The Psychology of Blaming Others During the Time of COVID-19

Humans are emotionally invested in ensuring that, whatever happens, the spotlight of blame never shines directly on us. So we blame wet markets in Asia for the spread of COVID-19 instead of ourselves.

This article was originally posted on Sentient Media.

The Pakistani author and artist Raheel Farooq says that “ugly truths are the biggest source of indigestion in humans.” During this pandemic, his words remind us that the ugliest truth of all lies within ourselves.

The current consensus about the origin of COVID-19, sans conspiracy theories, is that it originated in a wild species of mammal, such as a pangolin or bat, typically found in wet markets—places where a wide range of wild and domestic animals are confined in small, stressful, and unsanitary conditions. Animals at wet markets are sold to customers who either have them slaughtered on the spot or take them home to eat, sometimes alive. The wet market where COVID-19 first spread to humans was located in Wuhan, China. None of these facts are disputed by reputable epidemiologists or disease experts. Because the epicenter of this pandemic is located in another nation—a “foreign” nation—some humans in Western countries have been desperately trying to find a way to blame someone else—anyone else—for our predicament.

The Chinese wet markets are indeed places where viruses like COVID-19 are hatched. They are places of heinous cruelty towards other animals and deserve to be banned. But pandemics also originate on factory farms, both in the U.S. and other Western countries. A multitude of authors, including Stubler and Sebo, have recently reminded us of this fact. Yet, while residents of Western countries are busily pointing fingers at the wet markets of Asia, we are unable to look in the mirror at ourselves. The public mistakenly views factory farms in the U.S. as places where animals are concentrated, but in sanitary conditions and not treated like the animals in Chinese wet markets. Pigs, chickens, sheep, and cows are all killed away from the public eye, given antibiotics, and looked after by certified veterinarians. The USDA assures customers that it monitors the safety of the meat from these animals; consumers in supermarkets buying pork chops or chicken thighs have little information that suggests otherwise. But most of all, humans in the U.S. are psychologically unable to come to terms with the fact that our eating other animals from factory farms is on the same continuum as shopping at wet markets in China. Both practices are equally dangerous and cruel.

People in the U.S. are psychologically unable to come to terms with the fact that our eating other animals from factory farms is on the same continuum as shopping at wet markets in China.Humans are emotionally invested in ensuring that, whatever happens, the spotlight of blame never shines directly on us; we are loath to give up the pleasures of eating meat. As I point out in my recent essay in Aeon magazine, humans “are masters at erecting psychological defenses and justifying behavior that we know is not ethical but feels good, such as pleasuring the palate.” Bluntly, our species is very good at ignoring the suffering of animals in slaughterhouses and the health risks of eating animal products, all for a juicy T-bone. As long as humans continue to “bat away” the spotlight of interrogation in regards to eating animals, and keep pushing that spotlight onto other countries and other people, we can continue to erroneously believe that we can have our steak and eat it, too.

Many psychological defense mechanisms come into play when humans try to mount excuses for actions that we want to continue despite ample evidence that we should stop. Some well-known defenses particularly relevant to the COVID-19 situation and meat-eating include Denial, Displacement, Rationalization, Compartmentalization, and Projection.

Denial is the refusal to accept fact or reality. It is a primitive defense mechanism and the most common psychological defense. “I don’t believe that COVID-19 exists” is Denial in action.

Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts, feelings, and impulses onto another person or object, usually an “easy” target. “If it weren’t for the Chinese / Bill Gates / Republicans / Democrats / Trump / drug companies, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

Rationalization is putting something into a different light or conjuring a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality. A common rationalization of meat-eaters is, “Eating a pig or a cow is different than eating a bat or a dog—cows and pigs are meant to be eaten.”

Compartmentalization is separating some parts of one’s awareness from other parts and behaving as if one part has a separate set of values. “I’m an animal lover but I love my spare ribs!” exemplifies Compartmentalization. Finally, Projection is the misattribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto another person who does not share those same sentiments Projection sounds something like, “Those Chinese are incredibly selfish for causing animals to suffer just for their pleasure.”

