Friday, July 3, 2015

Animal behaviour lessons learned from Jurassic World

Imagine if people could keep dinosaurs as pets? 
 A dinosaur movie may seem little more than escapism, but like many science-fiction movies, JurassicWorld is a morality tale. Along with the typical “don’t mess with nature” message, the stereotype of scientists as so obsessed with their creations they don’t care about the wider implications, and other important life-lessons like don’t fly your helicopter without your instructor two days before you get your license, there are a few lessons about animal behaviour sprinkled throughout the movie that are worth the air-time. Here are the messages I took home from Jurassic World. (The trailer is embedded below if you've not seen it).

  • Animals need to be socialised from an early age. As Owen the vested, chested, motorbike-riding, gun-toting animal trainer points out, the reason the test-tube dinosaur Indominus Rex (“untameable king” – talk about nominative determinism) has become a psychopath is that she has been raised in isolation. This leads her to kill for the fun of it. After all, what else has she got to do with her time? It’s not like she can spend the rest of her day exhibiting natural behaviours like interacting with cohabitants, nesting or whatever else an Indominus does (in fact scientists don’t know what natural behaviour for this species is, because there’s only ever been one of her). We often overlook the impact of “containment” and isolation on animals. Captivity limits their options – so the minimum we can do is provide cohabitants and/or enrich their environment. Solitary confinement is a form of torture, yet we subject animals to it frequently.
Imagine rocking up to puppy preschool with this fellow in tow.
  • Operant conditioning, or any form of training, doesn’t give you control over an animal’s behaviour. As Jurassic World is at pains to point out, control is an illusion. Even Owen knows that while he can ask his raptors to do things, it’s up to them to cooperate, and there’s limits to how much they can or will. When he’s asked to train dinosaurs for the military, Owen points out that there’s a smidge of a gap between holding a raptor’s attention for a few seconds and delivering a reward you’ve been waving in front of it, to using a clicker to get them to enter the chaos of a war zone and act according to our instructions without stopping to snack on innocent people or members of your own army. Another lesson exemplified by Owen is that alpha males are not the most aggressive, toughest, enemy-toppling members of the pack but lead by example. More in thisarticle
  • Human expectations around animal behaviour are usually unrealistic. Everything is bigger in Jurassic World – as park owner Simon Masrani points out, part of the thrill lies in realising how small we are. The movie also caricatures human beliefs about animals – from dangerous anthropomorphism (oh yes, she considers me the alpha and wants to make me happy so she won’t unpredictably bite my head off even though that’s natural behaviour for this species), to wanting to stick everything in a theme park, to the idea that animals can be trained to behave perfectly in a single session. No, no, no, says Jurassic World. There a scene where Masrani, a rich guy who clearly hasn’t thought through the ethical implications of his business plan, confronts his senior scientist Henry Wu, and says: "You created a monster!", to which Wu replies: “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being a cat”.
Moisie the kitten strikes her most convincing velicoraptor pose.
  • You can’t genetically select for bigger, nastier, “cooler” predator traits in an animal without selecting for the predatory behaviours that go with it. In the beginning of the movie, Claire is supportive of the company’s mission to feed the public’s appetite for “more teeth”. Owen the animal trainer explains why this is insane, although it’s not til Claire is being pursued by the genetically engineered, dentally enhanced psychopathic result of this mission that she changes her mind. (Curiously enough, as she develops more empathy, Claire’s hair progresses from a straight bob with a fringe to wavy with no fringe, implying that good people are more relaxed with their hair – although why she didn’t have to go through the hell that is growing out a fringe I don’t know). The point is that breeding to enhance features of an animal's appearance can have a negative impact on its temperament (and health, although the movie doesn't stress health effects, although we don't really have time to see those manifest since Indominus rex eats everyone who looks at her).
We're thrilled by the concept of predatory dinosaurs, but anyone contemplating a genetic bake-off to create the ultimate predator has some serious ethical and welfare issues to consider first (there was no ethica committee in Jurassic World but then I'm not sure an ethics committee meeting makes as exciting viewing as carnivorous dinosaurs chasing tourists).
  • Get a decent vet! The methods used to try to subdue the animal are useless tranquilisers administered by untrained security personnel, which clearly don’t work or if they do are seriously low doses, or weapons. How about someone with some training to calmly sedate the animal? I know its science fiction but you’d think any facility holding that many animals would have an on-site veterinary team and hospital that could engage in some fear-free handling and judicious chemical restraint.
Jurassic World incorporated a baby dinosaur petting zoo. Nice idea, but these animals do grow up and require a lot of care.
  • Animals aren’t the idiots here. When Owen suggests that Indominus might be a little self-aware, Claire retorts, “We’re talking about an animal here.”“A highly intelligent animal” – he replies. In fact, in the movie, it is the humans who make most of the dumb decisions, and unleash the sequence of unfortunate events that necessitate all-out war against their own creation. The message? Science needs to slow down, evaluate the risks and benefits of its intervention, and think about the welfare of the animals it creates as well as the welfare of humans that creation may potentially want to nibble on later.
We already share the planet with dinosaur-like critters. According to Jurassic World, we need to focus on looking after those ones before we cook up bigger, bitier versions.
  • We need to appreciate the dinosaurs we already have – or their descendants. The movie is a little more subtle about this point but right at the beginning, a big, fat, three-toed reptilian looking foot stomps on the ground. It belongs to a tiny bird. Yes, they are kind of dinosaurs, and if people paid more attention to them and appreciated them for what they are (instead of creating demand for dinosaurs) we’d live in a better (and safer) world.