On the Frontiers of Animal Research: A Conversation with Virginia Morell

By Richard HertzbergMarch 27, 2014

On the Frontiers of Animal Research: A Conversation with Virginia Morell

WRITER VIRGINIA MORELL has been on the road. Although she lives in Ashland, Oregon, over the last few years Morell has traveled a long and winding road through various states in the US, as well as through Australia, Austria, Costa Rica, England, Hungary, Japan, Kenya, and Venezuela, gathering material for her latest book, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures. Through her peripatetic research she has sought out scientists who are investigating and documenting the existence of both cognition and feelings in animals from blue jays to chimpanzees, crows, dogs, dolphins, elephants, fish, insects, parrots, rats, wolves. Her wanderlust was not in vain. Morell documented some astounding findings.

Along with many more fascinating studies, there is Nigel Franks (University of Bristol, England) who examined organization and interaction among rock ants, which are smaller than a hyphen on your computer keyboard. In a lab setting, he deliberately destroyed their home nest while simultaneously constructing another one. Certain members of the ant colony then navigated a route to the new site, investigated it, engaged in extensive touching and gesturing with each other, returned to the main group of ants, then guided each ant to the approved destination by teaching them the route.

Then there is Stefan Schuster (University of Bayreuth, Germany) who focused on what he concluded were complex cognitive decisions made by archerfish, which get prey from the non-water environment by directing a laser-like stream of water from their mouths even while viewing the target from their vantage point under water! Careful observation by Schuster revealed there was not one kind of “water shot” from the fish but several forms of this weapon. They varied in intensity, thickness, and speed according to the type and size of prey, distance, foliage, height, and angle. The archerfish adjusted their deadly water laser according to the environmental circumstances presented by the prey. Retrieving the prey also entails consideration of several factors and the fish are strategic in this regard as well, anticipating the spot it will fall to instantly after releasing their water weapon.

Karen McComb (University of Sussex, England) saw many indicators of cognition and emotion while following elephants in the wild. Using their trunks, they break off twigs and branches to use as tools to scratch spots difficult to reach otherwise. Elephants group themselves together to form a protective shield against perceived danger, and to keep their vulnerable youngsters from harm. When related or friendly groups of elephants meet up with each other they exhibit joy and exuberance through ear and trunk displays. McComb documented memory in elephants — expressing a confluence of behavior, cognition, and emotion —when they responded to calls and sounds from recently and long departed family members that she had recorded. She also viewed, as have others, the concern and tenderness elephants show in the presence of one who is dying or dead, or when they try to help one that is in trouble or injured.

Animal Wise contains many other similar accounts of the wonderful, and humbling, variety of animal intentionality and emotiveness. In a long and thoughtful Introduction (26 pages!), Morell presents a broader context for these accounts by discussing contrasting human views of animals. These range from the utterly robotic and mechanical to the emerging science of ethology, which posits that evidence from studying animal behavior in the real world and laboratories establishes that animals do indeed experience cognitive processes and emotional states. What’s more, research on the brains of humans and animals shows many structural, chemical, and biological commonalities. Not unexpectedly, Morell pays homage to Charles Darwin as a pioneer who had a very inclusive notion of evolution:

Animals were not machines or automatons, he argued, but biological organisms that had evolved (and were evolving) in response to natural pressures and changing conditions on Earth. By animals, he meant humans, too. Lumping humans with all other animals was a shocking statement because it meant that we were not specially created. We shared anatomical, physiological, and psychological similarities with animals because, Darwin explained, we were descended from other animals […] Darwin readily attributed emotions to many species, including lizards, birds, cats, dogs, horses, monkeys, and apes, and wrote of them as beings with rich and complex mental lives. In his writings, animals have motives, intentions, and desires; they do not “seem” to do things — they do things.

Animal Wise was named one of the Best Books of 2013 on Nature and the Environment by Kirkus Reviews, the influential magazine that has covered the publishing industry for 80 years. Animal Wise was also chosen by a panel from the American Library Association (ALA) as one of 25 selections for their 2014 Notable Books List, and is a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist in Science & Technology. These awards came after Morell had previously written three other books — Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings; Blue Nile: Ethiopia’s River of Magic and Mystery; and Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures, with Richard Leakey. The paperback edition of Animal Wise was released on March 25th with a different subtitle — “How We Know Animals Think and Feel.”

