A Q&A with Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise

A Q&A with Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures



Q: One of my favorite stories from this book is about the archerfish—how they lined up in a row to look at everyone, and especially how they liked to spray water into the eyes (and noses, and gemstones) of researchers and visitors. Of all the research you did, what is your favorite animal story?

A: This is a tough question because I loved meeting all the animals. The archerfish were some of my favorites because I had not expected them to be so curious about me and other people, and of course, it was a hoot to have them “hunt” my eyes, etc. The shots they fire aren’t “spray”—they are hard, like a water bullet. You flinch when you’re hit. But if I had to pick only one animal as my favorite, I would choose Alex the African Gray Parrot. It was so remarkable and delightful to listen to him speak, especially when he chose to comment on the other parrots’ pronunciation (“Talk clearly! Talk clearly!”) or when he told Irene Pepperberg, his human colleague, “Wanna go tree.” That just broke my heart. He was molting the day I visited, which is a bothersome condition for birds, so he wasn’t feeling that great. And I was there—a stranger—which is always a bit scary for parrots because they are neophobic, afraid of new things and people. And he was quarreling a little bit with Irene. She spoke a little harshly to him at one point, which is when he asked to go to the tree. The tree was growing outside, but he could see it through a large window if she walked him down a hallway. You could see Irene’s eyes and face soften when he asked for the tree. She kissed the top of his head and walked him down the hall into the tree’s green light—a story I tell in my book.

Q: For me, one of the biggest and most delightful surprises in this book was learning that rats have such a great capacity for joy—that they’re playful and that they laugh when tickled. Which discovery about animals surprised you the most?

A: Like you, I loved the discovery that rats laugh; it just makes so much sense because they play, too. But until Jaak Panksepp discovered rat laughter in the 1990s, no one knew they did. We miss so much about animals—either because we can’t hear them, as with the rats’ laughter, or because we just think they are incapable of certain things, such as love. I still marvel at the discoveries that ants teach, earthworms make decisions, and that lab rats dream about how to solve their mazes. Maybe I was most surprised by Karl Berg’s study showing that green-rumped parrotlet parents name their chicks. Nothing like this had ever been found or suggested for any species of animal; it’s groundbreaking. And, although Berg still has some work to prove this definitively, I’m convinced he’ll nail it. Once you have a name—and can call the names of your friends and family as the parrots are doing (dolphins do this, too)—then there’s little reason that you shouldn’t be able to exchange information vocally—or even have a conversation, as Berg thinks the parrots are.

Q: In the chapter on birds, you captured a poignant moment with Alex, the famous gray parrot who had been raised in captivity: “‘Wanna go tree,’ Alex said in a tiny voice,” and yet he could only look at the tree from inside. So much of the research that shows proof of animal emotion and intelligence takes place in labs, with captive animals—did any of the researchers talk about this irony?

A: Yes, I did discuss this with several of the researchers. Like you, I was curious about why many of the animal cognition and emotion studies involve captive animals. Partly, it’s the history of the field. In its earliest days, it was mostly based on things that people (sometimes great scientists, such as Darwin) had observed in the field; some of these “anecdotes” were hard to believe, or so colored by anthropomorphism (such as saying ants have friends or play) that they spoiled this type of science for almost 100 years. Darwin also did experiments with captive animals. For instance, he gave earthworms a choice between materials (a thorny leaf versus a smoother one) for blocking their tunnels’ air holes—and was quite astonished to find that the worms actually made a decision between the two. Laboratory studies were often more convincing about animals’ abilities because researchers could control the conditions—just as Darwin did in that earthworm test. But lab studies also miss a great deal, and there is the moral question about keeping animals in captivity, especially those whose cognitive abilities seem closer to our own, such as the cetaceans and primates. Researchers are wrestling with this issue; some have called for an outright ban on captive studies, at least for apes and dolphins and whales. Others think that we will still learn more about their abilities by having captive populations; they argue that it’s largely because of these captive studies that we know how sentient these animals are—and that such studies provide necessary ammunition for arguing for more conservation areas and legal protections for these species. I think many of us in the general public are wrestling with the same issues. Look at all the attention the movie Blackfish, which is about the problems of keeping orcas in captivity, has drawn. I saw a recent headline in the business section of a newspaper wondering if this documentary is going to spell the end of the marine-mammals-on-display business. After writing my book, I realized that I no longer enjoy watching animals in captivity.


