Captive: Stereotypical and Natural

In this post, I will be discussing a part of an article titled “Stereotypies: a critical review” by Georgia J. Mason, more specifically, the first section ” Stereotypies as abnormal behavior”.

What counts as stereotypical?

Mason discusses two possible meanings of stereotypical behavior. Firstly, the behavior is not normal. Normal could mean either that it stands out from an observed population or that it serves no purpose or harms the animal. The selection of the observed population would also affect what is normal. For example, comparing a behavior of an animal to a captive population would be different from comparing it with a wild population. It has also been argued that as stereotypical behavior did not result from natural selection, it would have a negative effect on the animal. However, Mason feels that just because a behavior seems strange does not mean it serves no observable purpose.

Stereotypical and normal behavior

Stereotypical behavior shares similarities with normal behavior. They resist change, can become independent of the original stimulus and both in some cases may serve no obvious purpose. Behavior comes about in response to factors in the environment. If these factors remain unchanged for a long time and/or the behavior is repeated many times, the behavior is reinforced. After a specific behavior is developed, it can be carried out even when the original stimulus is absent or under different environmental factors to which it might appear to serve no purpose. This also applies to normal behavior as in the example given in the paper, some animals still display foraging behavior even when abundant food is provided.

From this, I gather that normal behavior can be considered stereotypical in a sense. The only difference is that stereotypical behavior is undesirable by animal lovers. But it appears that stereotypical behavior is not all that defined. If an animal naturally acquires a behavior in an artificial environment, is it still considered a stereotypical behavior? After all, the animal is merely adjusting to its new environment. Of course, seeing an animal pace back and forth all day in behind metal bars or glass is not pretty. With animals in artificial environments, it is unlikely that we will see totally normal behavior as seen in the wild. Looks like more discussion is needed in defining stereotypical behavior and deciding which of these behaviors are okay to have.

Mason, G. J. (1991). Stereotypies: a critical review. Animal behaviour, 41(6), 1015-1037.


Running thoughts: Marius

It has never occurred to me exactly how animals died in zoos. I had always assumed that they simply died of old age. After all, animals are the main attraction of zoos and it would not make sense to kill them, until I read about Marius.

Marius met his end on 9th February this year with a bullet to his head. He was a male reticulated giraffe who lived in the Copenhagen Zoo. Despite an online petition to stop the killing or euthanasia (as referred to by the zoo) of Marius and offers by wildlife parks to take him in, Marius was euthanised, dissected in public in front of a crowd and fed to the carnivores.

Warning: Yes, the video contains giraffe bits. Although the title says ‘baby’, Marius is 2 years old.

Some debate surrounds the fact that Marius was dissected in front of children. I do feel that dissection of an animal in front of children could be disturbing for them and would do nothing to help cultivate empathy towards animals. With regard to the feeding of parts of Marius to the lions, it is certainly less wasteful compared to simply throwing those parts of Marius away. What I am focusing on in this post are the reasons why a young and healthy giraffe was euthanised.

For the benefit of the captive population

The zoo defended themselves by stating that they were trying to prevent inbreeding. As quoted from their response on their website: “If an animal’s genes are well represented in a population further breeding with that particular animal is unwanted. As this giraffe’s genes are well represented in the breeding programme and as there is no place for the giraffe in the Zoo’s giraffe herd the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes has agreed that Copenhagen Zoo euthanize the giraffe.”

It looks like Marius was euthanised for the greater good of the captive giraffe population and this is a pretty strong justification of their actions (as with typical “for the greater good” arguments). Furthermore, their actions were supported by the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes which makes their decision appear sound and in line with established regulations. The reason as to which why Marius was not handed over to wildlife parks that offered to take him in was because of the rules set by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), another recognised organisation. In general, euthanasia is not uncommon in zoos and since 1828, 5 giraffes were euthanised for similar reasons.

But just because such actions are supported by recognised organisations and benefit the captive population as a whole, does this mean these actions are ethical?

Which is more ethical?