The Kirkus Reviews and ALA recognitions were significant personal milestones for Virginia Morell as well, whose career of over 30 years includes being a correspondent for Science magazine and a regular contributor to National Geographic. With these achievements in mind it seemed like a good point for an interview with Morell to reflect on the highlights of her journey thus far, to discuss the development of Animal Wise, and to consider some of the broader issues related to human-animal relationships the book raises.


RICHARD HERTZBERG: Your writing covers several areas and concerns — adventure travel, scientific inquiry, human evolution, environmental protection, animal rights, habitat preservation. What factors from your background and education led to these interests and wanting to write about them?

VIRGINIA MORELL: My parents played a big part in setting the stage for who I was to become and what my passions would be. No surprise there, I guess, because that’s probably the case for most of us. They were an adventuresome couple and liked getting out of the house on a regular basis to explore some aspect of nature, mainly in the Western states. There weren’t really favorite places — the point was to be outdoors. That was my classroom. Weekends, vacations, we would be camping, hiking, just wandering often in the deserts of southern California and Nevada.

I picked up their enthusiasm for the ecology and animals in the places we visited. I read about them before, during, and after our trips. My fascination with animals came from observing them, seeing how they reacted to our presence, the sounds they made, their gestures and interactions. Of course I had lots of questions about these behaviors and few answers. So I started writing stories explaining to myself what I was seeing. These came from my imagination of course, but they were a way of making sense of it all at the time.

RH: The time spent with Jane Goodall during a 1985 trip in Tanzania was apparently transformative for you by bringing the realm of human — animal communication/interaction up close and personal. What happened there and was this a turning point?

VM: It certainly was. I was able to spend some time with her at Gombe Stream National Park, which is the center of her efforts to study chimpanzees in the wild. I was actually working on my first book, Ancestral Passions. Louis Leakey had encouraged and supported Jane’s interest with chimps, so interviewing her gave me the chance to explore two mutually favorite subjects: chimpanzees and Louis. The Leakeys, of course, discovered many of the fossils of our human ancestors. They were able to show that the fossils supported Darwin’s thoughts on human evolution.

So while at Gombe, I naturally took the opportunity to go with Jane and her associates to see chimps being chimps. Aside from their physical similarity to humans, I don’t think I was really prepared for what else I saw. Like how they acted towards each other — the playing, bullying, rivalries, moments of tenderness, manipulations, embraces, and, in the youngsters, plain silliness. Their actions and expressions were extremely humanlike, and in some cases reminded me of people I know. The range and complexity of their outward behavior and communications suggested that they had a rich mental life — both cognitive and emotional. What I witnessed could not be explained by simplistic notions of “instinct” or “stimulus-response” that reduced the chimpanzees to mindless automatons.

I shared my impressions with Jane and she agreed, but said it was difficult to say such things in print. She was cautious at that point about stating outright in her scientific publications that chimps had the cognitive ability to strategize, problem solve, or make decisions. Or that they felt feelings and emotions such as sadness, joy, satisfaction, rejection, loss, intimacy, or love. But she clearly thought that was the case; she just had to be careful how she worded what she observed so that she would not be accused of anthropomorphizing — making the chimpanzees sound like humans dressed in fur. Remember, this was many years ago when there still was strong resistance to attributing such characteristics to animals, even ones so “human” as chimps. Jane also thought the field of animal cognition research was changing, and that researchers were finding ways to investigate animals’ inner lives.

I came away from that experience with many questions about people-animal relationships, especially with those most familiar to us — dogs and cats. I was curious about how we engage with them mentally and emotionally, and the history of these bonds. I doubt we would have dogs and cats in our lives if we could not form bonds with them that we find significant and meaningful.

So these experiences and questions, and Jane’s suggestion that the field was changing, pushed me to learn more about the field of animal cognition, and to look for scientists who were taking new, pioneering approaches to studying animals — and who took seriously the possibility that they had minds and experienced emotions.