Given the strong psychological currents underlying humans’ desires to eat meat, relying heavily upon voluntarism or “moral awakening” to end factory farming and wet markets is not likely to be effective. Humans tend to seek the paths of least resistance, or most pleasure, instead of challenging themselves to do the “right” thing. And we are well-equipped, psychologically, to stand our ground.

To meaningfully change our collective habits, I recommend two simple objects—a carrot and a stick. We can use the stick to end meat-eating through strong legislation and enforcement of consequences for violations. Legal protections for other animals, including the granting of legal personhood and other rights-based approaches, are another branch of the stick. At the same time—here comes the carrot—we can continue to provide more positive incentives that entice consumers and businesses to substitute plant-based foods for meat in stores and restaurants.

I once asked my sister Deb, an omnivore who is leaning toward vegetarianism, what it would take for more of the public to order a plant-based meal instead of a meat dish at restaurants. She said: make plant-based options abundant on the menu, affordable, and most of all, tasty. Can’t argue with that logic. Sounds much more appetizing than chronic indigestion and ugly truths.

Other Animals Are Not Humans’ Sacrificial Fall Guys

This article was originally posted on Sentient Media.

Using lab animals to solve human-made problems amounts to more of the same hubris that spawned the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place.

James Gorman, in a March 14th article in The New York Times, states insightfully that humans “get diseases from other animals, and then we use more animals to figure out how to stop the diseases.” Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, research labs around the world are scrambling to find the appropriate “animal model” for a treatment or vaccine for the virus. Right now is an especially bad time to be a mouse, as labs attempt to genetically engineer and produce mice who are susceptible to COVID-19 and, crucially, get sick from the virus in the same way that humans do.

And so it goes. Humans create a dangerous situation by treating other animals like commodities and then force some animals to shoulder an even greater burden as part of our “remedy” to the problem. Let’s be clear: the root cause of the COVID-19 pandemic is humans’ consumption of other animals—in this specific instance, bats and possibly pangolins. Humans like to say that the virus “jumped” from bats to pangolins to humans, as though our exploitation and consumption of these creatures has nothing to do with the “jump.” Humans invite the spread of pandemic viruses in by valuing only our base appetites and expressing little concern for the wellbeing of other animals.

The worst epidemics in recent history have been caused by humans capturing, marketing, killing and eating other animals.The worst epidemics in recent history have been caused by humans capturing, marketing, killing and eating other animals, not just wildlife but also domesticated animals like chickens and pigs. One of the worst viral diseases, bird flu, originated in the Chinese chicken markets in 2003 and 2013; in these markets, animals are crammed together with other species and sold “warm and wet”—i.e. alive or freshly killed—making the chickens superb reservoirs for viral mutation and reproduction. Another viral disease, the swine flu of 2009, was caused by intensive factory farming of pigs in the U.S. and Mexico. Zoonotic diseases are not new, or even rare.

Gorman highlights the possibility that once research labs have enough mice to begin initial research, they will move on to “ferrets, hamsters, and monkeys.” Some labs are already intentionally infecting rhesus macaque monkeys with COVID-19. Chimpanzees who have been abandoned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may be another target. Nearly four dozen chimpanzees at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico have been turned down for transfer to sanctuaries, ostensibly because they are “too old and sick to move.” Chimpanzees at other federally-owned or -supported biomedical primate facilities also may not retire to sanctuaries. Will these individuals “sitting on the shelf” be used for medical research if humans get desperate enough? In an interview that aired on PBS in 2012, Dr. John Vandenberg of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute—a vivisection lab in San Antonio—stated, in a blunt plea to keep chimpanzees in research labs, “I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library. There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year… But we don’t know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after.”

