Researcher and 3MT finalist wants to talk to the animals

Sunday 28 October 2018

As consumers and communities, we seem more aware than ever of issues surrounding animal welfare. But how do we understand what is best for the enjoyment and quality of life of animals in our care? Is what seems intuitive, and perhaps obvious to us from a human standpoint, quite different to what animals really want?

Animals can’t easily tell us what they want, but scientist turned philosopher Heather Browning from ANU School of Philosophy is helping to identify signs that could let us come close. A university finalist in this year’s ANU 3 Minute Thesis (#3MT) competition, Heather’s work explores the fundamental question “how do we know what is good for animal welfare?”

Sparking this question was an almost ten year career as a zookeeper, after graduating from ANU with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in zoology.

“As a zookeeper, you are solely responsible for the welfare of the animals in your care, which made me start thinking about the ways in which we might better understand what conditions are most important for the welfare of different animals.” Heather explains.

“Working in zoos, I often found myself making assumptions about what animals might or might not like, and increasingly I wondered how I could be sure. This led me to the field of animal welfare science, and as a philosopher, I became interested in taking a closer look at the methods of this science and the background assumptions.”

In her 3MT presentation at Llewellyn Hall, Heather used the example of two artificial environments for monkeys, to illustrate how our preconceptions can sometimes mask what animals really prefer. To the viewer, one is a spacious tropical environment with open grass, a pond, tall slender trees and a concrete shelter. The other, a comparatively smaller enclosure, features ropes, horizontal branches, a tyre swing, and fine grating on all sides.

We might intuitively believe it’s the first environment that’s best, the green and spacious one. Yet it’s actually the second one the monkeys prefer, for it offers a rich environment with plentiful climbing opportunities to explore.

“It is common for people to project onto animals what they think would be good for them, and we often get this wrong. I think one of the most important indicators for overcoming misconceptions about what animals want is preference testing. Preference tests give animals the choice between different conditions and allows them to tell us which they prefer, and how much they want it.”

Some caution is required though in considering preference, as like us, what animals prefer may not necessarily be in their best interests.

“Using preference tests alongside other indicators of welfare can help us get a clearer picture from the animals’ point of view.”

Working towards completing her PhD in Philosophy at ANU, Heather aims to create a philosophical framework that can help scientists choose the right indicators for assessing animal welfare.

One aspect where philosophy and science come together in animal welfare is in the emphasis placed on replicating natural behaviours Heather explains.

“One of the ideas that comes up a lot in public opinion, and is still relatively common in the philosophy and science of animal welfare, is that performance of natural behaviours is in some way central to the welfare of captive animals. I think it is more helpful to think in terms of behaviours that animals want to perform, rather than which behaviours they naturally perform. There are many natural behaviours which aren’t great for welfare - running from a predator, for example - and some unnatural behaviours which seem good for welfare.”

For a researcher who wonder if we can talk to the animals, it’s logical to wonder what animal Heather would most want to talk to.

“It would be an orangutan. When I worked with orangutans, I was fascinated by their quiet intelligence. You can see them examining the world and figuring out new solutions to the challenges they face. I’d love to find out more about what the world looks like from the perspective of an orangutan – I think they’d have some interesting insights for us.”

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Updated:  26 October 2018/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications