Have you ever wondered why we, as humans, measure the intelligence of other organisms by their ability to mimic the characteristics or behaviors that we exhibit? For example, consider a dog. If a dog listens well, does tricks, and obeys orders given by their owners then that dog is considered to be intelligent when compared to a dog that does not obey their owners. Now, if these two dogs are the same breed and the same age it is safe to assume that one has received training, most likely in the form of operant conditioning during their raising while the other dog did not. Does the fact that one dog was taught how to do tricks through positive reinforcement, most likely, make it more intelligent than the dog that was not given the same opportunity? I would venture to say that tricks and obeying orders does not explicitly illustrate the intelligence level of animals. I would argue that tricks and obeying orders is simply a medium which trainers and psychologists use to project the intelligence of animals into a tangible scale that most people are able to understand.
Now, the question arises: is it morally right and psychologically safe to use classical and operant conditioning methods to make animals perform tricks and obey orders that they would inherently never do in nature. Granted, domesticated animals such as service dogs serve a greater purpose than ‘rolling-over’, but take this idea and extrapolate it out from domesticated animals to organisms that truly have no place in captivity.
Consider the orca whale. For over 30 years these animals have been used as show animals for organizations like SeaWorld performing tricks for crowds of people of all ages. I would recommend watching the documentary ‘Blackfish’ in regards to the details of the orcas of SeaWorld, and for those of you who have seen it you might understand my stance a bit more clearly (Blackfish, Cowperthwaite). By nature, the orca is an extremely emotional driven animal. They live in families that live and die closer than most humans do to their families. Naturally, they are extremely intelligent and highly skilled in teamwork. A short video (hyperlink: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/orca-juvenile-training-lex) shows how a family of orcas not only using teamwork to capture a seal, but using observational learning techniques with the children to try and show them how hunting works (Killer Whales). As we saw in class, the use of observational learning requires the use of mirror neurons which seem to only be found in organisms with high cognitive development such as primates and humans.
The heightened ability to learn through observation may have been a reason leading to making orcas show animals, but this has proven to have negative influences on the animals. In the film ‘Blackfish’, SeaWorld trainers explain how they used positive reinforcement to promote behavior and negative punishment to demote behaviors. On the surface this worked to train the animals to do tricks for their performances. However, just as Pavlov’s dog would do after conditioning if the trainers would make the orca do a trick and deny it a reward they would get frustrated. This frustration has led to violence and, in cases, the death of trainers.
Unfortunately, the moral questions continue. As stated before, orcas are very family based creatures. When taken from their homes and dumped into a cage with strange whales they can quickly begin to show signs of anxiety. There are cases where this anxiety has led to violence against other whales and to trainers. Over time, this anxiety has led to what seems to be similar to antisocial personality disorders and even depression. Once again I would highly recommend watching the documentary ‘Blackfish’ to get a sense of what I have talked about.
I hope this has sparked some thought into why we as humans find it necessary to psychologically shape other creatures when given the chance. In the case of orcas this forced conditioning has led to possible psychological disorders and in the case of domesticated animals it has led to the near complete dependence on humans for survival.
I encourage comments, thoughts, and criticisms.
Blackfish. Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Dogwoof, 2013. Film.
“Killer Whales “Gang Up” to Capture Seal.” Killer Whales “Gang Up” to Capture Seal. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.