The qualzucht trilemma: The criminality of pedigree breeding

“Physical deformity calls forth our charity”. ~ Clarence Darrow

A Trilemma

Trilemma:.[Noun] A situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between three undesirable alternatives (Oxford English Dictionary).

The health issues concerned with pedigree dog breeding trilemma involves three options that can be taken ignore, illegalise, improve. 1) Ignore it – do nothing and allow breeding to continue. 2) Ban breeding of breeds with significant health issues. 3) Combine multiple measures to improve dog health.

‘Actus Reas’ – Qualzucht

There are two things that need to be proven in order to treat something as a criminal act – one is the action itself and the other is the intent to carry out that action. In law terminology, the first part is known as Actus Reas and the second part is known as Mens Rea. The latter term is so important because it can be the difference between different types of crime, or even whether a crime was committed at all. Take murder and manslaughter, for example; you can hit someone with your car accidently without the intent to kill anyone. This is manslaughter: there is an Actus Reas (road death) but no Mens Rea (intention).

In this blog I explore the Actus Reas of breeding dogs with genetically inherited conditions and/or body shapes (known as confirmation) significantly harmful to welfare. In Germany there is a word for this type of breeding: Qualzucht. This translates as ‘torture breeding’. The term appeared after the German Animal Welfare Association decided that legislation covered in the country’s Animal Welfare Act was insufficient to protect domestic pets from harm. “In Germany Austria and Switzerland it has been a crime for over a decade to carry out the deliberate breeding of such animals. Qualzucht does not only apply to conformation: it is equally appropriate for predictable inherited diseases”. So, what does qualzucht look like and what trends are evident in the UK?

The British Veterinary Association made their position clear on possibly the most well-known aspect of poor-welfare breeding, brachycephaly (where short nosed dogs find it difficult to breathe properly). Yet there are other genetic predispositions affecting the wellbeing of thousands of UK dogs. The Canine Inherited Disease Database lists 156 conditions, in 11 categories, associated with disease and conformation. A way of emphasizing what I feel forms the Actus Reus of this potential crime are breed specific examples from each category, shown below.

It is important to note that the majority of inherited disorders are invisible. Physical traits often receive the most public attention because of their visual impact, yet invisible hereditary conditions can be just as harmful to health and longevity. In fact, ‘unseen’ disorders can be repeatedly and unknowingly selected for as they are genetically linked to genotypes for physical traits – for example, deafness in Dalmatians has been linked to coat coloration. It is arguable that damaging physical traits and any diseases they are unknowingly linked with (both of which I call ‘conditions’), consciously or unconsciously selected for, are qualzucht.

Disease and breed examples from the 11 categories of inherited conditions

Mens Rea’ – Social Constructivism

Now we need to look at Mens Rea. How would a court prove intent to commit a crime via breeding? The table below shows four ways a person can be culpable of committing a crime under the law’s four types of intent.

It can be difficult establishing specific intent in any kind of animal abuse case and this would be no different with qualzucht breeding. There are organisations dedicated to prosecution under animal protection laws, such as Animal Legal Defence Fund, which have won prosecutions under both specific and general intent. However, establishing specific intent takes considerable time and legal expertise. Let us, therefore, look at how an argument could be made for establishing general intent for poor-welfare breeding.

Establishing purposeful, knowing and reckless intent requires that perpetrators understand the consequences of their actions; establishing negligent intent requires that although the perpetrator did not understand, any reasonable person would understand the consequences. Mens Rea for breeding requires the public’s sufficient knowledge and understanding of the harm that certain breeding practices can cause. Knowledge would need to reach a threshold where society considers certain breeding practices harmful and, subsequently, a crime. Two theories support this argument – ‘Social Constructivism’ and ‘Green Crime’.

“Behaviours become crimes through a process of social construction. The legal status of a behaviour—whether it is defined as a crime—lies not in the content of the behaviour itself but in the social response to the behaviour”. This is the social construction theory of crime, defining crime by the ‘collective conscious’. This means that the actions that humans carry are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good, ‘criminal’ or ‘legal’, instead they are assigned these labels by others in society who view certain acts as a form of wrong doing that may threaten society’s moral order. So for society to identify certain types of breeding as deviant, before the act is recognised as criminal, there needs to first be recognition of harm.

