The Line Becomes Finer … A Post Script

While doing research for my next post, I came across the website of Neurovigil, Inc., the company developing the iBrain (my next post will be pretty exciting, guys–exciting and/or terrifying). On their site, they link to a July 2014 article in the New York Times called “Zoo Animals and Their Discontents.” As it’s so perfectly related to my most recent post, I can’t help but to share it. Here’s an excerpt:

The notion that animals think and feel may be rampant among pet owners, but it makes all kinds of scientific types uncomfortable. “If you ask my colleagues whether animals have emotions and thoughts,” says Philip Low, a prominent computational neuroscientist, “many will drop their voices to a whisper or simply change the subject. They don’t want to touch it.” Jaak Panksepp, a professor at Washington State University, has studied the emotional responses of rats. “Once, not very long ago,” he said, “you couldn’t even talk about these things with colleagues.”

That may be changing. A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence. In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness. Scientists, as a rule, don’t issue declarations. But Low claims that the new research, and the ripples of unease it has engendered among rank-and-file colleagues, demanded an emphatic gesture. “Afterward, an eminent neuroanatomist came up to me and said, ‘We were all thinking this, but were afraid to say it,’ ” Low recalled.

The article also details the work of animal behaviorist Dr. Vint Virga, who reminds me in many ways of Hagrid from Harry Potter, despite being short and completely devoid of facial hair.

Zoos contact Virga when animals develop difficulties that vets and keepers cannot address, and he is expected to produce tangible, observable results. Often, the animals suffer from afflictions that haven’t been documented in the wild and appear uncomfortably close to our own: He has treated severely depressed snow leopards, brown bears with obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobic zebras. “Scientists often say that we don’t know what animals feel because they can’t speak to us and can’t report their inner states,” Virga told me. “But the thing is, they are reporting their inner states. We’re just not listening.”

The article’s author, Alex Halberstadt, was fortunate to visit Virga’s home one day. When pulling into the driveway, Virga stopped suddenly because a frog halfway down a snake’s throat was impeding the route to the garage. He immediately called his wife to warn her so she wouldn’t run them over when she returned home.

This article is beautiful, and long, and completely worth 10-15 minutes of your time. Cozy up in an armchair with a glass of wine and read about Libby the bitchy Barbary sheep, Sukari the anxious giraffe, a mortally apathetic clouded leopard, and many more relatably flawed yet beautiful non-human individuals. Of Sukari, Halberstadt writes:

Standing eye to eye with a giraffe is weirdly peaceful. The creature is so unlike us in its particulars and scale, yet so deliberate in its design. It’s comforting not to be at the center of creation. Sukari chewed the leaves gamely, working her jaws with real gourmandise. And then her eye strayed toward the ceiling, and she quit chewing and slightly turned her head. No sound or movement had distracted her. For a span of some seconds, her eyes grew unfocused and rested upon no tangible object, and an expression crossed her distracted face that could only be a passing thought. Or so it looked to me.

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