Jonathan Balcombe, Animals’ Inner Lives


Jonathan Balcombe, Animals’ Inner Lives
Balcombe TorontoAnimal behavior expert Jonathan Balcombe is a passionate advocate for animals and their living spaces. Born in England and raised in Canada and New Zealand, Balcombe showed an early interest in animals. His favorite place to visit at age three was the London Zoo and by six he was gazing at insects in the backyard. He studied biology at York University and Carleton University in Canada before getting a PhD in Ethology—the study of animal behavior—from the University of Tennessee in 1991, where he studied vocal recognition and mother pup reunion behavior in the Mexican Free-tailed Bat. He has published over 50 journal articles and book chapters ranging from turtle nesting behavior to the ethics of animal dissection. His 2006 book Pleasurable Kingdom is the first in-depth examination of animals’ capacity to enjoy life. His subsequent books Second Nature, and The Exultant Ark continue to present animals in a new light and presage a revolution in the human-animal relationship. He is currently writing a book on the inner lives of fishes. A popular speaker, Balcombe has given invited presentations on six continents (the penguins are still waiting for him to visit Antarctica). Balcombe is an Ambassador to The Pollination Project, and he serves on several advisory boards, including the National Museum of Animals and Society, the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, and Primates Incorporated. He is Executive Director of the newly-formed Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, in Washington. In his spare time he enjoys biking, baking, birding, and Bach.

As mentioned on the program, here is the link to the
Forthcoming Conference: Animal Thinking and Emotion (17-18 March 2014, Washington, DC)


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and we’re back! It is January 28th, 2014, and this is our second part of the program today. And how are you doing? I didn’t ask you that earlier, I wish you would let me know! By doing that, you can email me at I love to hear from you, I love to hear your comments and your questions, I learn so much. And like I was talking earlier about community, well, if we can’t meet face to face we can certainly meet online and have a conversation. I like to think that we are not really alone on this planet, we are not really alone, we are all part of some same big, mysterious something, energy, universe, and it’s important that we realize that. We all breathe the same air, and are living on the same Earth. There’s a lot to that, and we tend to kind of think within our own little bodies and there’s a lot more to what’s going on. I want to bring on my next guest, Jonathan Balcombe. He is an animal behavior expert and a passionate advocate for animals and their living spaces. He was born in England and raised in Canada and New Zealand. He showed an early interest in animals. His favorite place to visit at age three was the London Zoo, and by six he was gazing at insects in the backyard. He studied biology at York University and at Carleton University in Canada before getting a PhD in ethology, the study of animal behavior, from the University of Tennessee where he studied vocal recognition and mother-pup reunion behavior in the Mexican free-tailed bat. He has published over 50 journal articles and book chapters ranging from turtle nesting behavior to the ethics of animal dissection. His 2006 book, Pleasurable Kingdom, is the first in-depth examination of animals’ capacity to enjoy life. His subsequent books, Second Nature and The Exultant Ark, continue to present animals in a new light and presage a revolution in the human-animal relationship. He’s currently writing a book on the inner lives of fishes. A popular speaker, he has given invited presentations on six continents. The penguins are still waiting for him to visit Antarctica! All right, welcome to It’s All About Food, Jonathan!

Jonathan Balcombe: Thanks for having me, Caryn!

Caryn Hartglass: Hi, so have we gotten the phone technology all worked out there?

Jonathan Balcombe: Well I’m on the phone now, the Skype didn’t work for some reason, I’ll have to figure that out next time.

Caryn Hartglass: Right, okay. And currently you’re the executive director of The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, I’m transferring into that position, there’s some flux going on right now, but yes, that is a new role for me.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, good, well I’m glad you’re in it! Okay, so you do some really interesting work, something that not a lot of people pay attention to, and we certainly should be. Let’s start in the very beginning. You say that at the age of three you loved the London Zoo. How do you feel about zoos today, Jonathan?

Jonathan Balcombe: Mixed. Sadly zoos are some of the few places some urban people get to see animals, but really are they seeing of the real animal? I mean, a tiger in a zoo, for instance, is not a tiger. I mean it’s physically that animal, it’s got the genetics of a tiger, but it doesn’t do anything like a tiger, it doesn’t behave like a tiger. So an animal like that, large predators, would be an example of a group of animals that are totally unsuited to being in any kind of captive situation. And I think that applies to, I would say, the majority of animals kept in zoos today, and there’s obviously a preference for the charismatic
mega-vertebrates, the larger ones, which ironically are the ones that shouldn’t be there because they need more space to live. So I’m very troubled by zoos, but of course I wasn’t thinking about any of those things when I was a little kid going to the London Zoo.

Caryn Hartglass: Of course not. Yeah, I used to enjoy going to the Bronx Zoo when I was a kid in New York. Are you familiar with Martin Rowe’s book, The Polar Bear in the Zoo?

Jonathan Balcombe: I know of it, I haven’t read it yet. I like Martin and his work.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well, what it talked about is framing, and how we perceive things in a frame of reference. And I think what you’re doing is helping us see things beyond the frame, and think outside of the box, or whatever cliches we want to use. And in understanding animals, to the best of our feeble ability, it might help us understand ourself and the world around us.

Jonathan Balcombe: Well I’m encouraged that more and more scientists are also thinking outside of the box. And just one example, Vladimir Dinets, he’s a Russian national, he’s at the University of Tennessee now, he just got his PhD last year, and such are his discoveries about crocodile behavior that I believe he’s published 12 or 13 scientific papers on his findings from his PhD research just in the last year or two. I’m delighted today he’s coming to speak at a conference for organizing in Washington, DC in March. I hope we can come back to that in the Conference of Animal Thinking and Emotion, and he’s going to be presenting his latest findings on crocodile behavior, cognition, maybe even emotion, meaning, not suggesting they don’t have emotions, whether he’s talking about that. A recent discovery of his is that crocodiles use tools.

Caryn Hartglass: Uh oh, we’re in trouble!

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, well, certainly if you’re a heron you may be in trouble because what they do is they carry
twigs on their heads and then, they only do this during the time when herons and egrets are breeding, so it’s time sensitive and location sensitive. And they bring these sticks and float them below the rookeries of these nests, and the nesting herons, well you can guess what they use to build their nests out of. And there’s a real premium on sticks at that time of year. The heron comes down to get the stick, and you can figure out the rest of the story. So it’s quite remarkable behavior from an animal that is so often dismissed as a cold blooded, unthinking, automaton reptile.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Hello humans, we have some competition with tool use! I know humans thought that we were special in that area, and we keep coming to find out more and more that other species are using tools too.

Jonathan Balcombe: Well what I think that we can say is, we are special, but we’re certainly not unique in that we use tools. Other animals use and manufacture tools and it’s a good example of a long list of things that we did used to think were unique to humans, but we had to strike a lot of things off of that list. But I think we do tend to be intellicentric, we love to focus on animal intelligence and cognition because we feel like we’re so very smart. But animals are good at what they need to be good at. We all evolve in different pathways, ways that suit our way of living. And I think it’s really short
sighted of us to demean or reduce animals because they may not function cognitively in the particular ways that we do.

Caryn Hartglass: I have a copy of your book Pleasurable Kingdom. It’s actually a signed copy, I was fortunate to receive it when I was at the PCRM Gala in 2007 in Washington, I think they gave it to all the attendees there.

Jonathan Balcombe: They did, that was a fun event.

Caryn Hartglass: Were you there?

Jonathan Balcombe: I was.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh! Okay, I was there too!

Jonathan Balcombe: I was a peon doing work in the background.

Caryn Hartglass: Well it was an interesting time for me because I was in between major surgeries for advanced ovarian cancer, a subject we can talk about at another time, and I thought I was done but I wasn’t done and I was really uncomfortable during that event. And I was so looking forward to it and looked for all the ways I possibly could, to seek pleasure that evening in order to focus on the pleasure and not on the pain. You talked a bit about pleasure and pain in your Pleasurable Kingdom book with respect to animals.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, just a little bit.

