Posts Tagged animals

Do Animals Have Religion?

Hopefully this post won’t be as painful as the last three. I have just finished reading the latest Jared Diamond book, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” Apparently one of the things we can learn is that all societies invented some kind of religion. However, just because everyone else is doing it does not necessarily make it right.

Diamond advances a number of reasons for the apparent ubiquity of religion. Firstly, we want to know why things happen the way they do. We want reasons and answers and, when we can’t find any, we make them up by inventing mysterious forces to explain the workings of the world. The more science removes the cloak of mystery the less religion is needed to explain the universe. These days we rarely see Apollo and his chariot zipping the sun across the sky each day.

Secondly, religion is used to defuse anxiety and provide comfort when things go wrong. If we think our dead loved ones are going to live on in some magical place like heaven we tend to feel a bit better about it all. When our plane hits that turbulence and we start praying to avoid dying in a fiery crash we feel a bit more in control of the situation and believe we still have influence over the outcome. Unfortunately praying is a little bit like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it does not actually get you anywhere.

Thirdly, religion is used to generate a code of behaviour to which followers are expected to adhere. This has the double advantage that it allows leaders to demonise external groups that do not follow the code and justify wars against them. Those heathens over there eat pigs, kill cows, etc. Therefore, they cannot be the chosen ones and we are doing God’s will by putting them all to death and taking their land and resources. To make doubly certain that we do not accidentally smite members of our own team religions come up with all manner of rituals, such as cutting off the end of the penis, that confirm our membership of the club.

Diamond states that religion is a peculiarly human trait. No animals have religion. He does not, however, come up with any evidence to support his assertion. While it is true that no other species appears to erect edifices to imaginary friends or engage in bizarre rituals for no obvious purpose, our animal friends may have come up with their own unique ways of worshipping things that don’t exist. Dolphins are, after all, anatomically ill equipped to build cathedrals.

Diamond thinks that animal intelligence has not evolved to the point where it needs supernatural comfort or answers to the universe’s unanswerable questions, and so has not been able to develop religion. But could not the opposite have happened? Could animal intelligence have developed to the point where animals are happy to admit that some things cannot be explained and that when you die you rot or are eaten in order to continue the circle of life? Is it possible that they accept that life has no higher meaning and we are just alive for the here and now, and are perfectly comfortable with that fact? Are they secure enough in this life that they need no imaginary support or comfort?

Dr. F. Bunny

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The Two Faces Of Zoos

As I mentioned in a previous blog (Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation? 9/2/12) zoos have a somewhat dubious record when it comes to conservation and endangered species programs. This is at least partly because traditional zoos contain two powerful opposing forces, which are constantly at war with each other. On the one hand we have the keepers who interact directly with both the public and the animals. They are there because of a passion for conservation and a love for the animals they work with on a daily basis. On the other hand we have the managers. Many of these people have no animal related backgrounds. The zoo is just another place to work and it exists primarily to entertain and make money.

Because this dichotomy exists zoos are constantly at war with themselves. Keepers complain because insufficient funds are allocated to conservation programs and animals are expected to perform excessively. Managers complain because keepers are being too precious about their animals and fail to understand that without the money brought in by visitors there can be no funding for “nice to do” activities, like conservation programs.

Many of the gains made by zoos are being eroded in the interests of entertainment. While the chimpanzee tea parties will hopefully remain a thing of the past, zoos have reinstalled amusement park rides and are more and more willing to have hand raised, humanised animals engage in hands on contact and photo opportunities with visitors. As mentioned previously, this does no one any favours.

The solution? Make zoos charitable institutions that can be accessible to the public for the purpose of education, but do not rely on gate takings from visitors for their existence. Ensure that all staff share the same vision by emphasizing experience in conservation and animal management at all levels of the organisation above other attributes. None of the really good managers ever work in zoos anyway because the pay is so poor compared with real companies. If you’re going to have barely competent people at least have ones with some passion for conservation.

Dr. F. Bunny

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All Animals Are Equal

But some animals are more equal than others, according to George Orwell. I have long been an advocate of leaving nature, cruel as it can be, to get on with it. After all, it’s hard to argue with millions of years of natural selection and evolution. However, all that natural selection has also imbued the human species with qualities such as compassion, empathy and altruism. So that when my family saw a green turtle lay her eggs and then inadvertently wedge herself under a tree branch we felt compelled to drag her out and point her back in the direction of the sea. Two nights later each one of us played the role of guardian to a newly hatched sea turtle and hovered over it protectively as it made the long and arduous trek to the sea. Any marauding gulls were quickly waved away and we were not content until our little turtle had disappeared from view into the bosom of the Pacific Ocean. What made the experience even more memorable was that there were many more people on the beach doing exactly the same thing, shepherding turtles to the sea without picking them up, or taking photos or doing other untoward things one usually associates with people and animals (unfortunately two nights later there were people waving torches about, which caused mass turtle confusion). It gave me hope for our species and the world in general and it certainly gave me pause to think.

What, exactly, was going on here? We had all taken the side of the sea turtle against the gull who, after all, was only after a decent meal to feed itself and its hungry chick. But, like the people who object to kangaroo and koala culls on the basis of their cuteness (When culling was suggested as the best solution to the koala overpopulation problem on Kangaroo Island (a place koalas are not native to) the Australian Koala Foundation hit back with a campaign that featured a close up of a koala above the question, “How could you shoot this face?”) we too had based our actions on the cuteness of the turtle. This is hardly new. Many conservation programs base themselves around so called charismatic megavertebrates such as giant pandas, elephants, and tigers. Pity the Puerto Rican crested toad and western swamp tortoise. And yet emotion is an incredibly powerful force that, when used for good instead of evil, can achieve amazing things such as the global ivory ban and the cessation of commercial whaling. We are emotive creatures and to deny our connection with the other life forms that share our planet is to deny ourselves. We cannot lock environments up and we cannot exploit them without regard to consequences. Both roads are unsustainable. Our only hope lies in sharing and working together with all those who live on our beloved Earth.

Denying any emotional attachment is perhaps as unrealistic as basing our conservation decisions solely on emotion. After all we have evolved these emotions for a reason. Societies that bond and share and work together succeed where societies that lack these traits fail. We must harness these attributes but combine them with intelligent science. Sometimes culling is the easy way out and cuteness has forced us to develop alternative non-lethal methods of control. However, cuteness has also resulted in much greater destruction caused by animals eating themselves and others out of house and home eg kangaroos in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park in Victoria.

Ultimately nature cares nothing for the survival of one little turtle, no matter how cute. We are geared to survival of the individual, while nature exists to guarantee the survival of the species. Somehow we must try and combine the two, where the individual serves as the flagship for the species, without individual survival occurring at the expense of species survival. A tricky balancing act, but one we need to achieve.

Dr. F. Bunny

If you, too, want to help the incredibly cute sea turtles visit http://www.seaturtlefoundation.org/ for more information.

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