2013 – The Year of the Nonhuman Person

Happy New Year, readers! Like you, I am hoping for a year of progress for all nonhuman animals. It will be momentous for at least one reason: This year, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) will go to court to establish legal personhood for someone of another species – an elephant, dolphin or whale, chimpanzee or other great ape. And Kimmela continues to work closely with the NhRP to provide the scientific evidence and expertise crucial to their legal arguments that will bring one of these individuals to “legal life,” as NhRP President Steve Wise describes it.

Only after you’re recognized by the courts as being a “legal person” can you have the capacity to possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty. So let’s take a look at what it would mean for a nonhuman animal to be recognized as a person, and at what we mean by the right to bodily integrity and bodily liberty.

These fundamental rights are immunities against the most basic forms of harm. They include the freedom to live in one’s natural environment and not be captured and/or confined; the right to not be used, manipulated or experimented upon; and, of course, the right to not be killed. Asusbrechunres .

These very fundamental rights would protect first one and then many elephants, dolphins, and great apes (at least in this country) from being exploited and harmed in zoos and circuses, in military exercises, in laboratories, and, of course, in fisheries and slaughters.

Only after you’re recognized by the courts as being a “legal person” can you have the capacity to possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.The concept of legal personhood for nonhumans is so new to many people that they often get confused and think you’re talking about human rights. But human rights are, by definition, for humans. Other animals need to be recognized as having rights that are specific to their species. Experts in personhood often equate rights with basic needs – what we need at a basic level in order to thrive. An elephant, for example, has the basic need, and therefore the right, to live her life as part of a family group in her natural habitat.

But before anyone, human or otherwise, can be recognized as having rights, they have to be recognized legally as a “person” with the capacity for a legal right. And that’s what the NhRP lawsuits will be setting out to accomplish. It’s all about giving other animals what they should have in the first place: a chance to live their lives unburdened by our exploitation. Such a small thing is such a big thing for them.

It seems so obvious to most of us that all animals have the need, and therefore the right, to live their lives in a natural setting unfettered by human manipulation and abuse. Kimmela’s work with the NhRP focuses on taking the first steps in accomplishing this in relation to those animals for whom the scientific evidence is abundant in terms of their intelligence, emotional sensitivity and social complexity.

This year, 2013, is the beginning of a process that will involve many lawsuits and appeals in courts all across the country. Some we will win and some we will lose. But in every case, the effort will be groundbreaking. And it seems that others agree. According to the magazine Popular Science, the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project will be one of the top science stories of 2013.

Perhaps, in the future, we will look back on this year as having been the year of the nonhuman person. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, sometime down the road, an elephant, dolphin or great ape graces the cover of Time magazine as their Person of the Year!

Compassionate Conservation Needs to Be Based on Rights

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On November 29-30 I joined an international group of conservation biologists and animal welfare experts for a landmark workshop at the Royal Geographical Society in London hosted by the Born Free Foundation. Born Free is an international wildlife charity working to end animal suffering and protect threatened species in the wild. They recently made headlines with their successful rehabilitation and release of two captive bottlenose dolphins, Tom and Misha, into the Eastern Mediterranean

The purpose of the meeting, led by Born Free CEO Will Travers and Senior Scientific Researcher Chris Draper, was to explore how to integrate individual animal welfare concerns into global conservation efforts – a new approach called compassionate conservation. In today’s world, that’s quite a mission.

Compassionate conservation is getting a lot of attention as more and more people are seeing that conventional conservation practices, which focus on population and species-level viability analyses, are missing a critical component: regard for the individual animal. Scientific evidence shows that humans are not the only individuals who are autonomous and socially complex with strong family ties and cultural traditions. So, invasive interventions like culling, translocation, habitat restriction and “sustainable harvesting” almost always create more problems than they solve because these practices destroy cultures, social networks, families, psychological development of individual animals and the very lives of the animals they seek to protect.

Although all the participants were driven by a common goal of protecting the lives of other animals, the discussion quickly grew into a lively debate about one central issue: welfare versus rights. On the one hand, many of the conservationists argued for minimizing harm to other animals in conservation practices but contended that highly invasive methods, such as culling, cannot be excluded. Others of us argued for a much greater shift towards a rights-based conservation paradigm. We pointed out that welfare measures, such as the Animal Welfare Act, which is supposed to cover animals used in research, factory farms, and other exploitive industries do little to protect animals from suffering and abuse. Welfare is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough.

If we are to take seriously the scientific evidence that many other animals are cognitively and emotionally complex, autonomous individuals, we must move toward a conservation paradigm that respects the right of other animals to thrive. This means that practices such as culling and translocation without regard for social networks must be phased out and a new perspective, based upon recognition of their individual lives, societies and cultures must replace them. It means that the basic needs of other animals must be given priority over the nonessential desires of humans, and that when there is a conflict of basic needs, the process must involve negotiation rather than “management”. Human behavioral change becomes an integral part of the process and success is measured not just by numbers but whether there is human and nonhuman thriving.

The shift in perspective for compassionate conservation is not going to be accomplished overnight, but it will be long-lasting and better for everyone involved when it does occur.

Meat-Eating is Not Sustainable at Any Level

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No one, by now, is unaware of the impassioned controversy over two oxen, Bill and Lou, and the broader issue of meat-eating that their situation has brought to the fore. Green Mountain College (GMC), where Lou and Bill tilled the fields for ten years, publicly announced that they would slaughter them and serve them in the dining hall, claiming that this action teaches “sustainable farming”. But, they ran into a problem. Animal advocates and many others responded to this morally questionable decision and no slaughterhouse was willing to brave the glare of the controversy. GMC ended up killing Lou in the middle of the night and burying his body, claiming that the medication they gave him for an injured leg made it impossible to serve his meat. Bill remains subject to an uncertain future while remaining on the farm.

