Moon bears, wasps, and sexy seals:
Animals aren't dumb

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Moon bears, wasps, and sexy seals: Animals aren't dumb

From Marc Bekoff

Let's give animals the credit they deserve for who they are and what they do and not ignore what we already know to push for human exceptionalism. We're exceptional in some areas and so too are other animals.

In previous essays I've written about the horrors of bear farming in China and other parts of Asia, including a story about a mother bear who reportedly killed her son because he was being tortured and then herself [Mother bear kills cub then self at Chinese bile farm]. Asiatic black bears, also called moon bears, are kept in tiny cages for upwards of 30 years so that bile can be milked from their gall bladder.

The photo here is of Jonah, being rescued from a bear farm, still wearing a metal jacket that is used to squeeze bile from his gallbladder.

The suffering moon bears endure is indescribable and that some bears, such as Jasper, recover, is simply an amazing testament to their character, including their ability to forgive humans for their reprehensible treatment and move on to help other rescued bears. For years, Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, and her dedicated coworkers have been rescuing and rehabilitating bears and arguing that there are many different synthetic alternatives to bear bile that can be used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Now, finally, Chinese doctors are weighing in and agree "herbal substitutes have greater health benefits than those claimed for bear bile which is used in traditional Chinese medicine." Let's hope this message will end bear farming once and for all, as it surely is among the most egregious infringements on the lives of animals that continues today.

As we all know, nonhuman animals are amazing beings. Almost daily we learn about their incredible cognitive abilities and rich and deep emotional lives. Now, we know that wasps can tell individuals of their species apart based on facial characteristics. It turns out that northern paper wasps, whose faces differ in terms of yellow, brown, and black markings, recognize individuals and this ability is important for minimizing aggression among queens who fight for dominance when establishing joint nests.

Seals also are in the news. Some new observations of female elephant seals show they may not be the passive recipients of male suitors. Females have sex at sea and while it's unclear why this is so, one possibility is that it's "part of a mating strategy that gives females control over who they mate with, away from the single choice offered in a harem."

Finally, a claim in a recent essay in New Yorker deserves comment. In an essay called "Dog Story", Adam Gopnik writes, "We don't prevent the lion from eating the gazelle because we recognize that he is, in the fine old-fashioned term, a dumb animal - not one capable of reasoning about effects, or really altering his behavior on ethical grounds, and therefore not rightly covered by the language of rights."

While people can quibble about whether animals alter their behavior based on ethical grounds (there is solid evidence they do), or whether they deserve rights (for detailed discussion see the work of lawyer Steven Wise), there is so much evidence that animals do indeed reason about effects, this claim is thoroughly misleading. Indeed, a lion may likely reason about the consequences of his behavior based on what an individual gazelle does, and there is ample evidence that many animals show flexible behavior to take into account the unique demands of changing situations. Does this mean that nonhuman animals always reason about effects? No. And neither do we. Let's give animals the credit they deserve for who they are and what they do and not ignore what we already know to push for human exceptionalism. We're exceptional in some areas and so too are other animals.