The zoo also provided explanation and answers to questions on alternatives to euthanising Marius. They do not use contraceptives, due to possible side effects, and sterilisation because they believe that their animals should be allowed to breed naturally.

The word “natural” comes up many times in the video of Bengt Holst, director of the zoo, explaining the reasons for their actions. It seems that he is missing the point made by the show host that it is the killing of a young healthy giraffe that is not natural rather than the fact that Marius was fed to the lions.

Holst also mentioned that the zoo tries to be as close to natural as it can get. “As it can get” really just depends on what is convenient for the zoo. It is pretty ironic that in order to allow natural breeding (which they claim contributes to animal welfare), they unnaturally kill the surplus offspring. Surely allowing animals to freely or naturally breed and then euthanising surplus offspring is evidence of irresponsibility and even unethical. If we support and accept the sterilisation of dogs and cats, how are zoo animals any different?

Deciding the fate of captive animals is already far from “natural”. No matter how much we modify an enclosure to mimic the animals natural habitat, it is we humans who designed the enclosure. The plants (mostly), mounds and other structures did not naturally pop up. By putting animals in zoos, it should be recognised that these animals are no longer wild or subject to “nature” but they have come under human responsibility and it is up to us to decide what is ethical or better for them.

Between depriving giraffes of natural breeding and euthanising surplus offspring, I would go with the latter for being less ethical. This does not mean that the former is ethical but simply less unethical. Ultimately, if we want to let animals carry out natural behavior, we should leave them in their natural habitats. If we want to keep them in zoos, we cannot expect totally natural behavior and it must be accepted that compromises will have to be made, such as preventing giraffes from producing surplus offspring, with respect to human ethics since they are under our care.

Forget “natural”, think ethics

To wrap up this post, zoos must be responsible to the animals they care for and bring into the world. The reason behind euthanising Marius might be  justified in a scientific sense but not in an ethical sense. Furthermore, the welfare of zoo animals should be separate from their wild counterparts as they live in different conditions. Rather than trying to focus on making things “natural”, zoos should focus on animal welfare and pay attention to the voices of society. After all, zoos are part of the human world and not of nature.


Running thoughts: People and Nature

People and Nature

When I started out this blog I wanted to address Nature as a separate (but not necessarily a sentient being) from people (I would have preferred ‘Man’ but it would not be consistent with the video). I hoped (idealistically) that we could establish a sort of balance between Nature and people in the form of respect and sustainable development. But in this video, Nature, well, doesn’t care what people does. Apparently, nature could adapt to all the terrible things we throw at it and we would only be harming ourselves in the end.

The link between Nature and people in this video is extremely interesting to me. At first, I thought it suggested that Nature and people are separate as 1. Nature does not need people and 2. People’s actions would ultimately affect people. But it seems that the actions of people would impact Nature which in turn impacts people, therefore Nature and people have to be connected.

Perhaps the video meant that Nature can be affected by people but it would not ‘die’ and ultimately it is people that would drive themselves to extinction. Does this mean that it is a one way link between people and Nature where “People ->Nature -> People” as compared to “People -> People” without Nature?

Reading the comments

There are some pretty interesting comments which I would just collate and summarize briefly.

1. Mother Nature needs people too.
2. People do not need Mother Nature.
3. Mother Nature sounds pretty arrogant.
4. “Species greater than you”?

‘Need’ and ‘depends on’

This is where it gets really confusing for me. I chose to use ‘need’ and ‘depends on’ based on my understanding of these word and phrase though they may not be accurate. After some searches on the internet I thought of replacing ‘need’ with ‘rely on’ but as the video used the word ‘need’ I decided it would be clearer to use it for this post.

Back to my point, I feel that people need Nature for survival and our survival depends on Nature. Nature, however, does not need people to survive but its survival could depend on people. There might be a slight possibility for people to completely obliterate Nature or ‘kill it’ in a sense. If we polluted the Earth or thin the ozone enough until the Earth ends up like Mars or Venus then Nature could be considered ‘dead’. But I am unsure of how likely this would occur and some comments pointed out that microscopic organisms would still be able to survive in the most hostile of environments. Even if Nature survives and evolves, without people to observe it, it does not really matter to people does it?