Non-criminal acts against animals or the environment, which nevertheless cause harm, are considered Green Crimes. “Social thought associated with the green and animal liberation movements are especially challenging to pre-existing conceptions of justice”. Green Crime theorises that non-human animals have intrinsic value separate to their ability to serve human purposes. Acts against animals constitute harm to sentient beings, irrespective of any crime consequently occurring towards humans (e.g. property damage). The study of social harm, rather than designated crime, is known as zemiology.

When enough members of society recognise inherent harm in breeding practices, a threshold will be reached whereby 1) breeders should understand the deleterious consequences of their actions and therefore behave recklessly if they continue or 2) reasonable members of society would not carry out those breeding practices and therefore a breeder who does behaves negligently. This provides the ability to prove culpability through general intent Mens Rea.

Of course, the act of breeding and/or owning a qualzucht breed could be deemed a strictly liable crime. This is a different type of crime in which proof of negligence or intent is not required. Sections under the Dangerous Dogs Act, such as dogs dangerously out of control and keeping a dangerous species, are strictly liable crimes. Deeming qualzucht a strictly liable crime would negate the inherent difficulties in proving Mens Rea.

We have explored what could potentially be deemed criminal acts and culpable intents. Intentdepends upon public education and a social acceptance of harm. Looking at the three ‘sides’ of the trilemma highlighted in the introduction, the image below reminds us of issues yet to explore.

Moving on, we will look at how breeds would be chosen as ‘worst affected’ and what the morbidity and severity of cases is currently (as up until now the issue has been mostly ignored). In addition, what does qualzucht legislation look like in Europe and what are the consequences of potential illegalising through a ban? And lastly, what problems arise when we see that a journey to improvement takes time, meaning individual dogs still suffer in the interim?

Ignore – Morbidity Vs Severity

Domestication from wolves to dogs has brought many unforeseen health issues. Some conditions are more prevalent in the UK than others and severity differs between conditions. Whose responsibility is it to decide which breeds are most affected?

Two organisations collect, monitor and disseminate information relating to inherited conditions: The Kennel Club (TKC) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA). These encourage veterinarians to report surgical procedures on Kennel Club registered dogs, including caesareans, to TKC (although not mandatory). Information is used by TKC to study disease inheritance and suggest ways forward in health, standards and campaigns.

Specific bans, therefore, would either A) be agreed upon by the BVA and TKC based on evidence or B) passed by government without agreement of the BVA or TKC. In the past TKC has come under pressure to do more to improve health of pedigree dogs, including pressure to dissolve Crufts, the championship canine conformation show. Increased pressure from media attention, such as Pedigree Dogs Exposed, may cause action to be taken without TKC’s cooperation. If the BVA and TKC did identify breeds not to be bred, two aspects of harm could be considered: morbidity and severity. Indeed, data on these areas indicates the problem’s current extent if we ignore the issue. Problems if ignored can only worsen.

Morbidity is the number of dogs of a particular breed affected. Severity is how catastrophic conditions are to health and welfare. An extremely painful condition affecting 0.05% of a breed could arguably be less impactful than conditions compromising welfare to a lesser degree (e.g. deafness), affecting 80% of the breed. With morbidity it is important to consider which breeds are becoming more popular and may end up having more animals affected. With severity, it is important to consider breeds may be affected by more than one condition, making implications more severe.

Large-scale studies have been done by the Dog’s Trust and TKC into morbidity and severity. These provide evidence on which arguments for banning breed proliferation could be based. For morbidity, research has identified 192 Kennel Club registered breeds with inherited conditions and details what proportion of each breed is affected. For severity, research gives disorders due to conformation, disorders exacerbated by conformation and disorders not linked to conformation a GISID rating (Generic Illness  Severity Index for Dogs) – a scoring system of severity.

Brining these two aspects together, researchers measured the number affected and the severity of conditions. If an animal suffered from more than one condition, GISID scores accumulated. This led to a quantification of the number and severity of conditions in each breed, also identifying breed popularity, giving an idea of how severity links with morbidity and interlinks with UK trends.

