Author Archives: Marilyn

What Marius represents


(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at Biocentered.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning.  In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable.  So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats.  That, of course, is equally unacceptable.  But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. Continue reading

Marilyn’s Links: A Carnival of Animal Youtubes on the Feast of Saint Francis

In honor of the Feast of Saint Francis, I offer this Carnival of Empathic Animal Youtubes – a “greatest hits” based on a stringent selection criterion: my memory.  Feel free to offer others in the comments!



Do not adjust your screen

A bit of administrivia: we’re going to be testing some new templates for a couple/few days, so don’t be surprised if the site looks a little different every time you check in.  We’ll settle on something soon!  Thanks for your patience.  (And feel free to comment on the templates you see!  We’ll figure out which one was up when you commented.)

“Empathy-driven helping behavior in rats”

Researchers at the University of Chicago report what they call the first evidence of “empathy-driven helping behavior” in rats.

The experiments, designed by psychology graduate student and first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal with co-authors Decety and Peggy Mason, placed two rats that normally share a cage into a special test arena. One rat was held in a restrainer device — a closed tube with a door that can be nudged open from the outside. The second rat roamed free in the cage around the restrainer, able to see and hear the trapped cagemate but not required to take action.

The researchers observed that the free rat acted more agitated when its cagemate was restrained, compared to its activity when the rat was placed in a cage with an empty restrainer. This response offered evidence of an “emotional contagion,” a frequently observed phenomenon in humans and animals in which a subject shares in the fear, distress or even pain suffered by another subject.

While emotional contagion is the simplest form of empathy, the rats’ subsequent actions clearly comprised active helping behavior, a far more complex expression of empathy. After several daily restraint sessions, the free rat learned how to open the restrainer door and free its cagemate. Though slow to act at first, once the rat discovered the ability to free its companion, it would take action almost immediately upon placement in the test arena.

A follow-up study presented the free rat with two restrainers: one containing another rat and one containing a pile of chocolate chips.  To the researcher’s surprise, the free rat was as likely to free the restrained rat first and share the chocolate as he/she was to eat the chocolate first.  (I can’t say I’d do the same.)

Interestingly, neither the UC press release, nor the other coverage I’ve seen mentions a much earlier study on possible empathy-driven helping behavior in rats, summarized by Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce in their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (see page 96):

Another early study in 1962 by George Rice and Priscilla Gainer titled “‘Altruism’ in the Albino Rat” showed that rats would help other rats in distress.  One rat was suspended in air by a harness and a neighboring rat could press a lever to lower the suspended rat.  The suspended animal would typically squeak and wriggle in distress.  The rats were apparently made uncomfortable by signs of distress in a fellow rat, and would act to alleviate the distress by pressing the lever.  Empathy likely motivated the ‘altruistic’ response.

That we continue to be surprised by pro-social behavior in social mammals… continues to be surprising.  I hope to revisit this topic in a post sometime soon.

(Be sure to watch the video of the experimental procedure on the University of Chicago press release link.)


They are the 97%

Created by Kira Treibergs and Laurel Heibert of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, and undoubtedly already appearing on a Facebook page near you.

Marilyn’s Links


Happier meals?

Last week my pastor’s wife stopped me after church to give me a brochure she picked up at Whole Foods, “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating: Your way of knowing how our meat animals are raised” (that’s a pdf link). The brochure describes the system Whole Foods has adopted for rating the conditions under which meat animals – chicken, cattle and pigs (aka “chicken” or “poultry,” “beef” and “pork”) – are raised before slaughter. The basics of the rating system are here. Specifics tailored to each animal are spelled out in more detail in the brochure. In brief, the 5 steps range from a minimum (1) of “no cages, no crates, no crowding,” to a maximum of (5), which signifies an “animal-centered” system where the animals spend their “entire life on the same farm.”

Continue reading

Testing, testing

From time to time – today, for instance – you might encounter a different background template here on the blog. We’ve been having some buggy issues and will test a few others to see if they’re unique to the template we’ve been using, or if they’re – ahem – operator errors. Bear with us, and feel free to comment if you see one you really like OR dislike!

Marilyn’s links

  1. Well, with a little letter-jumbling we could just rename the Endangered Species Act (ESA) the Selective Extermination Act (SEA).
  2. Another undercover investigation reveals factory farm abuses at a Smithfield “pork” facility.
  3. iCyborg (see what I did there?) (no? OK, look here):

…spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

Calculating compassion

Last week I heard a short commentary by Jonah Lehrer on “Marketplace,” talking about the inclination to charitable giving.  He noted some interesting things: imaging studies of reward-related areas in the human brain confirm that people get more pleasure out of giving money than they do from receiving an equivalent amount.  But he also talked about a study by Paul Slovic, of the University of Oregon:

(Slovic) told undergraduates about a starving child named Rokia — she lived in a crumbling refugee camp in Africa. His students acted with impressive generosity. They saw her emaciated body and haunting brown eyes and they donated, on average, about $2.50 to Save the Children.

However, when a second group of students were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa — like the fact that more than five million children are malnourished — the average donation was 50 percent lower.

What gives? (Pardon the pun.) “The depressing statistics leave us cold, even when they are truly terrible,” Lehrer explains in his commentary, continuing “That’s because our emotions can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water.”  Several years ago, I saw a documentary about the AIDS crisis in Africa in which a doctor talked about how important it was for her to go to Africa and see what was happening firsthand.  Statistics, she said, are “humans with the tears wiped off.”  They don’t give the whole picture.  And the picture they do create is sterile and actuarial, leaving everything to the imagination – but nothing for the imagination to work with.  The numbers (and the humans behind them) all run together. Continue reading


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