RH: Some might say the scientists you profile in Animal Wise are guilty of “anthropomorphism,” that is, projecting their own ideas, thoughts, feelings on to and into the animals they study. What are your views on this topic?

VM: Actually, no one — including none of the people (and some were scientists) who’ve reviewed my book — have raised that issue. Certainly, it’s not possible to be entirely objective about everything all the time. But all of the scientists I interviewed for Animal Wise are acutely aware of the dilemma of anthropomorphism. The antidote to this is for the scientists to practice a kind of rigorous self-consciousness, to be disciplined and systematic in their research methodology, and to faithfully record and document observational evidence. This applies to both working in the natural world and in the lab with structured experiments. You never rely, of course, on just one event as the source of your conclusions, but you repeat and then modify the methodology over time to see what results are the most consistent, the most definitive in determining the presence of cognitive processes and emotional states in animals.

RH: “Pet ownership,” primarily of dogs and cats, is booming in the US. What connection(s) do you see, if any, between this trend and the growing scientific research discussed in Animal Wise about the wide range of cognitive abilities and emotional states many animals manifest in their behavior?

VM: We humans are social creatures and we want to be among other thinking, feeling beings, so we are responsive to other animals and they to us — especially those we’ve domesticated. The psychological benefits to humans of having animals in our daily lives are by now very well established. They unite us, entertain us, calm us down, accept us, touch us (literally and emotionally). Cats, dogs, llamas, horses, birds and other animals are used in rehabilitation programs for youthful offenders and hard-core criminals. They are used to brighten the lives of aging seniors who are physically confined or restricted. Animals give us comfort and stability, especially in times of stress. Through animals we are able to reconnect with nature in the largest sense, and in the process with our own nature.

RH: What would you identify as some of the other key stages in your career?

VM: Looking back now it’s clear that being in an office most of the time was not going to satisfy me. I wanted to be out in the world, and having pretty adventuresome parents set me up to look for ways to combine travel, science, and writing. I had a master’s degree in English literature from McGill University (Montreal, Canada) but had also developed a strong interest in the history of early humans, where they had lived and what the evidence was for their presence. This might have been partly inspired by some of our family trips; my parents liked roaming the desert areas of the Southwest looking for rocks and animal fossils, so in retrospect there is clearly a connection there.

After finishing my master’s in 1973, I decided to take a break from academia and travel. I had friends from Ethiopia who told me that their country always needed English teachers. I did some background reading about the country, and decided that was where I would go. My friends also contacted their parents, and arranged for me to stay with them initially. When I arrived, one of their very kind mothers took me to Haile Selassie I University to apply for a position — and to my surprise I was hired as a junior lecturer in the English department. I loved my time there; my students were wonderful. And there were other Americans and Westerners at the university and in Addis Ababa, and we often traveled outside the city to hike and explore the country’s rich historical sites. But Ethiopians were increasingly unhappy with their Emperor, and he was overthrown in a military coup in 1974 and died in 1975. I lived through the revolution and stayed on at the university until 1976 — one of the hardest, most educational and emotional times of my life.

After returning to the US, I worked for a while at a computer company, while also studying for a degree in Environmental Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. But I knew enough about myself that I doubted I would be able to write environmental impact reports all day. From my travels and experiences in Ethiopia, I’d gained the confidence to handle being off the beaten path, so with a friend, I took a backpacking trip from Cuzco to Machu Picchu in Peru. Then I wrote a news story about our trip, and sent it to the travel section at the Los Angeles Times — and to my surprise they published it. That was encouraging, and I started writing travel pieces for the Times and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

By the early 1980s I’d left the computer industry and was pursuing a career as a writer, focusing on travel/adventure and natural history articles. I published in Outside and Backpacker magazines and Equinox, a Canadian environmental journal (now defunct). Equinox was really instrumental in launching me on the path to writing books. I heard that Richard Leakey was going to be speaking at UC Davis, close to where we lived, and interviewed him for Equinox. He was surprisingly easy to talk to, and of course a fascinating person. I suggested that he would be a good subject for an in-depth profile, and my editor at Equinox agreed. And they sent me to Kenya for two weeks in 1984.