Caryn Hartglass: Just a little bit! Unfortunately it’s a funny thing the way we focus our understanding in the scientific realm. We’ll do experiments on animals and inflict pain on them in order to see different things, but we don’t want to really want to acknowledge that either they feel pain or that they feel pleasure.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, it’s a very strange imbalance that we’ve had, with a great deal of attention and time and effort in research paid to the study of pain. There are some 25-odd journals published today, scholarly journals, that actually have the word pain in the title of the journal. These journals are dedicated to the study and understanding of pain. Now on one level it’s understandable because pain is an urgent issue, it’s a very major issue that, well anyone who’s suffering from it, pretty much everyone would want it relieved. But isn’t it interesting that there are no journals on pleasure, and yet pleasure plays such an important central role in our lives and our motivations, and the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis: what we eat, what we wear, the kind of work we do, where we go for entertainment, etc. And when I thought about animal pleasure, I was just stunned to realize that there really had been so little attention to it. I’ve spent 10 years studying biology at three different universities, and I don’t recall a single occasion where anything was discussed about animal pleasure, about animals’ capacity to derive pleasure. I mean, scientists have talked about reward and that sort of thing in kind of an evolutionary context, but even that is a fairly little-thought-about phenomenon. But really, pleasure in that kind of conscious awareness sense where you seek out good feelings, really we’ve kind of missed the boat on that. So I was very inspired to delve into that subject and it’s been a really rewarding and ironically interesting subject to pursue.

Caryn Hartglass: I loved hearing about the crocodiles and the twigs. Do you have some favorite examples of animals seeking pleasure and experiencing pleasure?

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, from a sort of rigorous, scientific perspective, I think the work of Jaak Panksepp is among the best with rats. He also will be speaking at our conference. He noticed that rats would, when they’re young especially, they play, they wrestle, they flip each other over, they tickle each other in the belly, and various sort of behaviors. When you put a bat detector next to them, you notice these ultrasonic chirp sounds.They are 50 kilohertz, a specific frequency, and rats also are known, now that we have equipment that we can detect this stuff, to make sounds at about 22 kilohertz, which is sort of negative. So if they’re chirping at 22 kilohertz, they’re probably not very happy about what’s going on. It may be associated with pain or distress, whereas if they’re chirping up in the 50 kilohertz range, essentially it’s the rats’ way of saying, “Wow, this is delightful. I’m really enjoying this!” And when they tickle each other and play, they do this. He then decided, let’s measure this! So they set up the bat detectors, and then they had rats in two groups. One group was petted each day at a certain time on the neck and then put back in their enclosure, and then the other group were flipped on their backs and tickled. And they found at the end of a few days of that, the rats who had been petted on the neck would come to the hand so they appeared to like that. The rats who had been tickled ran to the hand four times as quickly, and made seven times as many of these high-pitched chirps. So a simple, very quantitative study, he and his team have since done a number of other studies to present more information about what’s going on. But the real, the take-home-message is that they’re not just doing something that may be adaptive, and an adaptive basis for play behavior, but they’re enjoying it. It’s fun for them, it feels good. And I think we can all relate to that, we know what it’s like to play and tickle when we’re kids or when we’re grownups.

Caryn Hartglass: I don’t like being tickled.

