capable of doing. For example, people who work closely with chimpanzees, especially in the wild rather than with those unfortunate individuals who are kept in tiny and impoverished cages, continually observe behavior patterns that show that these amazing beings have a strong sense of self. Now, a set of very innovative experiments performed by Takaaki Kaneko and Masaki Tomonaga of the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, have demonstrated that ‘Chimpanzees are self-aware and can anticipate the impact of their actions on the environment around them, an ability once thought to be uniquely human …’ Based on the clear results of this detailed project the researchers concluded, ‘We provide the first behavioral evidence that chimpanzees can perform distinctions between self and other for external events on the basis of a self-monitoring process.’ I’m sure this is the first of a series of studies that will show just how ‘smart’ these animals are, and when this general topic is studied in other species we’ll also learn that chimpanzees aren’t the only non-humans who show this capacity. Being able to live in complex and changing social environments requires individuals to know ‘self from others’ and indeed, as researchers study animals such as social carnivores (wolves, coyotes, and hyenas), cetaceans, and elephants, for example, we’re also discovering just how intelligent these animals are and what they know about themselves and other individuals with whom they live.
Also published on the same day as the report on self-awareness in chimpanzees was a portfolio of captive chimpanzees and other great apes showing just how much they are like us. The images truly are stunning, and show clearly why these individuals shouldn’t be locked up in small cages for research or entertainment. The work of Jane Goodall and many others has time and again demonstrated that great apes are incredibly smart and emotional beings who should be respected and not mistreated. As the photographer of this series notes, ‘My urgent message is for us to learn from the gentle conduct of our animal relatives the primates.’ (For more discussion about the gentle nature of non-human primates and other animals, please see and and and.) I hope these portraits are used to help our next of kin.
Wolves also are amazing animals – smart, emotional, and moral beings. Nonetheless, they continually raise the hackles of some people, especially those who like to kill them (see also). Ignoring what scientists who know about wolf behavior and population biology say, the Department of Interior has declared wolves to be ‘fully recovered in Idaho and Montana, opening the door for hunts in the fall.” Montana state wildlife officials are submitting a tentative proposal to allow the hunting of 220 of the state’s estimated 566 wolves, three times the number killed in their 2009 hunt. Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will likely follow suit. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar champions killing wolves and other animals by claiming, ‘Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act … From a biological perspective, they have now recovered.’ This is bad news for wolves because we really don’t know if there are enough of these amazing carnivores out there to sustain themselves so that they will be able to survive the onslaught of gun-toting people who play off of sensationalistic media, misleading clams by politicians, and ill-based fears about wolves and other predators.
And now for horses, especially racing thoroughbreds, also intelligent and emotional beings. What happens to these money-making animals after they are retired and freed from being run to exhaustion and death is simply horrific. There’s really little or no freedom for them to enjoy their retirement years. Rather than going into the gory details, facts, not sensationalist jargon that you can read if you can stand it, suffice it to say we need to get influential people and politicians to take a stand on what happens to race horses after they’re done being used and abused. Each of us can make a difference if we expose the plight of these beautiful animals who gave it all for humans who supposedly care about them, not only when they’re generating big bucks but when they’re done being treated as royalty.
Horses and other animals aren’t merely dispensable objects who can be disposed of when we decide they serve no purpose. They’re sentient beings who deserve to be treated well and with dignity throughout their lives. We should do everything we can to make sure this happens. Compassion and empathy go a long way and readily cross species boundaries. We need a strong and overt social movement to right the wrongs. It’s pretty simple, it ain’t rocket science. Animals depend on our goodwill and it’s really easy to do something that’ll make their lives significantly better.