My time with Richard Leakey in Kenya was actually the foundation for my first book, Ancestral Passions, which Simon & Schuster published in 1995. Of course in between were 10 years of hard work — not only researching and writing the book but many other articles as well to survive financially. Ancestral Passions received numerous glowing reviews, including being honored as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was noticed by the editors at National Geographic magazine, who invited me to write for the magazine.

RH: While Animal Wise relates scientific discoveries so that lay readers can comprehend and appreciate them, you do not avoid the inevitable ethical and moral implications of these discoveries. For example, in speaking of animals you say on page 73, “They cannot argue for their rights or how they might best be treated or farmed or managed in the wild. Most animals have no voice that we can hear, unless we speak up for them.”

There are other similar comments in the book, restrained but pointed. However, Animal Wise is not a political manifesto presenting a call to action or a specific advocacy agenda. Was this deliberate on your part and if so why? How do you see your role, and the role of the scientific research presented in Animal Wise, in promoting “equal rights for animals” and the causes of animal and habitat preservation?

VM: There are many people and organizations working in the political arena on behalf of animals and their habitats, and for other social and environmental causes to try to control and manage human impacts throughout the world. Animal Wise is about the scientific evidence that supports the recognition and acceptance of the cognitive and emotional natures of animals. That consciousness, intelligence, thinking, emotions, are part of being alive for humans and other animals. Should human needs and desires automatically prevail over those of other species? It’s not an easy question to answer, and one I don’t have a ready answer for. I see my role as more of a translator, an agent of transmission, bringing to light the scientific discoveries and knowledge that might lead us to reconsider and change our behavior toward animals. So of course the science has ethical, moral and political dimensions, and the questions or remarks I periodically offer in the book make that link.

I see animal rights and habitat preservation as being connected to other efforts and initiatives around the world to protect the environment and conserve resources. They’re all part of what could be put under the banner of a more balanced, sustainable human presence on Earth.

RH: What is the overall purpose of Animal Wise, what main conclusions were you hoping or intending readers would reach?

VM: Several things really. I wanted to reveal something about the scientists who are investigating animal cognition and emotion, to show their personalities, backgrounds, and what led them to devote their lives to studying the mind of a particular species of animal. Most of the scientists I write about are not famous individuals so it was an opportunity to share their research, to let people know what they are doing, and how they are making new discoveries about the minds of other animals. And to give them some recognition as well, because they are truly expanding our understanding of the animal world, while at the same time showing us how shallow that understanding has been.

When you consider their results overall, it’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that other animals think and feel. This includes the pets we have, and domesticated and wild animals. They have active minds and experience feelings.

The idea that we are special and at the top of a hierarchy of animals just doesn’t fit with what scientists now know. There isn’t a tree of life; it’s more like a bush. Humans are at the end of one of the branches on the bush.

It’s often said — even by some scientists — that there is a cognitive chasm between us and other animals. The researchers in my book are helping to close this chasm, to show us there is not as great a gap between us and the other animals. I think Darwin put it best: the differences between humans and other animals are “one of degree, not of kind.” There really isn’t any evidence for assuming that other animals are not cognitive, feeling creatures. The discoveries reported in my book show that indeed they are, and that we humans are part of a continuum of life. The scientific experiments and observations in Animal Wise are also supported by neurobiological research showing how similar our brains are to those of other animals. Ours are more complex, but at a fundamental level there are important similarities that give animals the ability to experience the world, make decisions, and do things intentionally.

I also wanted to pose provocative and challenging thoughts about the relationship between humans and animals. Since humans arrived comparatively late evolutionarily, perhaps what the findings in Animal Wise mean is not that we are discovering how much like us other animals are but the reverse — how much like them we are. Rather than supporting a kind of biological exceptionalism for humans, Animal Wise is about continuity and kinship between people and the animals whose fate we now, for better or worse, control.


Richard Hertzberg is an environmental consultant and photojournalist based in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

LARB Contributor

Richard Hertzberg is an environmental consultant and photojournalist based in Lake Oswego, Oregon.


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