Using other animal species to solve human-made problems amounts to just more of the same hubris and human exceptionalism that spawned the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place. Until our species learns to respect the lives and wellbeing of members of other species, plagues will continue to occur. The next pandemic may be even worse. As long as humans continue to use other animals as the “fall guys” when disasters strike, ignoring our own behaviors that directly cause these crises, we will always falsely believe that other species’ purpose is to provide a “safety net” for humans. Never taking full responsibility for the consequences of our actions may ultimately be the downfall of Homo sapiens.

Coming Soon: a Generation of Scholar Advocates for Animals

When I gave a TEDx Youth talk at the Nueva School for gifted children in California, last year, I met Aton, a 10-year-old who loves science. Aton is not only a brilliant student; he’s a passionate advocate for whales and the oceans, and he told me he studies biology and other subjects at Nueva so he can help make the oceans free of plastic and healthy again.

Only a few years ago, Aton would have had to make a choice at the end of high school: He would have had to decide whether he was going to become a scientist OR an advocate for animals.

That’s because being a scientist and an advocate would not have been an option.

To become an accredited scientist, Aton would have had to give up his advocacy, since scientists were expected to be entirely neutral when it came to morality. And if his priority had been to make his voice heard on behalf of the animals, he would have been expected to forego an advanced degree or the kinds of academic positions traditional scientists occupy.

He could have become a scientist or an advocate, but not both. But all of this is now changing. And the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy has been at the forefront of this change.

That’s because our mission is to bring academic science and animal advocacy together.

When I visited the Nueva School again recently to give a talk in one of Aton’s science classes, I told his mother that her talented, empathic son has a very bright future ahead of him as a true scientist/advocate.

It takes advocacy based in science to drive the cultural shift that’s taking place in how we relate to other animals.

The scientific papers we produce at the Kimmela Center bring the best scientific findings to the cause of animal protection. For example, our Someone Project (with Farm Sanctuary) presents cutting-edge knowledge of cognitive, emotional, personality and social complexity in farmed animals in our peer-reviewed and white (popular) papers:

  • Sheep Never Forget A Face! Our paper on “Intelligence, Complexity and Individuality in Sheep” offers robust scientific evidence that sheep are highly intelligent, individualistic and socially complex beings with personality to spare.
  • Eating Someone! Our essay in the popular online magazine Aeon explored the psychology behind why humans continue eat animals despite knowing they suffer in factory farms.
  • Dissection Hurts Everyone: In talks and interviews like this one, I explore the harmful effects on students when they’re required to conduct dissection and vivisection as part of their biology curriculum. It’s all part of an outdated belief that science should be a cold and dispassionate exercise in which there is no place for recognition of nonhuman animals as autonomous beings with the right to live according to their nature.
  • Bringing Science to Animal Law: Science has an important role to play in legal and regulatory efforts on behalf of nonhuman animals. Kimmela has been contributing to the growing field of animal law for many years, and we are now developing academic courses and scientific training for animal law students, beginning in the United States and Canada.

This coming year, the Kimmela Center will announce new initiatives and collaborations to build bridges between scientific institutions and animal-advocacy organizations, along with podcasts, conferences and professional education in order to accelerate our goals.

Your tax-deductible donation, large or small, helps support young scholar-advocates, develop scholar-advocacy programs and meetings, and empower animal advocacy efforts of all kinds.

Thank you for being part of this work, and I wish you a very Happy Holiday and a good year ahead.

What I Learned from Clint the Chimpanzee

Today, I opened the online magazine Aeon and found a new article on Clint the chimpanzee, entitled “The Pointing Ape” by a former colleague of mine, David Leavens.

Clint was a young male chimpanzee who lived in a cage at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta for the 24 years of his short life in captivity. He died in 2004.

Clint’s contributions to science were enormous: As Leavens acknowledges, he was the first chimpanzee to have his genome sequenced, and he participated in years of studies that revealed not only how chimpanzees use pointing as a form of referential communication, but how they use computers to complete cognitive tasks, how they employ gestures, and how they communicate.

