The thirty-minute drive from the Kansas City airport to the conference hotel was much more interesting than the three-hour flight from North Carolina. I had flown in for the annual meeting of the International Society of Anthrozoology. I found myself sharing a ride with a woman named Layla Esposito, a social psychologist who tells me she recently completed her PhD dissertation on bullying among middle school children. Puzzled, I ask her why she was attending a meeting on the relationships between people and animals. She tells me that she is a program director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. She is at the conference to let researchers know about a new federal grant program that will fund research on the effects that animals have on human health and well-being. The money is coming from the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) and Mars, the corporate giant that makes Snickers for me and Tempting Tuna Treats for my cat, Tilly. NIH is particularly interested in the impact of pets on children: Is pet therapy an effective treatment for autism? What role does oxytocin (the so-called love hormone) play in our attachment to pets? Are children raised with pets less susceptible to asthma?
“How much money are you giving out?” I ask. Two and a half million dollars a year, she says. “Fantastic! This is just what the field needs,” I say. I am thinking that Layla is going to have a very full dance card for the next couple of days.
WHY OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH ANIMALS MATTER
While $2.5 million is paltry compared to the $6 billion that NIH doles out every year for cancer research, the funds will be a shot in the arm for anthrozoology, a field you have probably never heard of. Anthrozoology is a big tent. It includes the study of nearly all aspects of our interactions with other species. For example, the Kansas City conference included talks on how caring for chronically ill pets affects the quality of lives of their owners; the effect of pet ownership on surviving a heart attack; how children decide whether a strange dog is friendly or dangerous; sex differences in cat behavior (neutered males are more affectionate to humans than are spayed females); and the existence of morality in non-human species.
While animals are important in so many aspects of human life, the study of our interactions with other species has, until recently, been neglected by scientists. Take my field, psychology. For a hundred years, psychologists have concentrated on uncovering behavioral processes such as motivation, perception, and memory, and have neglected important facets of daily life such as food, religion, and how we spend our leisure time. Our relationships with animals, especially our pets, also fall into the category of things that everyday people care about but psychologists usually don’t.
One reason behavioral scientists have shied away from studying
human-animal interactions is that for many of them the topic seems trivial. This attitude is wrong-headed. Understanding the psychology underlying our attitudes and behaviors toward other species is important for several reasons. About two out of three Americans live with animals, and many people have deep personal relationships with their pets. In addition, our beliefs about how we should treat other species are changing, and a lot of us are torn over whether animals should be used as subjects in biomedical research, or killed because they taste good. The debate over the moral status of animals has become such a divisive social issue that FBI officials have called radical animal rights activism America’s greatest domestic terrorism threat. Finally, people are fascinated by anthrozoological research. When I tell someone that I study human-animal interactions, almost inevitably they begin to tell me stories about their wacky dogs or their objections to meat or how their Aunt Sally loves to hunt bears with her Plott hounds.
THINKING LIKE AN ANTHROZOOLOGIST
Anthrozoology transcends normal academic boundaries. Among our numbers are psychologists, veterinarians, animal behaviorists, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. As in every science, anthrozoologists don’t always see eye to eye. We differ in our attitudes toward some of the thorny moral issues that arise in human-animal relationships. We don’t even agree on the name of our discipline. (Some prefer to call it human-animal studies.) But, despite these differences, researchers who study our relationships with animals have a lot in common. We all believe that our interactions with other species are an important component of human life and hope that our research might make the lives of animals better.
As academic disciplines go, anthrozoology is a small pond, but in the last two decades we have come a long way. Several journals are devoted to publishing research on human-animal interactions, and the International Society for Anthrozoology holds annual meetings where researchers
report their latest findings and argue about whether walking your dog will cause you to lose weight and how long cats have been domesticated. In the United States, courses in human-animal interactions are taught in over 150 colleges and universities, and institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, Purdue, and the University of Missouri have established anthrozoological research centers.
To get a sense of anthrozoological research, here are a few examples of hot issues in the new science of human-animal interactions. Take, for example, the effectiveness of dolphins as healers, how we select our pets, and the connection between childhood cruelty to animals and adult violence.
DO DOLPHINS MAKE GOOD THERAPISTS?
One of the most important topics in anthrozoology is whether interacting with animals can alleviate human suffering. Animal-assisted therapy (called AAT by anthrozoologists) has been around for decades. The term “pet therapy” was coined in 1964 by Boris Levinson, a child psychiatrist who found that some children who were difficult to work with would open up when they played with his dog, Jingles. The residents in my ninety-two-year-old mother’s assisted-living facility perk up when the therapy dogs visit a couple of times a week. I find that spilling my guts to our cat, Tilly, helps me work out my little problems. (Tilly takes a tough love approach to counseling. When I start to whine, she just sniffs and walks away. I would probably do better with a low-energy golden retriever with watery eyes—a canine version of Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano’s shrink.)
