Lectures | Thinking Animals United

EXPLORING ANIMAL WORLDS Lecture Series

What do Dancing Bears, Performing Elephants, and Sacred Cows Have in Common?

September 2016
Presenters: Geeta Seshamani, Kartick Satyanarayan

Wildlife SOS! Founded in 1995 Wildlife SOS is one of the largest rescue and conservation charities in India. It works to protect animals and their habitats, resolve human-animal conflicts, study biodiversity, as well as to create alternative and sustainable livelihoods for communities that depend on wildlife for sustenance. Wildlife SOS conducts and assists research in veterinary areas, behavioral studies, reproductive physiology and other fields – in collaboration with national and international universities and organizations. Sacred cows, dancing bears, performing elephants and street-wise dogs are just some of the animals they help in New Delhi and in rural communities all over India. Wildlife SOS’s Co-Founders, Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan tell us about about their amazing work saving abandoned and abused animals, mitigating animal-human conflict, and providing necessary research for veterinary care in one of the most populous countries in the world.

EXPLORING ANIMAL MINDS Lecture Series

Horses: The Myths and Reality

October 2015
Presenters: Katherine Houpt
Watch Video

Horses have been part of our lives since at least 4000 BCE., although no one knows precisely when they were first domesticated or ridden. Over the millennia, they have played major roles in our myths, superstitions (they were reputed to be able to see ghosts), legends and, not surprisingly, in our dreams. They are symbols of power and virility, a phallic symbol, and were venerated as the steeds of the gods. See a white horse on New Years and make a wish–it’ll be a good year! However, despite these wonderful stories, there is today a pernicious myth that our equine friends are not as intelligent as some other animals we live with. Without horses, the lives of human beings would be vastly different. They have carried us, plowed our fields, waged war with us, and were our only source of rapid communication before the telegraph and our main source of transportation for years. Even earlier, they were a major source of food, and kept us warm. In return, we have fed them, loved them, protected them. We have also raced them mercilessly, used them in barbaric activities like rodeos and circuses, exposing them to danger, pain and the threat of death. Worse, we round them up, break up their families and slaughter them. The reality of life is not so great for many horses today.

Making It Work: Politics, Culture, and Morality in Apes

May 2015
Presenter: Frans B. M. de Waal

There remain few areas of social life where science has not uncovered major continuities between the behavior of humans and other primates, including politics, culture, and morality. Over the last few decades, the consensus has moved from human uniqueness in all of these domains to fundamental similarity. Our socio-emotional mind is essentially a primate mind. In this lecture, Dr. de Waal will review similarities in power politics, transmission of knowledge and habits, and moral prerequisites, such as empathy and the sense of fairness. The possibility that animals have empathy and sympathy has received little attention because evolutionary biology, until recently, preferred a “nature red in tooth and claw” view that had no place for kindness. A second factor has been a taboo on the term “emotion” in relation to animals. Both of these influences take little account of actual animal behavior, which would lead one to agree with Darwin that “Many animals certainly sympathize with each other’s distress or danger.”

Based on Dr. de Waal’s team’s research on apes, monkeys, and elephants at the Yerkes Primate Center, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, and elsewhere, his focus will be on specific, well-defined behavioral mechanisms that permit the complex social organization and extensive cooperation observed in monkeys, apes, and humans.

There remain few areas of social life regarding which science has not uncovered major continuities between the behavior of humans and other primates, including politics, culture, and morality. Over the last few decades, the consensus has moved from human uniqueness in all of these domains to fundamental similarity. Our socio-emotional mind is essentially a primate mind. In this lecture, Dr. de Waal will review similarities in power politics, transmission of knowledge and habits, and moral prerequisites, such as empathy and the sense of fairness. The possibility that animals have empathy and sympathy has received little attention because evolutionary biology, until recently, preferred a “nature red in tooth and claw” view that had no place for kindness. A second factor has been a taboo on the term “emotion” in relation to animals. Both of these influences take little account of actual animal behavior, which would lead one to agree with Darwin that “Many animals certainly sympathize with each other’s distress or danger.”

Based on Dr. de Waal’s team’s research on apes, monkeys, and elephants at the Yerkes Primate Center, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, and elsewhere, his focus will be on specific, well-defined behavioral mechanisms that permit the complex social organization and extensive cooperation observed in monkeys, apes, and humans.