Jonathan Balcombe: Well, most people don’t. Tickling is sort of aggressive and unpleasant, depending on the context and how it’s done. In any event, all indications are that these rats are having a blast when they do this.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. It’s just incredible how little we see and how framed in we are by our own experiences, how so many of us just refuse to see or acknowledge what’s going on around us. And fortunately with technology and some tools, we can perceive some of the things that we don’t even have the senses for.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, well, technology does allow us to, that’s right, to advance some of our understanding. I mean, pet scans, and FMRI’s, functional MRI’s, where you can actually see a brain in action. Another speaker at our conference, Greg Berns down at Emory University, they have trained domestic dogs who are very malleable and trainable, they respond to us, you can train them to sit still. And so they have them sitting still, fully awake, and an FMRI machine looking out, sitting comfortably, and getting treats in return for the right behavior. And they then present them with pictures or with stimuli, and they see how their brains respond. And they find, low and behold, they’re finding that their brains respond emotionally, the
emotional lighting up of their brain mirrors those in the human brain in terms of response to particular emotive stimuli, stimuli that you would expect to cause an emotional response. I’m looking forward to learning more about that when he comes to speak at our meeting.

Caryn Hartglass:Can you give us more detail on that meeting?

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, it’s called The Science of Animal Thinking and Emotion, and it’s on March 17th to 18th here in Washington, DC at Gallaudet University. And if people go online and just, well I guess I should probably give you a URL before the end of the presentation, and then they can go. But it’s presented by the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, so if people Google the “HSISP”, for short, and then “conference in Washington, DC”, I mean it’s bound to come up. Or “animal thinking about emotion”, any of those terms will bring up the page where people can get more information, and if they wish they can register.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, great, well you can send me a link later after the program and I will include it in the post for this program.

Jonathan Balcombe: Okay.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, great. And, okay, what I want to know is: You’re talking about some of this wonderful work that’s going on. Who’s funding it? Are there particular organizations or universities that fund this sort of information? And I’ll tell you what I’m trying to get at, because usually the funding only comes from organizations that want to profit from things and rarely do we see things just from the joy of learning something.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, well…I mean, it’s a good question and I can tell you, going back to the rat example, Jaak Panksepp, and I’ve talked to him about his, this research, and he was unable to get any funding for that. He tried and tried, and because it was outside the comfort zone of science and funding, its like, “Well, what do you mean pleasure in rats?” There was a lot of skepticism and disbelief that there would even be such a phenomenon. And so really what that says is that what is revealed by science has to go through a filter, and the filter can really skew what you find out. There’s not funding for some of the most interesting stuff from the perspective, from my perspective, animal emotion and that sort of thing. I mean, and that’s changing, that’s getting back to the change we’re seeing. It’s because as you get an accumulation of information that animals are doing stuff that we used to think they didn’t do, then there’s more interest. So I’m hopeful that the funding for that sort of study will begin, will be growing. But really, it is challenging for scientists who want to really think outside the box.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well what I’m thinking, one of my motives, is to get people to understand about animals and how incredible they are and how intelligent they are, in order…

Jonathan Balcombe: So do I.

Caryn Hartglass: …so that people don’t exploit them and don’t eat them, because there’s so much more to them than using them as food! But when I think about the science that would go on that would be supported, I think it would probably be from universities or companies that want to learn how to manipulate animals even more, so that they can have them happily walk up to the plank to slaughter, or whatever.

Jonathan Balcombe: Well not all research is of that ilk. I mean, this guy Dinets who’s been doing the crocodile stuff, the mirror imaging of the dog brain, I mean that’s…I suppose in the grant proposal there is some language in there to the effect of how this might be applied, but that, even then, it might be to improve the human-companion-animal relationship or something like that. I mean, it’s not always with a commercial bent. And so…

Caryn Hartglass: Good!

Jonathan Balcombe: …I’m encouraged to see that there is a fair amount of research that’s exploratory and doesn’t have to be justified by someone making a profit.

Caryn Hartglass: Chickens are, I think, the most popular meat these days, and I think it’s on the rise as red meats go down. I think somewhere along the last few decades people got the message that red meat isn’t so healthy, but then they got the message that chicken’s a better choice.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, but even then, in the US, chicken consumption is dropping. The USDA itself estimated that half a billion fewer chickens would be consumed by Americans in 2013 than in the last few years before.

Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s good news, we just have to get that message to China.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yes indeed. Globally we’re not going in the right direction.

Caryn Hartglass: Right.

Jonathan Balcombe: Part of the problem of that is, more humans, more mouths to feed. And I write about that in my book, Second Nature.