It is evident there are a number of ways that organisation such as TKC and the BVA could distinguish breeds that should arguably not be bred. Equally apparent is the availability of evidence for charities such as the Dog’s Trust and RSPCA to lobby for instating UK qualzucht laws. The power to criminalise certain practices rests with organisations commissioning and processing such data as well as the public social conscious.

I have not listed specific breeds which I believe should be allowed to decrease due to restrictions, but a number of breeds clearly crop up consistently (in  published data, media attention and through personal experience). Some breeds are arguably either beyond the help of combined measures or such measures would take so long to combat the issues that suffering of the individuals in the intervening time is beyond justification. Examples I offer are German Shepherds, Boxers, Pugs, Bulldogs, King Charles Spaniels, Basset Hounds and Great Danes. Being reflexive, these are largely driven by my own experience, supported by literature as much as possible. But, if such breed specific bans were put into place, what might the consequences be?

Illegalise – What a ban may bring

Making practices illegal shows governments recognise harm caused by a deliberate act, demonstrating a zero tolerance policy, rather than mitigation. What does a ‘qualzucht’ ban look like? In Switzerland, qualzucht legislation dictates ‘stress load’, capturing the stress of pain and suffering due to certain conditions. Legislation is founded upon research which takes into account hereditary prevalence, wellbeing and bodily deformities. A proportion of UK residents advocate such action: in 2018, 80,000 people signed a petition to ban brachycephalic breeding. Nevertheless, it has been documented that when bans are put into place there can be unintended consequences.

Pushing breeding and ownership underground:

Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) already exists in the UK. Current legislation dictates 4 breeds banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act. However, Pit Bulls are still bred within the UK illegally, as the ban has pushed breeders of Pit Bull types underground. A freedom of information request found 3,000 Pit Bull types exempted in Britain in 2015. These were found ‘not dangerous’, but still present in the UK despite the ban. It is likely that, by introducing bans on certain breeds, underground breeders will try to cheat the system. This has added problems of individual dogs not be registered with vets or TKC, due to illegal status, rendering health issues and genetic contributions undetected. To look at a specific qualzucht example, a report in Switzerland identified that many breeds falling under the prohibited breeding system, (Pugs, Bulldogs and Boston Terriers), were “widespread despite [qualzucht] law and regulation”. The report identified imported animals as well as uncontrolled and non-certified kennels as sources of these breeds.

The myth of hybrid vigour:

A common myth is that crosses between two breeds are inherently healthier because of ‘diluted’ genetics. In fact, a study in 2013 demonstrated mixed-breed dogs are almost as predisposed as pure breeds to 13 heritable conditions. If certain breeds were banned, more breeders may crossbreed individuals to meet consumer demand, without impinging on the ban. Deleterious conditions may proliferate in increasingly popular crossbreeds, requiring further action. This echoes similar patterns in other activities that receive a ban. A report found that when ‘legal highs’ were banned health service reports of class A drug use increased. A heightened intensity of breeding of other breeds, or mixed breeds, may nullify the effect of any ban.


There is the difficulty of what sentences should be given to those who breach qualzucht bans. In Europe, standard sentences include fines and jail time. However, fines are unlikely to be a deterrent to breeders making large sums of money through breeding dogs in demand. There is little credible evidence that incarceration acts as a criminal deterrent. Other potentials include qualzucht perpetrators appearing on an animal abuse register, but this would have little effect if the act is already taking place in a ‘black market’ environment. Another consideration may be an AniCare method, with an educational approach to try and reduce reoffending. Any of these methods will require research, investment and monitoring.

Difficulty in policing:

One animal welfare ban firmly in the public eye is the fox hunting ban of 2005. One aspect of this ban that became apparent was the difficulty in policing and upholding the law, especially in rural areas. In 2009 the Telegraph reported “the Association of Chief Police Officers is to issue new advice acknowledging the difficulty of compiling evidence against illegal hunting”. Similar issues faced by police dealing with hunting legislature would similarly occur with banning certain breeding practices, as there is often a lack of data collection, and enforcement agents in the majority of animal crime legislation.