Nice try, ‘Mother Nature’

A couple of people argued that people do not need Nature and gave some credit to the video for trying to scare us as is the case for every other environmental video. They felt that technology in the future would allow us to live independent of Nature. I did explore how technology is taking over traditional roles of animals and plants in a previous post. In the end, there is only so much technology can do. Even if we put a blind faith in technology to sustain us, how long would it take for technology to reach that level? If it takes too long, is there a plan B?

You think you’re so great?

This is mostly an extension of the previous paragraph where the people who argued that we do not need Nature felt that the Nature in the video came off as arrogant. To me, Julia Roberts does sounds pretty cold and even slightly arrogant. Mother Nature is portrayed to be all-powerful and the lives of every living being depends on her. When we use the phrase ‘Mother Nature’, I would expect the Nature depicted to be nurturing but this video straight up shows how uncaring Nature is of people. It also seems to suggest that Nature is a greater and powerful being that people can never live without. Such proclamation of power always leads to people to doubt if this is true.

Then again, this video gives Nature a voice but the voice  does not belong to Nature. Nature is not sentient. Rather, the Nature in the video expresses the opinions of the humans who made the video and this video is a warning from humans to humans. Caring is something human and it would be more accurate to say that Nature cannot ‘care’.

What greater species?

These comments are pretty…interesting. It was mentioned in the video that Mother Nature has fed and starved species greater than us which led to some comments wondering how dinosaurs could ever considered greater than humans, if aliens exist or if there were more intelligent and sentient beings before humans. I wonder what the video creators actually meant by ‘greater species’. Are they referring to species physically larger and more powerful than us or species more intelligent? It might be the former and perhaps they felt that those species ‘starved’ (extinct?) were more majestic than people.

Nature doesn’t need People, People need Nature

This phrase is true though that there might be a tiny possibility that people could actually kill off nature entirely. People do not realize how much we depend on nature just because they live among cement buildings and metal devices, where food and water ‘magically’ appear in markets and from taps. We should all learn how Nature affects us and appreciate how interconnected us and Nature are.

However, this video shifts the focus of conservation from Nature to people which I feel might be a little misleading. By depicting Nature as something ‘unbeatable’, it might send the message that we only need to maintain our survival regardless of how we change Nature. I personally want to preserve Nature as it is without any major changes simply because it is beautiful and it seems very selfish for people to do as they please.

Then again, this video shows a different way of viewing Nature and people which would also help in conservation. When people realize that the consequences of our actions will eventually come around and kick us from behind they might be more motivated to take action. In the end, it does not matter if Nature needs people, but it is certain for now that people need Nature. There is no better time to start taking action to ensure our future than the present.

Captive: Zoochosis (1)

There is a lot of controversy surrounding zoos. On one hand, they could provide education and entertainment, care for animals and contribute to animal conservation such as rescuing animals. On the other hand, zoos are artificial environments which may be unable to provide the stimulus and choices found in the animal’s natural habitat, leading to animal welfare and ethical issues. Human welfare is also an issue when humans are in close proximity to the animals. To cover all of these issues would probably require a huge number of posts so I would be starting off with animal welfare.

Animal welfare in zoos itself has many different aspects so for this short post I would be giving a little introduction on zoochosis or stereotypical behavior displayed by animals in zoos.

You would have pretty much understood what zoochosis is after that video: zoo + psychosis. You might simply think that because the animal was kept in an environment different from their natural habitat, it would get bored or stressed and therefore display stereotypical behaviors but there is so much more depth in this issue. The following video is a trailer to a short documentary which I hope to cover in the next post.

This post is just a heads-up that i would be doing some zoo related posts among other topics as well. Zoos are a significant platform where animals and humans are in close proximity and there will be impacts on both sides. I hope to uncover these impacts and this topic would help me on my search to find, if it exists, the perfect distance between nature and humans.