The fact is that GMC has yet to provide a substantive reason why killing and eating Bill and Lou would be a lesson in sustainability. In my view, meat eating is a lesson in unsustainability at both the moral and scientific level.

Meeting the GMC argument on its own terms, the science tells us there is absolutely nothing sustainable about meat-eating. From a crop yield point of view, meat-eating simply does not make sense. Instead of growing crops to feed Bill and Lou and then eating Bill and Lou those same crops can yield a great deal more by directly being eaten by humans. The equation is simple and meat-eating is untenable as a sustainable practice.

Furthermore, GMC has decided to ignore the substantial body of scientific evidence that demonstrates other animals are emotionally and cognitively complex beings capable of great suffering. Lou was betrayed in the worst possible way. And now Bill is clearly showing signs of grieving for his friend Lou. Instead of being educational GMC’s decision has caused tremendous suffering.

Finally, GMC teaches their students that so-called sustainability equates with lack of compassion, betrayal and continuing down old unsuccessful paths. But GMC does not see the dangerous self-perpetuating logic in this objective. The reason the planet and all of its inhabitants are in such a desperate state is because our species has continued to exploit everyone and everything without compassion. Killing other animals reinforces that insensitivity and the very attitudes that have led to global destruction. We are currently facing the sixth mass extinction event, human overpopulation and starvation, and devastating planetary destruction from rampant ecological exploitation and climate change. The same insensitivity that leads to lack of concern for Bill and Lou as individuals has led us to the brink of global devastation. They are intimately related and anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous. Every individual currently in factory farms is Bill and Lou and factory farms are not only engines of unspeakable suffering for the luxury wants of our species but are contributing substantially to global warming.

In their many public relations efforts to the public, GMC wanted to convince others that they were being bullied by extremist animal rights groups. I have seen no evidence of this. Two legitimate animal sanctuaries, VINE and Farm Sanctuary, offered to take Bill and Lou and provide them with a decent life – free of charge. And there were other offers too. GMC was unresponsive to all of them. leonaobrienfup44.blogspot.com GMC rejected all reasonable requests to discuss the matter.

GMC has it all wrong. Sustainability is not about using up resources and killing others. It is about having a sustainable ethic of living.

The Georgia Aquarium Plays the Education Card … Again

Last week the Orlando Sentinel published an article on the very contentious issue of The Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld and other aquariums trying to import wild-caught beluga whales for public display.

There has been a lot of focus on the Georgia Aquarium because it is the hub of this effort, but I am glad to see that attention and criticism is also being turned to SeaWorld and the other players in this exploit.

Yesterday, the New York Times published a piece on the strong opposition to the import application which featured objections from the scientific community, including myself and my colleague, Hal Whitehead, and even criticism of taking whales from the wild from Robert Michaud, the scientist who was hired by the Georgia Aquarium to coordinate research into the beluga populations in the Sea of Okhotsk.

There is no evidence that public displays of dolphins and whales are educational in any sense of the word.

This is the first time since 1993 that a U.S. marine park has sought to acquire wild-caught whales for public display. When asked to justify this major change in policy, the Georgia Aquarium replied that it is “to promote conservation and education.” They play the education card regularly because the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires public displays of marine mammals to be educational. They also know that education is an unassailable objective, so all zoos, marine parks and aquariums pay lip service to it.

My analyses of the educational claims of the marine mammal captivity industry and specific claims made by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are quite well-known by now. You can read my co-authored article “Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors?” here. In a nutshell, there is absolutely no evidence that public displays of dolphins and whales (or other animals) are educational in any sense of the word.

Saying that something is educational is not the same as something actually being educational. And this was the focus of my testimony to Congress at the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife in 2010 on the educational claims of the marine mammal captivity industry.

In my testimony, I questioned whether the marine mammal captivity industry is meeting the educational requirements of the MMPA and argued that in order for any program to meet even minimum standards for education or conservation, two straightforward criteria must be met:

First, the information provided about the animals on display and their natural history, biology, behavior and conservation status must be accurate. Second, there must be evidence, based on valid outcome measures, that visits to these facilities serve an educational or conservation purpose.

To address the accuracy question, I evaluated the online public information provided by three major organizations – the AZA, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, and SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. These three organizations collectively represent more than 60 percent of the zoos and aquariums in the U.S. holding marine mammals on public display.

These organizations do not meet even the minimal standard that information supplied to the public must be accurate.I found that these organizations misrepresented information about the welfare and intelligence of marine mammals with boldly inaccurate assertions and biased half-truths. Their claims that marine mammals live longer in captivity than in the wild, that dolphins are average in intelligence, and that marine mammals do not become stressed in captivity are examples of the incorrect information they feed to the public to present a benign picture of marine mammal captivity. Therefore, with regard to the first criterion, these organizations do not meet even the minimal standard that information supplied to the public must be accurate.

As to the question of whether there are any objective outcome measures that demonstrate learning and attitude change in visitors to marine mammal displays, I found absolutely no evidence to support this claim. The marine mammal captivity industry depends on dubious studies and irrelevant visitor polls to make their claims. The one peer-reviewed study published by the AZA was deeply flawed and could not provide any support for the education claim.

My general conclusion from all the available evidence was that the marine mammal captivity industry has fallen far short of their obligation to educate the public. (My full testimony is here, and you can view the video of the full session here.)

On October 12th I will be presenting these conclusions at the public hearing to be held by NOAA at the Silver Spring Metro Center Complex, NOAA Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Why Kimmela

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.