Holding Up a Mirror: Male Elephants and Us

April 2015
Presenters: Eric Steinhauser, Caitlin O’Connel
Watch Video

Elephants are being killed for their tusks and disappearing from East Africa at an alarming rate, in large part due to market pressures from the Far East. The Chinese have a long tradition of ivory carving. To add to the problem, the Chinese also think an elephant’s tusks are like teeth: they fall out and grow back (tusk means tooth in Chinese.) In his work as Creative Director at WildAID, Eric Steinhauser has developed educational advertisements for the Chinese market designed to get across the message, “When the buying stops, the killing will too.” They have been seen by over one billion people making them among the most widely viewed ads in the world. We will see excepts from Eric’s film, Saving Africa’s Giants, filmed in Kenya in 2014 with narration by Ed Norton and featuring Yao Ming of Houston Rockets fame. The film was recently shown on Animal Planet, and if you missed it, you’ll have a chance to see an excerpt here and the entire movie on Animal Planet later this year.
Then we will meet Greg, one of the many male elephants you’ll hear about in Caitlin O’Connell’s talk about her new book, Elephant Don, The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse. Greg’s a stocky guy with an outsized swagger. He’s been the intimidating yet sociable don of his posse of friends—including Abe, Keith, Mike, Kevin, Torn Trunk, and Willie. But one arid summer the tide begins to shift and the third-ranking Kevin starts to get ambitious, seeking a higher position within this social club. But this is no ordinary tale of gangland betrayal—Greg and his entourage are bull elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia, where, for the last twenty-three years, Dr. O’Connell has been a keen observer of their complicated friendships. In Elephant Don, O’Connell, one of the world’s leading experts on elephant communication and social behavior, offers a rare inside look at the social world of African male elephants — a society at once exotic and surprisingly familiar. Surely we’ve all known a Greg or two!

All Things Penguin

September 2014
Presenter: Dyan deNapoli
Watch Video

Penguins are one of the most iconic species in the world and one of the few birds that does not fly, making them one of the most unusual as well. Scientists are just beginning to decipher the lives and minds of these amazing animals, and for those who study them, there is much that is still anecdotal. For a number of the 18 different species it is a race against time. Climate change, human encroachment and overfishing, as well as massive oil spills are taking their toll.

On September 23, 2014 we presented Dyan deNapoli, former Senior Penguin Aquarist at the New England Aquarium; TED speaker; author of the award-winning book, The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill, and the Inspiring Story of the World’s Largest Animal Rescue; and expert in all things penguin to bring us up-to-date on what is actually known about penguins and their future in the wild.

Animal Intelligence: How We Discover How Smart Animals Really Are

May 2014
Presenter: Edward A. Wasserman
Watch Video

Scientists are finally discovering the cognitive basis of how animals think and why they behave as they do. But, just how do scientists make these discoveries without directly asking animals what’s on their minds? It turns out that the best scientists have devised ways of uncovering how animal minds work by adhering to the old adage, “actions speak louder than words.” Join speaker Edward A. Wasserman, Ph.D. at our EAM series on May 30th for a lively look at some of the ways scientists discover the cognitive capacities of other species.

Speaking Up for Elephants

October 2013
Presenters: William Clark, James C. Deutsch, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Patrick Omondi
Moderator: John Quiñones
Watch Video

The world is facing a crisis with one of its most precious, charismatic and beloved resources. Elephants are being slaughtered and driven to extinction. The brutality and number of killings are staggering. Almost 39 tons of illegal ivory were seized in 2011 (thought to be only 10% of what was actually taken), worth up to $1,000 a pound on the streets of China. It is estimated that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes (96 a day) to insure a continuous supply of ivory for the trinkets and carvings so prized by Asian and US consumers.

Elephants are a legacy of today’s world for the future. These large-brained, magnificent animals lead socially, behaviorally and cognitively complex lives about which we have so much more to learn and appreciate. It is critically important that the global community do all that it can to protect them.

On October 4th, Thinking Animals will join others around the world in an effort to stop these horrendous crimes. Our panel discussion, Speaking Up For Elephants will cover what makes these animals so extraordinary and what is be being done world wide by the international community to save them.

Big Cats / Little Cats

September 2013
Presenters: Rebecca Stites, Steve Zawistowski
Watch Video

Cats are the most enigmatic of our domesticated companion animals. Indeed, many people don’t think they are actually domesticated at all! What are they thinking behind those inscrutable eyes? Are they still wild at heart like their bigger brethren?

We’ll let you decide for yourselves after you hear Steve Zawistowski and Rebecca Stites talk about their work with cats big and small.

Reflections on the Dolphin Mind

May 2013
Presenter: Diana Reiss
Moderator: Mark Moffett
Watch Video

Dolphins are generally considered to be the second smartest animals on earth. They have a robust and multifaceted system of communications just as we do, they raise and teach their young the ways of their world as we do, and like humans, they have brains capable of empathy and altruism.

These are amazing creatures and Diana Reiss has spent 25 years studying them. Her insight into the dolphin mind — why they do what they do and what they are capable of — is fascinating.

Do Animals Have Personality?

April 2013
Presenters: Sam Gosling, Andrew Sih
Moderator: Heather Berlin
Watch Video

Curious or fearful, introverted or extroverted, negative or positive. These are all terms we might use to describe another human being’s personality. But what about other species? Can they be described in the same terms? Are there differences in animal personalities among individuals, between different herds or groups, or within families — and what does this mean for their survival? Do emotion, genetics and circumstance come into play in defining the personality of another species? Come to think of it — what ARE personalities?