As a young faculty member at Emory University in the 1990s, I had the honor of working with Clint for many months on the very same computer studies described in the Aeon article. And, yes, he pointed to all kinds of things: from the grapes he wanted … to the juice bottle I often carried around … and to my shoes. He loved shoes.

But his impact on me far exceeded our working together as research subject and investigator. Indeed, Clint taught me a lot more about our own species than about his.

Clint’s “enclosure” consisted of an indoor/outdoor barren cement room with grating on the front. He could stick his fingers through the grating, but that was all. He could climb on a shelf and interact with the two female chimpanzees he shared his cage with. He could also hear the other chimpanzee inmates down the row of cells at the Yerkes Main Station where I saw “caretakers” hosing down and yelling at chimpanzees who “acted up” and where, in the cell next to Clint, an older female chimpanzee who had been in solitary confinement experiments early on in her life sat and punched the side of her head incessantly. Insanity in an insane asylum, where 46 chimpanzees still remain.

Yet Clint managed to live there and still be an incredibly charming, engaged and intelligent being with the people in the white coats on the other side of the bars of the cage.

I told myself that someday I would work to get him out of there and into a sanctuary. But a few years later, when I revisited Yerkes, I discovered that this would no longer be possible. When I walked into a colleague’s lab and opened a cupboard, there sat a large glass jar with a brain floating in fluid. And the label on the jar was “Clint.” Was this the Clint, I asked? The Clint I had known and loved? And yes, I learned that his heart had failed. My own heart stopped, too. I ran into the parking lot, got into my car and cried. And I never returned to Yerkes after that day.

To me, the real story of Clint is not about whether he could point to a grape or use a computer. It is about the tragedy of his life and the lives of all the other great apes who are confined to cells for the purposes of research. In the end, that’s the only story that really matters.

I’m so glad that great apes are gradually being moved from research labs to sanctuaries thanks to new U.S. policies on the use of great apes in research. It came too late for Clint. But we can continue to work in his name for the rights of other animals to be the authors of their own destiny: elephants in zoos, whales in entertainment parks, tigers at roadside attractions, “dancing” bears on leashes.

Yes, Clint taught us many things about his own species, but most of all he taught us about our own species and about how we behave toward his and toward so many others.

Do Emotional Support Animals Need Emotional Support?

What does science tell us about the welfare of emotional support animals?

In 2018, a peacock named Dexter spent several hours perched atop a pile of luggage while waiting for a seat on a United Airlines flight. Dexter’s owner claimed he was an Emotional Support Animal or ESA.

The photo of his “dilemma” went viral as most people viewed this as a humorous, albeit preposterous, set of circumstances. And even more recently, a Missouri woman is fighting the law so that she can keep three monkeys in her home as emotional support animals to help her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A wide range of animals can be registered as ESAs, including pigs, ducks, hamsters, ferrets, monkeys and lizards and there are any number of organizations providing ways to register one’s pet as an ESA. In 2003, the Department of Transportation updated its policy regarding animals in air transportation to say that “animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional support” qualify as service animals. Therefore, many agencies lump ESAs into the same category as Service Animals (SAs). And the use of Emotional Support Animals has grown explosively over the past few years, with puppies and rabbits being used to calm the nerves of students taking tests and patients in medical waiting rooms as well as even customers in airports who are nervous about flying.

Unlike service animals, who are individually trained to perform a specific task for the benefit of an individual with a clear disability (like epileptic seizures and self-mutilating behaviors), emotional support animals are not required to have individual training for a specific task. They simply need to be there for “comfort.”

But while it may be comical and entertaining to see a pig or a lizard or a peacock in an airport or a capuchin monkey in diapers, the question one cannot avoid is “What are these animals doing there in the first place?” And from that, a wealth of welfare questions flow. Should an exotic animal be in an airport or a living room? Would any animal choose to be in that situation? Are there more humane ways for people to reduce anxiety?  Has this gone too far? And, what do ESAs tell us about our relationship with animals?

