The Kimmela Center in Action

These are the key projects in which the Kimmela Center is currently engaged:

The Los Angeles Zoo Elephant Case, in which Dr. Marino served as an expert witness.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, for which The Kimmela Center is providing the scientific expertise, data and guidance for upcoming court cases.

Campaigns against dolphin and whale captivity, in which Dr. Marino has provided expert research and testimony.

The Someone Project – Kimmela works with Farm Sanctuary to analyze scientific evidence for cognitive and emotional complexity in farm animals.

“I Am Not an Animal” – Kimmela adds a new dimension of human psychology to its work on human-nonhuman animal relationships.

The Los Angeles Zoo Elephant Case


Kimmela Executive Director Dr. Lori Marino served as an expert witness in the recent case of Leider vs. Los Angeles Zoo, brought originally by the late actor Robert Culp and businessman Aaron Leider. The legal team, led by David Casselman, set out to demonstrate that the three Indian elephants at the L.A. zoo (Billy, Tina and Jewel) were unhealthy and neglected and should be sent to an elephant sanctuary where their needs could be met.

Dr. Marino testified about the intelligence, brain complexity, and self-awareness of elephants, and the meaning of stress-related behavioral anomalies exhibited by captive animals. After a weeklong hearing, Judge John L. Segal ruled against the L.A. Zoo in an unprecedented indictment of the zoo industry. He stated:

“Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional.”

The judge put several welfare remedies in place, and no other case of this kind has come closer to the goal of freeing the animals. Even so, he had to stop short of closing the exhibit and sending the three elephants to a sanctuary. This was primarily because the elephants remain the “property” of the zoo and have no rights of their own. So the judge could only have confiscated the property of the zoo if the elephants had been actively and severely abused.

Legal efforts continue for the elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo. And this case, as successful as it was, illustrates why Kimmela is working with groups attempting to change the legal status of nonhuman animals so that they enjoy the same basic rights as humans do. One of those is the Nonhuman Rights Project.

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The Nonhuman Rights Project


Kimmela is providing assistance and services to the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), led by prominent animal rights attorney Steven Wise.

The NhRP is working to change the common law status of large-brained, socially complex nonhuman animals from legal “things” or “property” to “persons” with certain fundamental rights like the right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity.

In 2013, the NhRP will start litigating on behalf of one or two individuals (an elephant, great ape, dolphin or whale) who are currently in circuses, zoos or laboratories. In presenting such a case to a court, arguments must be based on a solid foundation of scientific evidence for cognitive and emotional abilities – evidence that clearly demonstrates an animal’s eligibility for common law personhood.

The Kimmela Center is providing the scientific expertise, data and guidance necessary for the Nonhuman Rights Project to achieve that goal.

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Dolphin and Whale Captivity


For many years before founding the Kimmela Center, Dr. Lori Marino provided research, peer-reviewed papers, professional appearances, congressional testimony and media interviews to bring scientific credibility to advocacy efforts on behalf of captive whales and dolphins.

One of the first of these was a groundbreaking study demonstrating that bottlenose dolphins could recognize themselves in a mirror, thus showing that they have a sense of self not unlike our own. Her 20-year noninvasive research program and expertise on dolphin and whale brain size and complexity continue to be sought after for evidence that these highly intelligent, self-aware animals do not belong in captivity.

Other contributions to advocacy on behalf of cetaceans have included:

    • Publication of a multi-authored peer-reviewed methodological critique of the claim by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that public displays of marine mammals are educational. This paper demonstrated that there is no evidence for these claims.
    • Congressional testimony refuting educational claims of the marine mammal display industry held by the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife in 2010.
    • Creating alternatives for studying dolphin and whale cognition in captive animals by developing research protocols for the noninvasive study of cetaceans in rehabilitation facilities such as sea pens and in the wild.
    • Presentations at symposia on personhood in dolphins and whales at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific conference. (2010, 2012).
    • Creation and distribution of a scientists’ statement opposing the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import wild-caught beluga whales for public display, and live media/public information sessions on the factual basis for arguing against the import. Empowering local animal advocacy groups by providing the factual information critical to making strong and effective arguments.

The Kimmela Center makes it possible now to expand these kinds of studies by branching out and collaborating with other like-minded advocacy organizations with expertise in bringing the scientific knowledge to the general public, as well as to recruit and help students who wish to apply their education and training toward professional animal advocacy.

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The Someone Project


The Kimmela Center is working with Farm Sanctuary to provide scientific support for a project that will compile the evidence for cognitive and emotional complexity in farm animals.

Much in the same way that scientific evidence continues to be effective for advocacy on behalf of elephants, great apes, dolphins and many other animals, this new project will reveal the psychological complexity of farm animals and the psychological basis for their being a who – not a what. In doing so, Kimmela will bring to the world of farm animals the same kind of scientific exploration, rigorous data and background on the cognitive and emotional capacities of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep as it brings to its other projects.

The Someone Project will include several approaches, beginning with a compilation of scientific research on farm animal behavior, emotions and cognition and producing peer-reviewed scientific review papers and white papers. These will be the starting point for the development of a strategic plan for continued research with farm animals in sanctuary settings and the production of materials that will promote an increased awareness of, and appreciation for the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional lives of farm animals. This material will be used to influence farm animal policy for the benefit of the animals themselves.

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“I Am Not an Animal”

This project explores how the psychological dynamics of our fear of death shape our relationships with other animals, leading to our need to claim superiority over them in ways that are often exploitative and abusive.

Despite the enormous growth of the animal protection movement over the last 50 years, the situation for animals in almost every area has deteriorated.* Numerous approaches and strategies have been tried, but advances have been marginal, and have been outweighed by enormous setbacks. For instance, we are currently facing mass extinctions, more vivisection, and more factory farming on a global scale. Clearly something is being overlooked in seeking better protection for nonhuman animals.

We claim that these dynamics have to be understood in order for humans to enter into a healthier and more respectful relationship with the other animals.

In 1973 cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Becker’s central thesis was that when we humans are reminded of our own mortality (even unconsciously), we tend to deny our mortal animal nature and any equality with the rest of the animal world. Instead, we are driven to claim superiority and human exceptionalism in an attempt to transcend our mortality.

Scientific studies on Terror Management Theory (how we deal with the anxiety of mortality awareness) show that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal” and, thus, drive the need to dominate, exploit and abuse other animals.

This Kimmela project includes two main components. First, we are working on a theoretical paper to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, in which we discuss the evidence for this general claim and propose that it is an important factor in our fraught relationships with other animals. We presented an earlier version of this work at the Ernest Becker Foundation Meeting in 2012 to much acclaim.

Second, the Kimmela Center is collaborating with Jeff Greenberg and Melissa Soenke in the Department of Psychology at University of Arizona, where they are conducting studies on how mortality awareness affects attitudes toward nonhuman animals. We intend to use these findings to better identify the factors and contexts in which humans try to disconnect themselves from other animals by exploiting them as resources rather than recognizing them as sentient beings in their own right.

In accordance with our mission to apply science to animal advocacy, these findings will provide opportunities for deeper glimpses into our relationships with other animals and help us to determine how animal protection efforts and messaging might be made more effective.

References: Marino, L. and Mountain, M. The denial of death and our relationship with the other animals. Ernest Becker Foundation Meeting, Seattle, Washington (October, 2012).

* Note: One major exception in this negative trend is for homeless pets in most Western countries. But this a classic “exception that proves the rule” in terms of how we relate to companion animals compared to other species.

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