But does riding a horse, playing with a dog, or stroking a cat really cure depression or enhance the communication skills of children with autism? Janell Miner and Brad Lundahl of the University of Utah analyzed the results of forty-nine published studies on the effectiveness of AAT in children, adolescents, adults, and elderly people in settings ranging from doctors’ offices to long-term residential care facilities. They found that dogs were the most common animal therapists and that AAT was used most often for individuals with mental health problems rather than physical
ailments. In most (but not all) of the studies, the subjects did measurably benefit from interacting with their nonhuman therapists. And, on average, the degree of their improvement was about the same as depressed people get from taking drugs like Prozac.
Dolphin therapy, however, is more controversial than AAT involving dogs or horses. Dolphins used for therapy are, after all, wild animals held in captivity against their will. In addition, many of the claims made about the curative powers of dolphins are over the top: Interacting with dolphins, it is alleged, can alleviate Down syndrome, AIDS, chronic back pain, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, autism, learning disorders, and deafness, and can even shrink tumors. Among the presumed healing mechanisms are bioenergy force fields, the high frequency clicks and grunts that dolphins use to communicate with each other, and even the ability to directly alter human brain waves.
Dolphin therapy sounds great. Go swimming, get well. But before you sign up for a couple of weeks in a dolphin tank, you should check out the science behind these claims. Most of them are based on anecdotes, self-reports, or poorly designed experiments conducted by individuals who have a vested interest in the results. Dolphin therapy is particularly attractive to desperate parents who will pay whatever it takes to help their kids with disorders such as autism and Down syndrome. They flock in droves to the more than one hundred therapeutic swim-with-dolphins programs in places like the Florida Keys, Bali, Great Britain, Russia, the Bahamas, Australia, Israel, and Dubai, all of them hoping that, through some unknown force, these creatures with perpetual Mona Lisa smiles will work their magic. Dolphin therapy is expensive. Two weeks at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center in the Netherlands Antilles costs roughly 700 bucks for each hour in the water. Is the money well spent? Will their hopes be fulfilled?
Nature does not give up its secrets easily. Scientists have to work hard to get beneath the veil. Just like everyone else, researchers can be duped, particularly when they have a horse in the race. That’s why graduate students take courses in research methods and statistics: to learn the tricks of the trade that will help keep them honest. We throw around phrases like
“internal and external validity,” “placebo control,” “random assignment,” “single and double blind experiments,” and “correlation is not causality.” I won’t bore you with the details except to say that these conceptual tools help reduce the chances that we will unconsciously tilt the playing field our way.
Good scientists try to be on the lookout for alternative explanations, even if they crush our pet ideas. In 1924, the managers of the Hawthorne Works, a factory outside Chicago, hired a group of psychologists to determine what types of changes in the work environment would make the biggest differences in worker productivity. The psychologists systematically instituted a series of small modifications. First, they increased the lighting on the factory floor, then they made a small change in the pay system. They monkeyed with the work schedule and the length of rest periods. The researchers found that nearly every change they made was followed by a temporary uptick in performance, even when it involved simply undoing a previous change. They concluded that the increases in worker productivity were not due to better lighting or better pay or longer breaks per se. They were just temporary improvements caused by a change in routine.
Could something like the Hawthorne Effect—simply having a new experience—explain the improvements seen in patients undergoing dolphin therapy? Think about it. In addition to hanging out with some of the most appealing creatures on Earth, you travel to beautiful places, spend time floating in tropical seas, and live for a while in a supportive environment where your expectations for success are high.
How can we separate the real effects of interacting with dolphins from all the other neat things that can happen during two weeks at dolphin camp? Fortunately, there are methods to help tease out the actual effects of treatments from those caused by unconscious biases that can creep into our experiments.
In order to take a cold, hard look at whether the benefits of interacting with dolphins are due to more than just temporary feel-good, we need to use a Consumer Reports
–type approach. What, for example, does the research really show about the effect of ultrahigh-frequency dolphin sounds on handicapped children? A group of German researchers carefully ob
served sessions in which dolphins interacted with groups of mentally and physically handicapped kids in a dolphin therapy program in the Florida Keys. They found that most of the dolphins ignored the children, and there was not much ultrasonic dolphin talk going on. In fact, the children were exposed to an average of only ten seconds of dolphin ultrasounds during each session, not nearly enough to be beneficial. The researchers concluded that the kids would have been better off playing with dogs.
But what about the dolphins’ purported ability to heal through good vibes, a healing smile, and mysterious electric fields? Careful analyses of these claims have been conducted by several researchers. Among them are Lori Marino and Scott Lilienfeld at Emory University. Lori is an animal person. She spends her Saturdays trying to find homes for rescued cats. But her real love is dolphins. She was originally attracted to the unusual anatomy of their brains when she was a graduate student in neuroscience. She has now been studying dolphins for nearly twenty years and was the first scientist to show that they have the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors (a trait shared with humans, apes, elephants, and magpies). Scott is a clinical psychologist who has made a career out of taking on some of psychology’s most sacred cows, such as whether those Rorschach inkblots reveal much about your personality (they don’t).
Given Lori’s expertise with dolphins and Scott’s ability to cut through psychobabble, they were the perfect team to assess whether dolphin therapy has a demonstrable effect on troubled bodies and minds. Lori and Scott carefully evaluated the methods of published studies claiming that dolphin therapy is effective for disorders such as depression, dermatitis, mental retardation, autism, and anxiety. They found that every one of them was methodologically flawed: small sample sizes, lack of objective measures of improvement, inadequate control groups, inability to separate the effects of the dolphins from an increased feeling of well-being that comes from doing new things in pleasant environments, and researcher conflicts of interests.
Lori and Scott contend that there is no valid scientific evidence that dolphin therapy is an effective treatment for any of the disorders that its advocates claim. They think it is all pseudoscience. Not content with
blowing off dolphin therapy as scientific mumbo jumbo, Lori and Scott want to put the industry out of business. They call it a dangerous fad. I can see the fad part, but why is it dangerous? If you can afford it, why not let kids with too little joy in their lives frolic with Flipper for a couple of weeks? Seems harmless.
Lori doesn’t agree. She points out that this “therapy” poses risks for both humans and animals. Dolphins can be aggressive, even to the children they are supposed to be healing. A recent study found that half of over 400 people who worked professionally with marine mammals had suffered traumatic injuries, and participants in dolphin therapy programs have been slapped, bitten, and rammed (the latter resulting in a broken rib and a punctured lung). You can even contract skin diseases from these animal therapists.
Dolphin therapy also raises pesky ethical issues. Clinical psychologists choose to become therapists. Dolphins do not. While most animals used in dolphin therapy programs in the United States are born in captivity, in other countries they are usually captured in the wild, often in massive roundups. Lori says that seven dolphins die for each one that makes it to a cetacean Guantanamo, where it will spend the rest of its life swimming circles in a concrete pool.
Do we have the right to capture intelligent animals with complex social lives and sophisticated communication systems and turn them into therapists for autistic children? I suppose the practice might be justified if these animals really did possess special curative powers. But I would need rock-solid evidence that dolphins can transform the isolated autistic child, or that a couple of hours of dolphin play could add fifteen points to the IQ of a girl with Down syndrome, or that dolphin electric fields could jolt the middle-age depressive out of his debilitating funk. But that evidence does not exist.
Dolphin therapy is an unregulated industry that is not certified or approved by any recognized psychological or medical professional organization. In 2007, the British Organizations the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Research Autism called for a ban on all dolphin therapy programs. Even a pioneer in the dolphin therapy movement has
joined the cause. Betsy Smith was an anthropologist at Florida International University in the 1970s when she began bringing dolphins and mentally handicapped children together. At first, the results looked good, and she quickly became a proponent of dolphin therapy. Not any more. In a letter released by the Aruba Marine Mammal Foundation, Dr. Smith wrote that “the primary motive of all captive programs is money.” Ouch.
According to my friends who have done it, swimming with dolphins is fun. But marine mammals are not magic bullets. A week of dolphin therapy won’t straighten the spine, heal the troubled mind, or prevent epileptic seizures. Save your money; save a dolphin.
DO PEOPLE LOOK LIKE THEIR DOGS?
When people find out I study human-animal relationships, they often tell me, “Oh, you should talk to my friend ____. She is crazy about her ____.” When my sister told me I should talk to Paulette Jacobson, I took her up on it. Paulette lives with a Shih Tzu named Miss Bette Davis (Missy for short) on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. Missy is a rescue dog who was severely neglected by her previous owner. Now she lives a life of luxury that includes home-cooked meals, boat rides on Puget Sound, and a fancy wardrobe. Paulette gets a kick out of dressing Missy up. Missy has a raincoat and sweaters, sunglasses and goggles. Sometimes Paulette and Missy dress alike and ride around Bainbridge on their motor scooter. They make a cute couple. People wave and stop to take their picture. A pet boutique is opening on the island, and Paulette can’t wait to see the new lines of doggy fashions they will offer. She adores Missy. Paulette told me, “She is everything I want in a dog.” But Missy is more than a companion for Paulette. “Missy is my alter-ego. I think of her as a fashion accessory.”
Nicole Richie took the idea of her pet being an extension of herself literally when she ha...