What does science tell us about the effectiveness of ESAs?

Let’s be clear: Scientific studies show that contact with animals can have nonspecific temporary and moderate effects on stress level, anxiety, depression, and blood pressure. But these same benefits can be achieved with other objects and interventions, such as a stuffed animal or a plant. The evidence says that a live animal is not needed for most situations, including animal-assisted therapy.

And there are clearly many other ways to achieve relaxation and reduce stress.  As the literature tells us, inanimate objects, blankets, conversation with another human being, cognitive-behavioral relaxation techniques and, yes, even medications, work.

Some may argue that while the effectiveness of a “generic” live animal for emotional support might be questionable, individuals who bring their ESAs on planes have a personal relationship with a specific individual animal and therefore the benefits are not objectively measurable. But what does it mean to say that one “needs” to have a pet along for the ride?

More to the point: How symmetrical is the relationship between an ESA and a human who claims to need him or her? While it may be all well and good for someone to feel more comfortable flying with their bird, the fact that the bird has apparently no opportunity to exercise his or her autonomy in the situation belies claims that the relationship is a mutually satisfying one.

Most emotional support animals are dogs (and some cats) and are therefore domesticated animals who co-evolved in the company of humans. From a welfare perspective, there are no circumstances under which one could argue that other kinds of animals – e.g., lizards, birds, pigs, or horses – would be better off on a plane or in an airline terminal than in a natural setting suited to the animal’s adaptive nature and needs. It is inarguable that it is much more difficult to meet the needs of wild animals in any captive situation than a dog or cat. Watching the videos of the woman with the three monkeys, one can see numerous manifestations of extreme stress on the part of the monkeys: yawning, pacing, thumb-sucking, etc. Non-domesticated animals are spectacularly unsuited to being ESAs.

So, the welfare issues for dogs as emotional support animals may not be as extreme as those for wild animals, who have not evolved to be in a close interdependent relationship with humans, let alone flying through the air at 36,000 feet in cramped quarters! But one can legitimately ask whether even dogs who are used as Emotional Support Animals are adversely affected by the demands made upon them.  While there is much attention given to how animals are useful to humans, there is very little attention given to the issue of “support”, “service” and “therapy” animal welfare from the animal’s point of view.

The long history of co-evolution between dogs and humans has ensured that dogs are highly receptive to our emotions and often absorb them. Therefore, it is concerning that there is growing evidence that negative human emotional states can produce a matching emotional state in dogs. One study using measures of the stress hormone cortisol as a proxy for anxiety level showed that anxious and nervous dog owners seem to have tense and nervous dogs. Also, in this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism on personality tests had dogs who were less able to modulate pressure and stress than owners who scored lower on neuroticism. Another study showed that long term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners.

Therefore, it is not an unreasonable concern to think that if an anxious person has a dog as an emotional support animal, the dog may be in jeopardy of being made anxious in this role. And it would also not be unreasonable to find that other emotional states, such as depression, may “flow down the leash” as well. Of course, everyone gets anxious and depressed at times, but the fact that these animals are forced to be in close contact with someone precisely because they are emotionally unstable gives one pause. One might ask at what point do the emotional support animals need emotional support themselves?

Animals as Objects

What does the use of animals as ESAs tell us about our relationship with them? This is not to imply that owners of ESAs do not have affection and concern for their animals, even exotic pets. These situations are multi-dimensional. But once other animals are given a label and constricted into a role, then the relationship moves from one of companionship into the very troubling territory of instrumentalism. They are objectified and vulnerable to exploitation—as tools, resources, entertainers, models of disease, and even healers—and the needs of the animals recede into the background against the self-interested exertions of our own species.  Conveniently, objects don’t have feelings and do not require emotional support.

