Welfare and the (re)opening of doors to wonder
The aquatic ecologist at Yosemite National Park is a bonafide herpetologist and accepted world expert on Yosemite toads (Anaxyrus canorus), the species on which my current research focuses. He did his master’s research on Yosemite toad populations in the Tioga Pass area and has since compiled a massive dataset on toad distributions throughout the park. Despite this deep history with the threatened animals, he confessed to me one day early in my project that there was still little insight into what characteristics defined a healthy toad population, and that struck me. The topic of wildlife health has since held a firm grip on my thinking.
Asking what makes a healthy toad population – whether it is the quality and amount of breeding habitat, the annual precipitation and temperature metrics, the food availability, or something completely different – evokes a more fundamental question of what ‘health’ means in the context of wild animals. First, we can acknowledge that there are multiple scales at which to assess health. We can think of health in terms of the population, which ecologists arguably prefer, or health in terms of the individual. Welfare scientists are more attuned to individual-based health.
The topic of animal welfare may be a frontier of sorts in ecology. Ecologists typically avoid ambiguous topics such as the subjective experiences and ‘quality of life’ of animals that animal welfare researchers seek to understand. I have been in the camp of ecologists who doubted the merits of the field. And yet, my studies of animal behavior and extensive interaction with animals have fueled a curiosity in me about the mental and emotional states of animals.
Embracing the topic of welfare, my lens for observing animals is widening. Last evening, I was lounging on my sofa next to Capo, my family dog and aged pitbull of 15 years, and gazed at his sleeping body with an awe and wonder at what was going on inside in his mind. He appeared to be dreaming. What do dogs dream about? More broadly, through what mental states does this creature pass, and is there overlap with human mental states? These abstract questions, which are surely not uncommon among pet owners, were stronger in me when I was younger. Science, with all its great benefits to my intellectual development, has also demanded a sacrifice in certain philosophical thinking modes, in the name of quantitative methods. Opening myself to animal welfare science reacquaints me with philosophical thoughts that arose more frequently in my youth. I am reminded of a statement that I once clipped out of a New Yorker article and continue to revisit periodically: “To answer the questions that philosophy asks, a long detour through science is necessary, but at the beginning and the end of the journey, we find the same sense of wonder”. Pursuing a new integration of ecology and animal welfare challenges me to apply my hard-science background in ecology to consider less tangible elements of organismal biology – mental states and healthspan, for example – that traditionally have been ignored by the field. In taking on this challenge, my sense of wonder is being revived.
Adam Kirsh. Are We Really So Modern? New Yorker, Sept. 5, 2016 issue.