Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

It turned out Jason did what he always did when there was garbage on the floor -- he took off running. He wasn't running away because he felt guilty, he was running away because he felt scared. For Jason, garbage on the floor meant trouble. If Mr. Ross had stuck to behaviorist principles and thought about Jason's environment instead of about his "psychology," he wouldn't have made this mistake.

A friend of mine had the same experience with her two dogs, a one-year-old German shepherd and a three-month-old golden retriever. One day the puppy pooped in the living room, and later on when the older dog saw the poop she got so anxious she started to drool. If the older dog had made the poop herself and then stood there drooling, her owner probably would have thought the dog knew she'd done something bad. But since the other dog had made the poop, her owner realized that the whole category of poop-on-living-room-floor was just plain bad news, period.

Those stories are classic examples of why it's not a good idea to anthropomorphize an animal, but that's not all there is to it. In my student days, even though everyone was against anthropomorphizing animals, I still believed it was important to think about the animal's point of view. I remember there was a great animal psychologist out of New Zealand named Ron Kilgour (he was an ethologist) who wrote a lot about the problem of anthropomorphizing. One of his early papers told a story about a person who had a pet lion he was shipping on an airplane. Someone thought the lion might like to have a pillow for the trip, the same way people do, so they gave him one, and the lion ate it and died. The point was: don't be anthropomorphic. It's dangerous to the animal.

But when I read this story I said to myself, "Well, no, he doesn't want a pillow, he wants something soft to lie on, like leaves and grass." I wasn't looking at the lion as a person, but as a lion. At least that's what I was trying to do.

That kind of thinking was illegal for behaviorists, however, and wasn't really encouraged by the ethologists, either. Both groups were environmentalists when you came right down to it, the big difference being which environment the animal was in while the researchers were studying him.

In the end, I had a pretty good grounding in animal ethology from undergraduate college before I started graduate school at Arizona State University. It was a good thing I did, because Arizona State was a hotbed of behaviorism. Everything was behaviorism. And I did not like some of the very cruel experiments they did to mice, rats, and monkeys. I remember one poor little monkey that had a little Plexiglas thing shoved onto his scrotum that they were shocking him with. I thought that was terrible.

I was not involved in any of the nasty experiments. I don't endorse using animals as subjects in experiments unless you're going to learn something incredibly important. If you're using animals to find a cure for cancer, that's different, especially since animals need a cure for cancer, too. But that's not what they were doing at Arizona. I spent one year in the psych department studying experimental psychology, and I thought, "I don't want to do this."

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