So, in answer to the question of whether the use of Emotional Support Animals reflects our continued lack of recognition that animals have their own emotional needs, I suggest the answer is yes. As the neighbor of the Missouri woman said when he was interviewed about her ESA monkeys: “These are wild animals. They belong in a zoo.”

* Marino, L. (2012). Construct validity of animal-assisted therapy and activities: How important is the animal in AAT?. Anthrozoös, 25(sup1), s139-s151
* Schöberl, I., Wedl, M., Beetz, A., & Kotrschal, K. (2017). Psychobiological factors affecting cortisol variability in human-dog dyads. PloS One, 12(2), e0170707.
* Sundman, A. S., Van Poucke, E., Holm, A. C. S., Faresjö, Å., Theodorsson, E., Jensen, P., & Roth, L. S. (2019). Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. Scientific reports, 9(1), 7391.

2018: What We Did

Thank you so much for your support of the Kimmela Center this year. Our mission is to apply the best science to the work of animal protection, and here are some of the highlights you made possible this year through your tax-deductible donations.

The Someone Project

Gary the calf playing in the fields of Farm Sanctuary’s New York Shelter. Photo from Farm Sanctuary

This joint Kimmela Center / Farm Sanctuary venture brings together the best scientific evidence for cognitive, emotional and social complexity in farmed animals.

This year Dr. Deb Merskin of Univ. of Oregon and I completed and submitted a paper entitled Sharp Sheep: Intelligence, Complexity, and Individuality in Ovis Aries  to a major peer-reviewed journal, and we are working on the white paper to be published in early 2019.

We look forward to announcing the paper’s publication so that you can enjoy and learn about the complex inner minds of sheep.

And check out our most recent publication The Psychology of Cows to learn more about these interesting animals who are known for their strong maternal bonds.

Scholar Advocacy Shines at Superpod 6

Students from the group Heirs to the Oceans at the Superpod 6 conference.

Superpod 6 is a biennial gathering on San Juan Island, off the coast of Seattle, of scientists, advocates and students who are concerned about marine mammals and the oceans. Part of the conference is devoted to presentations by young scholar advocates and is organized by the Kimmela Center.

This year’s scholar-advocacy session included full presentations by students as young as 11 years old, all presenting their original work.

Check out these excellent talks.


At venues from coast to coast across the U.S. and Canada, my presentations and other outreaches to the public, academics, students and policy makers have focused on the scientific evidence for intelligence, self-awareness and emotional complexity in dolphins and whales and farmed animals.

At the University of Montreal at Quebec, I gave a talk on “Who Are Dolphins?”:

Also at the University of Montreal at Quebec, I spoke on “The Inconvenient Truth about Thinking Chickens”:

And at the University of Denver, on “Dolphin and whale brains: a challenge for primate-centered views of intelligence”:

TEDx at The Nueva School

As part of our outreach to students and promotion of scholar advocacy, I gave a TEDx talk at The Nueva School in California where I was able to share with the students and their parents how I became a scholar advocate for the animals. I recounted how my scientific work led me to understand who dolphins and whales are and why they fare so poorly in entertainment parks.

I left the students with the message that when they see something they want to change, they should never take no for an answer. It was a rewarding experience to meet such talented and passionate representatives of the future.

Canadian Bill S-203

It has taken almost three years, but finally, in October, the Canadian Senate passed Bill S-203, which would end cetacean captivity in Canada.

Our involvement with this bill began in 2016, when members of the Kimmela team presented scientific evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on the intelligence, social needs and welfare requirements of whales and dolphins. After that, we continued to work closely with senators to counter misinformation that was being presented by advocates for the marine park entertainment industry.

The bill is now in the House, and we are again working closely with its sponsors. I look forward to a time when no whales or dolphins will be performing tricks for misinformed audiences.

Your tax-deductible donation, large or small, will greatly help us to succeed in our mission to use the power of science to bring an end to the abuse and exploitation of nonhuman animals.

Thank you again and a very Happy New Year!

Lori Marino
Executive Director
The Kimmela Center