Breeding happens in the home, out of sight. It would be difficult to identify which animals fall into banned categories with degrees of mixed breeding (as mentioned previously). Animals may not technically be pure breeds that fall into the banned category, but nevertheless still show the traits that are being banned. This would take considerable up-skilling and training of police or collaboration with non-government animal-welfare organisations such as the RSPCA. Because these animals would more than likely be unregistered, this will make policing even harder. TKC already state that only 30 per cent of purebred dogs are currently registered, which would only worsen. To give a qualzucht example, it is noted that there have only been a few convictions under prohibitive law, and this may be due to similar policing difficulties.

Improve – Combined measures

So, if we ignore the issue, we have seen the types of conditions that can affect the welfare of many breeds of dog (the Canine Inherited Disease Database lists 159 affected breeds and acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive list). Equally, if we seek to illegalise practices there are unintended consequences that can complicate and even reverse the intended actions. Finally, let us look at the third side of the trilemma: improvement. What would ‘combined measures to improve health’ look like and what are the negative implications of this approach?

Media is a big driver for generating interest in purebred dogs, including TV, social media and celebrity culture. Celebrities are pictured with dogs which are predisposed to some of the highest welfare compromising issues. It has been suggested that one of the ways forward to minimise the number of dogs with conformation issues is to curb the exposure that the public, especially the young public, have to such media. A potential ban on using welfare-compromised breeds in advertising may be a ‘halfway step’ toward banning those breed outright. The campaign group CRUFFA (Campaign for the Responsible Use of Flat-Faced Animals) advocate such an advertising ban, as do a number of welfare charities.

Education will always be at the forefront of changing perception. Informing potential puppy buyers about factors influencing dog welfare and breed problems is important. Veterinary associations and TKC are promoting such educational measures, such as ‘The Puppy Contract’ launched by the RSPCA to encourage responsible breeding. There are currently voluntary heath schemes run by TKC, such as the ‘Pug Club Health Scheme’, educating breeders of specific breeds. There are suggestions to make these educative schemes compulsory for affected breeds. The BVA have suggested educational campaigns on TV and radio programmes and circulating imagery such as comparison CT scans of brachycephalic and ‘normal’ dogs.

Left, a brachycephalic breed and right a non-brachycephalic breed

I suggest these more impactful visual images highlighting wider recognised problems (such as flat-nosed breeds) are valuable precursors to conversations about ‘hidden’ problems not necessarily forefront of public attention (such as deaf Dalmatians, or kidney problems in Highland Terriers).

Breed Standard considerations are also highly topical. TKC are consistently challenged by lobbyists to change pedigree breed standards to improve welfare. Conformation issues, and underlying medical conditions genetically linked to physical traits, are often perpetuated by pedigree bloodline criteria and competition standards. Thus, one component of combined measures would be a revision of breed standards deleterious to health.

There are steps that are being taken to ‘breed in’ traits that improve welfare, for example elongating the faces of brachycephalic breeds. There have been more breeding clubs that disseminate information about traits that still ‘fit’ the standard but are less compromising, such as the example below from a website promoting longer muzzle length in French Bulldogs.

There is evidence of this being implemented by TKC: “Each revised standard now starts with a general statement advising breeders and judges that they ‘should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed’. Breeders and judges are encouraged to report any perceived problems to a new ‘Breed Watch’ section of the KC’s website”.  These are positive steps forwards, although revisions were only made to 78 of the 209 breed standards.

Welfarism vs. Abolition

If media, education and breed standard alterations could make headway into improvement of harmful breeding, why is the ‘improve’ aspect of the trilemma an issue? The answer lies in the argument between welfarism and abolition. Welfarism, obviously, rests on the concept of welfare whereas abolition is underpinned by the assumption of rights. Welfarism is captured by the efforts mentioned in the previous section, i.e. striving to improve the health and livelihoods of domestic animals through strategized methods of care. Yet it is the notions of abolition and animal rights which bolster the idea of ‘breed improvement’ being part of the trilemma.

Animal rights (rather than welfare) would require that we ‘stop our institutionalised exploitation of non-human animals’. This means organisations promoting humane uses of animals through regulatory changes do not go far enough. Gary Francione, a staunch abolitionist, criticises the welfarist position, believing that it “rests on the notion that there is a qualitative difference between the minds of humans and nonhumans and that this means…that there is a morally relevant distinction between the sentient experiences of humans and other animals”.