Eagles, Pigeons, Swine and Puppies: What People Think about Animal Thinking

March 2013
Presenters: Michael Noonan, Robert Lurz, William Lynn
Moderator: John Fraser

How do people think about animals thinking? The words we use about animals speak a great deal about how we care for them and what we are willing to believe they know. Social scientists and ethicists have spent a great deal of time considering what people believe about how animals think, the way our words teach us to respect animals or demean them because of what we want to believe about their ability to think. This round table discussion brings together four people who have researched the history, lore and practical implications of how the way we think about animals influences human behavior and what people are willing to believe about the study of animal thinking and animals themselves.

An Interview with Temple Grandin

December 2012
Presenter: Temple Grandin
Watch Video

Temple Grandin is one of the most recognizable names in the study of animal behavior. She is a doctor of animal science and professor at Colorado State University, bestselling author, and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. Grandin is a philosophical leader of both the animal welfare and autism advocacy movements. Both movements commonly cite her work regarding animal welfare, neurology, and philosophy. In 2010, she was the subject of an award-winning biographical film, Temple Grandin, and in the same year, she was listed in the Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the American world, in the “Heroes” category.

Communication: What Can Animals Tell Us?

November 2012
Presenters: Chris Clark, Katy Payne Moderator: Diana Reiss
Watch Video

All animals need to communicate, and the myriad ways that have evolved to do this are fascinating. In fact, we can learn a lot about how and why we developed our own language system by understanding how other species have evolved their own. Some species communicate with sound, others by smell, gesture, magnetism, facial expression, electricity or bioluminescence. Many, including us, communicate with a combination of different senses and affects. Unfortunately, it’s just our bad luck that we haven’t figured out a way to understand what the others are saying. However, large strides have been made in the past several years to bridge this gap and the results are often amazing, not to mention humorous.

Chicken Tales

October 2012
Presenters: Joseph Barber, Mark Hauber
Watch Video

Who would have guessed that an animal that we take so for granted has such a rich a history with us, is so unique and is as intelligent as it is? Chickens make great pets, they talk to each other while still in the egg, they have a sense of time, recognize their friends and can run up to nine miles per hour. Some are exotically beautiful. It’s time to reconsider these unsung birds.

Sharing Emotional Worlds

September 2012
Presenters: Jonathan Balcombe, Marc Bekoff, Jaak Pankseep
Moderator: Mark Moffett
Watch Video

If animals think, can we afford to say that they don’t feel or that they don’t have emotions? Utilizing sophisticated research methodologies, scientists have been able to look into the brain to understand the basis and existance of animal’s emotional responses.

Now, advances in the use of fMRIs and sophisticated research methodologies have allowed scientists to look into the brain and study the behavior of other species in an effort to understand the basis and existence of their emotional responses.

So, You Think You Know Your Dog?

June 2012
Presenters: Alexandra Horowitz, Evan MacLean, James Serpell, Steve Zawistowski
Moderator: Don Moore
Watch Video

How much do we really understand about dogs? They’ve lived with us for millennia but we still don’t understand them as well as they understand us, and we’re just beginning to understand what incredible roles they play in our lives. What more is there to learn about our best friends?

The ALEX Project: Learning from a Bird Brain

May 2012
Presenter: Irene Pepperberg
Moderator: Diana Reiss
Watch Video

Before the ALEX (an acronym for avian learning experiment) Project we had no idea what went on inside of a parrot’s brain. Alex and his teacher, scientist Irene Pepperberg changed the way the world understood what it meant to be a ‘bird brain’. Alex, a beautiful African Grey, expressed his wishes, scolded the people in the lab as well as his avian colleagues, understood the concept of zero, made up words, teased his teachers, and generally acted as if there was no hierarchy between the two species. Alex had a unique and strong personality that he shared which all who would listen. Irene and Alex were an amazing team.

Living in Alien Worlds

April 2012
Presenters: Jelle Atema, Tim Goldsmith, Katy Payne, Stim Wilcox
Moderator: Carl Zimmer
Watch Video

Animals experience their worlds in ways we cannot understand—with senses we have lost long ago or never had. They define their worlds with exquisite senses of smell and hearing, with vision that sees what we can’t imagine, or with responses to chemical or electromagnetic properties that we are insensitive to. By these yard sticks, many animals are far smarter than we are.

 

Exploring Creative Minds

March 2012
Presenters: Marc Bekoff, Dorothy Fragaszy, Kevin McGowan, Diana Reiss
Moderator: Stuart Firestein
Watch Video

The traditional definition of creativity includes the ability to solve problems, the use of intuition and the evidence of insightful perception to reach a solution. By these or any standards, many animals are indeed creative in their ability to achieve novel solutions to the challenges that are presented to them—both in their own environments and in the unfamiliar ones presented by scientists.

reThinking Animals

February 2012
Presenters: David B. Edelman. James L. Gould, Dale Jamieson, Irene M. Pepperberg
Moderator: Diana Reiss
Watch Video

The question of animal sentience, self-awareness and intelligence would have been heresy in the scientific community 50 years ago when animals were considered mere automatons–their behavior genetically hard-wired. But the possibility that they make choices, have emotions and create unique cultural identities has received a lot more attention in the past 15 years. While it is still controversial, there is growing evidence that many animals are much smarter and more sophisticated than we knew—and that brings up some difficult issues.