Running thoughts: Animals and plants need not apply

Our jobs are certainly not the only ones being affected by advances in technology.

“Better technology makes more better jobs for horses”

Horses in the past were used for transportation for people and goods. Now their jobs are replaced almost entirely by automobiles in developed cities. Today’s horses in cities usually pull fancy carriages as a tourist attraction or in performances while horse riding appears almost exclusive to the country side. However, even horse carriages in cities may soon be banned as some feel that horses do not belong in cities. It is not that technology has replaced these luxury form of transport but rather it has created a space no longer suited for horses.

Furthermore, better technology has not created any better or new jobs for horses as there is only so much horses can do. Technology has initially made a horse’s life easier and reduced their workload but when technology advances until it trumps horses in every aspect of their jobs, the horses will go unemployed. As said in first video, “Horses aren’t unemployed now because they got lazy as a species, they are unemployable.”

Robotic companionship

Digital pets are by far much easier to care for than real pets. They do not need real food, taken to a real vet or even require companionship. If you fail in this “game”, the restart button is always available. You could even customize your very own digital pet to your liking. You could argue that a digital pet is just not the same as the real thing as you would lack the physical interactions and even emotional attachment. Well, robotic pets are here. They would provide the physical interaction real pets provide and are easier to maintain and would not misbehave. You could program your perfect pet. The following video also mentioned that we can and have at some instances developed emotional attachment to robots which means it is possible to love your robot pet the same way you love a real one.

Laboratory farming

Lab grown meat technology for now is not yet able to completely replace farmed meat and the concept of it might not that appealing but if technology improves enough to meet the demands of farmed meat and more importantly consumes less resources, it might become possible for lab grown meat to become available and consumed commercially in the future. We would not need to invest so much land and resources to agriculture and farming if we could grow our food in laboratories. Again, many would argue that it simply is not the same as the real thing but as mentioned in the very first video, most of us do not really care. If lab grown meat tastes the same as farmed meat, why not?

Plants, too

Even plants are affected by the advance in technology. Plants with chlorophyll take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and release oxygen and this amazing and important process has been replicated to some extent using technology. We could ‘plant’ artificial fauna in places they usually do not grow in and these artificial plants would serve the same purpose as the real plants. Interestingly, the effort gone to even make the technology look like plants shows just how much we care about the natural beauty.

Replacing nature 

If we think of nature as a whole, would technology be able to sever our ties with nature? We are already living in controlled environments on a small scale such as an air-conditioned mall. Taking on a blind faith in technology, I would assume that technology with enough time can indeed replace many aspects of nature, allowing us to live almost independent from it. Perhaps this could come in the form of a large dome like those mentioned in science fiction novels.

But this assumption is pretty extreme. Rather than speculating that technology could replace nature in every way, perhaps it would be more realistic to assume that technology could help us adapt to the changes in nature. The difference is that instead of assuming technology could create an artificial world, it would supplement the existing one instead. When anything major happens to nature that has adverse impacts on us, technology could help us overcome these difficulties.

We put an amazing amount of faith in technology to solve our problems and are very dependent on it as it has already invaded most if not all aspects of our lives. What would happen if technology fails us? There is no backup plan, only to put more faith in technology. Technology can conveniently be regarded as a shield and a cure should anything, such as natural disasters, happen. However, nature is extremely complex. The time needed for technology to advance to a stage where it can create or maintain a living environment currently provided by nature might be too great.

I feel that technology should aim to be sustainable and used alongside nature. Nature has been sustaining life for a long time. Cutting our ties with it and putting faith into the unknown would be a risk which I personally find too great to take. However, I do admit that we might not need all of nature to survive and technology would only need to supplement those areas currently at risk but we still do not know exactly which aspects of nature are essential to our survival and how interconnected systems in nature are. Better be safe than sorry.

Captive: A common language

Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, has a vocabulary of over 1000 words in the American Sign Language (ASL). Her fame has increased recently with a video of her grieving over the death of Robin Williams. The Gorilla Foundation was founded upon the results of an ape linguistic capability study which involved Koko and carried out by Dr. Francine Penny Patterson.

