At the end of this academic year I will be leaving my 18-year position as a Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University, and embarking on a new path as Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.
But I am not leaving academic research and scholarship behind. Rather, I am refocusing my research and expertise on creating a new path that combines science and animal advocacy. I’m always mindful of how privileged I’ve been to be able to pursue a successful research career indulging my curiosity about the world and, especially, the other animals.
That research has focused on the evolution of intelligence, brains, and self-awareness in other animals – in particular dolphins and primates. I worked with chimpanzees at Yerkes Research Center and learned that human language is not necessary for the deepest kinds of communication. I spent months amongst the carrion beetles in the dusty basement of The National Museum of Natural History measuring skulls of whales who died over 30 million years ago. And I’ve even conjectured about intelligence on other planets at the SETI Institute with the most open-minded (and nicest) community of scientists in the world.
There is no inherent conflict between being a scientist and an advocate – just an imaginary one we’ve created.But throughout that time I kept feeling the pull of a deep connection with the other animals that was the basis for my rejecting an offer to the prestigious Ph.D. program in Neuroscience at Princeton University after college and that would have involved vivisecting cats. It was why I was more invested in telling people about the infamous “rattlesnake roundups” in the Texas desert than I was about my work at the Johnson Space Center testing astronauts who had flown in space. And it was why, as a PhD candidate at SUNY-Albany, I had frequent tussles with faculty and fellow graduate students who I did not think took the issue of animal experimentation seriously enough.
But these “intrusions of conscience” more often than not took a back seat to building my scientific reputation during that period. You see, the academic community, particularly in the natural sciences, often ridicules and ostracizes not only students but even established scientists who take advocacy positions. I saw colleagues who questioned the ethics of their research being kept out of the running for grant support, and students who work in labs with other animals being discouraged, even cautioned, when they express concern. Advocacy, it was “handed down from the mountaintop”, is anathema to the scientific enterprise. I didn’t realize at the time that there is no inherent conflict between being a scientist and an advocate – just an imaginary one we’ve created. I also didn’t realize that being a scientist makes one a very powerful advocate as well.
Then, in 2001 Diana Reiss and I published a groundbreaking paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which we demonstrated, for the first time, that dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors and thus have a sense of self-awareness that’s similar to our own. Our two research subjects were young bottlenose dolphins, Presley and Tab, who were held at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn. This study challenged me to think at a deeper level than ever before about the ethical implications of my work as I began to realize that such highly intelligent, self-aware beings must suffer tremendously in captivity.
Shortly after that, two things happened that created the tipping point for me. First, I learned how devastating captivity is for dolphins and whales firsthand when Presley and Tab were transferred to other facilities and died soon after.
Second, I saw an online video clip of the annual Japanese dolphin hunts in which thousands of dolphins and whales are subject to an unspeakable death. The violence took my breath away. At the same time I also learned about the strong connection between marine mammal public displays and the hunts. The dolphins who are taken captive for these entertainment parks fetch a very high price, creating a very high incentive for the hunters to continue their yearly onslaught. As a research scientist I could no longer participate in the use of other animals in captivity. I had an obligation to use my expertise to advocate for them.
Now, for the first time, I really understood and could not ignore the implications of my work beyond the science. This was about grasping the meaning of my findings for the lives of these animals. As a research scientist I could no longer participate in the use of other animals in captivity. And I realized that I had an obligation to use my expertise to advocate for them. And in those realizations, the seeds of The Kimmela Center were being planted.
During the past 10 years I came to realize that those of us who study animals arguably bear the most responsibility for animal advocacy because we know the most about the subjects of our study and can be the most effective in advocating for them. Now, more than ever, we need to bring scholarship and science to bear on helping them.
The Kimmela Center is distinctive because it focuses on bringing the power of academic peer-reviewed science, knowledge and professional credibility to animal advocacy, and on creating a mainstreamed professional path for animal advocacy in academia. Together, we will make the vital connection between science and animal advocacy that is key to empowering all who wish to transform our relationships with the other animals.