For example, laws against grievous bodily harm towards humans do not require that perpetrators should reduce the amount of pain caused to a socially acceptable level. It requires that the crime is either 1) not committed or 2) criminally punished. An analogy with pedigree breeding which causes suffering would be that the act is not committed at all instead of formulating long-term strategies whilst, in the meantime, allowing animals to suffer without perpetrator punishment.

Whilst improvement strategies run their course there would still be opportunity for counter-messages to proliferate. For example, in 2014 there was outrage that a ‘deformed’ German Shepherd won Best in Breed (below). If such breeding were illegal there may be less scope for media coverage that counteracts reformation strategies.


The pros and cons of the three strategies of the trilemma are outline din the table below.

I believe further research into ‘quelzucht’ practices could an provide a strong argument for pedigree breeding (that compromises welfare) to be deemed criminal. Evidence from fields of law, veterinary medicine and anthrozoology underpin such a standpoint, as does identifying elements of ‘qualzucht’ law in European countries to serve as a model for UK legislation. A clear strategy would need to be formulated, striving to anticipate the cons stated above. I conclude that the government, along with TKC and BVA, need to adopt an improvement policy for breeding as a whole whilst identifying breeds whose current plight is at the point where a welfarist approach is neither justifiable nor feasible. Balancing my personal leaning towards animal rights with realistic foresight, I propose that the government should instate a qualzucht law for professionally identified breeds and work hard to police and punish breeches of the law.

References on Page 2…

Earth Day: A Poem

April the 22nd, (Earth day, if you didn’t know),

A day to celebrate some useful seeds that we can sow,

Seeds of hope and action, seeds that help our planet,

Our passion lights the fire and then our actions, they can fan it.

Consider walking where you can, less fumes will be fantastic,

Choose bamboo or wood or card, instead of choosing plastic.

If it’s hard to get outside (it can’t happen all the while)

Consider a few small house plants to add that extra smile.

Raise awareness where you can, maybe do a litter pick,

Adopt a few behaviours and then maybe some will stick.

Turn the lights out as you go, clothes-wash a little colder,

And all the children in our lives will thank us when their older.

Tread as lightly as we can, reduce our carbon prints,

Google ‘climate action’ for some useful tips and hints.

Animals embrace nature, lets learn from those around us,

Today’s a day, when you can, to love that which surrounds us.

Laughing buda, hidden jinn (Part 2): Hyenas as symbionts

Whenever jinn comes, the hyena he is saying oowhoop, and there it goes”. ~ Harari resident

Living in Concord: Hyenas as symbionts

Apart from the research on hyenas in belief systems, the majority of studies focussing on conflict between humans and hyenas often do not “bring in the animal” i.e.hyenas have been researched as ‘pest’ or ‘threat’, but not as research informants in their own right. When looking at hyena living in concord with humans the animals are “brought in” far more as we look at the nature of the interaction between human and hyena itself.

Hyenas living alongside humans is a rarer occurrence in Ethiopia than where there is conflict and the main example of symbiosis occurs in one specific locale: the city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. Here, hyenas provide the Harari with a mode of subsistence, whilst at the same time providing the hyenas with food and shelter. By passing through the main gate into the city we move into a society where studies of human-hyena interactions, especially those of Marcus Baynes-Rock, are far more unusual.

The people of Harar live in a city surrounded by walls. However, these walls have ‘Hyena Holes’ in them (known in the local language as warab nudul) – holes that admit hyena from the surrounding landscape into the city. There is debate as to whether these holes were originally included as drainage holes; however, they are now seen by both outsiders and the people of Harar as conduits for hyena entry. This atypical acceptance of hyenas into the lives of the Harari was recently documented by the BBC’s Planet Earth II series. Hyenas form part of the Harari peoples’ belief systems, as they do in other parts of Ethiopia, but the beliefs here see them as beings of positivity.

Among the bone eaters:

Hyenas from two separate clans enter the city at night as they have done for years. Although there is a myth that this relationship has occurred for generations, interviews have shown that it has been known for around sixty years. A man known as Aw Dudzo began feeding skin to hyenas outside the walls and a tradition of hyena feeding, outside and then inside the city, evolved. Unlike elsewhere, residents of Harar are unafraid of the presence of hyenas. Cubs from hyena clans, and children from the human city, grow up in societies that coexist and so an acceptance of each other is passed down generations of both species. Attacks on humans in Harar are not documented (although they are in nearby Kombolcha City) which suggests a convincing symbiosis.