My first thoughts were that this was cool and really exciting as we can get to understand what goes on in the mind of another species. But how is this beneficial to anyone? A gorilla being able to communicate with humans might be able to express its needs but this is only possible in captivity. It allows us to provide better care for captive animals if the animals themselves can communicate their preferences to us in a human language we understand rather than having us learn how to interpret their non-human-like behavior. I think future plans to teach wild gorillas ASL are unlikely probably since, being wild and endangered, we should leave wild gorillas alone with zero or minimal human contact unless necessary.

How would such projects help animals in the wild? From a page outlining some of the progress and plans of Project Koko, they state that their project has changed the way humans view gorillas from the aggressive King Kong to the compassionate Koko. In conservation, the project’s published works have evoked empathy for gorillas. This simply means that it has gotten more people to see gorillas as sentient even human-like beings and get involved in gorilla conservation. This does not actually directly benefit gorilla conservation as it does not gives us insight into exactly how to conserve gorillas but merely increase human resource which might indirectly translate to more research into conservation itself.

There is a debate on whether Koko actually comprehends language the way humans do. Using ASL, Koko signs a string of words rather then in grammatically correct sentences. Other criteria include whether Koko would sign without prompting, initiate small talk and ask questions. If Koko could comprehend the human language the way we do and use it to communicate effectively, how human does this make her?

A few movies have starred apes living with human families, wearing human clothes and participating in human activities. Meanwhile, other non-celebrity apes are displayed in zoos or used in other non-language laboratory experiments. The case of Nim Chimpsky questions the humanizing of apes.

Nim Chimpsky was pulled from his mother 10 days after he was born and raised by a human family as a human child. He as taught ASL, wore human clothes and lived in a human home. After 4 years, the experiment was ended and Nim was sent back to the Institute of Primate Studies (IPS) where he originally came from. But when the IPS ran out of funding, Nim and other chimpanzees were sold to a laboratory to be used in a hepatitis study where he was kept in a cage and unable to communicate with the staff who did not learn ASL. Within a month and after a national protest, Nim ended up in an animal sanctuary and eventually died from a heart attack at the young age of 26.

Koko is quite a celebrity herself. She stars in a book and documentary movie “Koko, the Talking Gorilla” and has been visited by many human celebrities such as the recently deceased Robin Williams. A Twitter account provides updates on the Gorilla Foundation and a photo blog “KokoPix” and video blog and YouTube Channel “KokoFlix” captures notable or exciting Koko and Ndume (another gorilla in the Gorilla Foundation) moments. Interestingly, the videos and pictures show Koko doing human activities. It appears that the caretakers are treating them very much like human beings. Since gorillas are not human, is it a mistake to interpret their signs in human contexts?  Or rather, would teaching them ASL limit their thought expressions to a human context?

Teaching gorillas ASL or to communicate with humans are not the only way to show how similar these animals are to us. Observing them in their natural habitats, Dian Fossey has found that each gorilla has its own unique personality. Onsite studies however could be very different from those in labs or buildings. The movie “Gorillas in the Mist” is based on the true story of Dian Fossey has all the Hollywood drama elements. This is perhaps a less invasive way (to the apes) of sorts to uncover ways to invoke empathy in us for other primates.

Sharing a common language with apes or even other animal species is definitely exciting and inter-species communication is right out of a fairy tale. However, removing apes from ‘ape society’ and into human society may not be good in a sense for the ape. Yes, the captive ape would be able to ask anything of the human caretakers and its life in captivity would be greatly improved or even the best we can provide but this does not seem “natural” (this leads to a whole new debate). No matter how much an ape can acquire a human language, I cannot foresee a future where they live remotely equal to us portrayed in some the Planet of the Apes movies. We need to make sure that such experiments are carried out for scientific purposes rather than to satisfy our strange desire to project human characteristics onto other animals which has debatable consequences.