Caryn Hartglass: We’re the problem!

Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, I mean, it’s a real elephant in the room, human overpopulation, and
that’s just not being addressed by politicians anywhere.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, and oh gosh I was reading something this past week, it was either the New York Times or the New Yorker, those are really the only two things that I read other than books. But there was some study about humanity around the world, and I mean this isn’t new information, but the more we educate different populations, and as women become educated and more useful in society, the population goes down because the families decide to have less children and they don’t need as many because they’re not dying of hygiene issues or malnutrition or whatever. And that’s really what we need to do, provide more education, and populations naturally go down.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, and it’s not anti-human to say that. I mean, and I think that may be why politicians don’t get on that horse.

Caryn Hartglass: More is not better.

Jonathan Balcombe: No, and of course it’s coming back to animals. I mean, the more humans there are, the less space there is for animals to live, and that’s also a direct impact we have. I mean, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, that’s a direct result of more and more humans living on the earth.

Caryn Hartglass: And we need other species on this planet, not just humans.

Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, even that, that’s anthropocentric thing to say, but it’s a reality. It’s pro-human to want biodiversity. It’s not anti-human to want us to curve our numbers and to make more space for animals to live and other organisms to grow.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, we don’t acknowledge that enough, and I think scientifically we’re just learning the importance of certain bacterias, for example, and bacterias in the soil, and bacterias in our gut, and there’s a lot of life out there that we can’t live without.

Jonathan Balcombe: That’s true.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s see. We just have a couple of minutes left and I brought up the chicken thing because I wondered if you had any good chicken stories. Or bird stories, because birds are so incredible and so kind and so intelligent, and we often don’t give them…

Jonathan Balcombe: I often talk about chickens and they’re fun to talk about. I mean, I was making some notes before our conversation, just a couple of really recent things in the news are an example of tool use. And crows and herons, they will use crumbs, drop them on the water to lure fishes in and catch the fish. It’s interesting on two levels. One is tool use because of using the food as tools, but also restraint, delayed gratification because the crow, and for that matter the heron, could just eat the bread or the crumbs right away. And the herons don’t typically eat bread, but crows would. And yet they’re planning ahead, they’re going to forgo the food, the food that I have now immediately, because I can use it to get a bigger prize. But I want to add something about fish because I’m writing a book about fishes now. And the fish are turning the tables. This is an example of fishes that have actually catched birds in midair. Tiger fish in Africa were recently filmed, documented, you can see a rather grainy Youtube video of a tiger fish swimming, must have swum, very rapidly under water, and leaps out and grabs a flying swallow from behind in the air, which is pretty amazing physical coordination and I would say probably planning. And then catfish in a lake in France, for some years now, have been swimming into the shallows and grabbing pigeons who are coming in to drink in the shallows. The pigeons are a bit nonchalant, and they shouldn’t be, because there’s about a 28% mortality rate…

Caryn Hartglass: Oh!

Jonathan Balcombe: …when the fish grab the pigeons.

Caryn Hartglass: We don’t think about it that way, the fish grabbing the bird.

Jonathan Balcombe: We generally don’t think of it that way, but it cuts both ways, and one of the reasons I’m writing a book on fishes is because they are well, A, extremely exploited by humans in huge numbers, and B, very misunderstood. There’s some great science on fish cognition that is now coming out, showing that fishes have complex social lives with Machiavellian

Caryn Hartglass: Wow, Jonathan, great, I wish we could talk a lot more about it. This is a subject that deserves a lot more time, but we’re at the end of the program. So thank you so much for joining me, and I hope to meet you in person real soon.

Jonathan Balcombe: Thank you for having me!

Caryn Hartglass: And thank you again!

Jonathan Balcombe: Okay, until next time. Bye!

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, bye bye! That’s the end of the show, and have a delicious week! I’m Caryn Hartglass, this has been another It’s All About Food! Bye bye!

Transcribed by Emily Roberts, 2/13/2014


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