Q: After learning that trout have twenty-two pain receptors on their faces and heads, you wrote, despite having grown up fishing, “I wasn’t sure I would enjoy fishing again.” How has the knowledge that fish experience pain, as well as the other things you’ve learned about animals, changed the way you view the myriad ways animals are used, from fishing to animal testing to raising them for food?

A: Well, I haven’t been fishing since I met Victoria Braithwaite and listened to her discuss her group’s discovery that fish suffer pain. I do eat fish—so I can’t really claim any moral high ground here. And I would probably go fishing again, although with barbless hooks. We just haven’t been on the right type of camping trip, but may do one later this summer. If I do go fishing, I only want to catch stocked fish—not those hatched in the wild; wild populations need to recover from our overfishing. As for eating animals, again I cannot claim to be a vegetarian, although I eat far more fruit and vegetables than meat. I started cutting back on beef, pork, etc., about two decades ago for health reasons and now don’t enjoy that type of meat. I’m still fond of chicken, but find myself questioning if I shouldn’t stop eating that, too. However, I don’t think that my personal decisions are going to stop people from eating meat. That’s something that the human animal does, as do many other animals. We are different in that we raise most of our meat animals, so I think it is imperative that we give those animals a decent and good life. Using animals to test biomedical, pharmacological, and cosmetic products needs to stop. It is wrong.
Q: You write in your epilogue that, like us, animals “think and feel and experience the world…Now that we know this, will our relationship with them change?” What do you think are the societal and political implications of what you reveal in this book? Do you think it will inspire change?

A: I’ve actually received letters and emails, and had comments from friends, saying my book has changed them—which touches my heart. Some have even said they can no longer bring themselves to harm the ants they see in their kitchens. If readers come away from my book concerned about the ants in their kitchen, then I’ve done my job! After spending time with these scientists and writing about their research, I find I no longer think about animals in the same way. They’re not just stumbling through life; they have brains and minds, and they are using them to make decisions, form relationships, find homes and food—all of which we do, too. I think that perspective brings us much closer to the animal world—and I hope, makes us kinder and gentler toward the creatures in it.
Q: Anthropomorphism is clearly a concept that scientists seek to distance themselves from. Do you think scientists overcompensate at times in their efforts to keep emotion out of their experiments?

A: The scientists I met for my book study animals because they love them; they love biology, which is the study of life. All of them enjoy thinking about what it is like to be their study animal, whether it’s a fish or a wolf. And they sometimes get insights or ideas for tests to give their animals by thinking that way. It’s how Jaak Panksepp discovered that rats laugh. He saw that rats often have their  mouths open when they play—and he imagined that they must be laughing, just as our kids do when they play. Think of all the people who’ve worked with lab rats or had rats as pets—and finally one, a scientist, realized that they must be laughing. Now, to prove that, Panksepp had to draw back; he had to put aside his own thoughts and emotions. He had to figure out a way to show that the rats were in fact laughing—and that meant setting up a series of test situations to document when and how rats laugh, and to record their laughter in a way that would prove to others that this sound (which we cannot hear because it is out of our range) was laughter. It wasn’t easy to do, but that’s what science requires: a demonstration that stands up and can be repeated no matter who does it or where it’s done. So Panksepp had to figure out a way that other scientists (or anyone) could test their rats for laughter—and get the same results he had. It’s too easy to dismiss scientific thinking as cold or heartless, when in fact, it’s because of this type of rigor that we know these things about animals.
Q: As you’ve presented your book to audiences, what types of reactions have surprised you the most?

A: That people who’ve read it now worry about ants. Of course, not just ants, but that it affected them so deeply, they now take a second or third look when they come across ants—and all animals, I hope.
Q: What’s your next book project?

A: I have several ideas—but haven’t started focusing on one just yet.


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