Although residents live in synergy with hyenas, with shopkeepers and butchers throwing food for them, it is the fifteen or so ‘hyena men’ that take this a step further. The lives of ‘hyena men’ and hyenas are more interconnected; hyenas are invited into their homes, sometimes amongst their families, to be hand fed, petted and to have physical contact encouraged. As documented by BBC’s Planet Earth II, the hyena men display their ultimate trust in the hyenas by feeding them from their mouth. This is often done by men placing chunks of meat on the end of a stick and placing the other end of the stick in their mouth. However, some individuals have begun to feed bones and meat directly from their mouths to the hyenas.

Symbiosis vs commensalism:

I want to explain why I use the word symbiosis instead of what some may call commensalism. Commensalism is a relationship between two species (termed commensals) where one species benefits and the other is unaffected. It could be argued the human-hyena relationship in Harar is one of commensalism; the hyenas are receiving food but for years humans have gained nothing towards their subsistence. An example of true commensalism in human-hyena interactions is seen during times of famine. In these difficult times, livestock and humans can perish, including those traveling on roads between rural villages; hyenas then scavenge on bodies of humans and livestock. As the bodies are away from living quarters this does not provide a benefit in reducing disease spread, nor are hyena affecting the humans directly. In this case the hyenas are benefitting from humans and their livestock, but humans are unaffected commensals in the relationship.

I would argue that humans and hyenas in Harar are not commensals but symbionts. Both the human and non-human animals receive a benefit.True, only recently have the Harari exploited tourist interest in ‘hyena feeding’ as a mode of subsistence, but I would argue that, even before this, humans have gained spiritual benefits. There are not just physical elements of human-hyena interactions– meat from hand to mouth, the crunching of a bone, bright eyes in the darkness – there are also Harari’s belief systems that centre around hyenas… ‘jinn’.

Belief systems and jinn:

Unlike the Ethiopian belief systems surrounding buda (see previous blog), there are positive beliefs in Harar centred on entities known as jinn. These beliefs further cement the symbiosis that the Harari perceive in their relationship with hyenas. In the Quran, jinn are spirits created by God from the smokeless flame of fire (Ar-rahman 15:5). Throughout Ethiopia these entities have two natures: some are good and others are bad. Good jinn assist people with spiritual enlightenment; bad jinn deceive and possess humans.

The key role hyena’s play is they can devour bad jinn who hide underground and haunt the city. Baynes-Rock interviewed city dwellers, asking why hyenas played an important protective role in Harari lives. Responses included:

“Jinns are contained in the territory of Harar because of the hyenas. Whenever jinn comes, the hyena he is saying oowhoop, and there it goes.

“The hyena will come and eat them [the jinn] or they will escape. If the jinn is under the earth, the hyena comes and yells oowhoop and it will come into his mouth.”

“So whenever he will come to the city and come in the waraba nudul [hyena hole], he will clean up the visibles and the invisibles.”

“Oohwhoop” describes the behaviour of spotted hyenas where they lower their head, place their mouth close to the ground and make a ‘whooping’ call. A video and audio clip of this behaviour is available here:

Researchers suggest hyenas do this specifically so that sounds travel further due to increased resonance. Harari conclude that, when hyenas do this, they suck a jinn spirit from the ground. Harari also attach belief to hyenas vomiting (hyenas vomit up ‘gag balls’ of hooves, hair and nails). A resident interviewed by Baynes-Rock said that:

“If a hyena sees a jinni, he will eat him up. After this, you know, he will vomit. There is a place outside of Assumberi where hyena goes to vomit jinn. Inside is the fingernails and hair from the jinni and sometimes even the fingers. With these things you know the hyena has eaten a jinni.”

These beliefs are not completely based upon fantasy; they are rooted in observations and knowledge of hyena behaviour. This is an example of humans using their own experience and religious beliefs to interpret biological processes and to confer human traits (such as the desire to destroy evil jinn) on non-human animals. The hyenas of Harar, therefore, are fulfilling a human ‘need’ in their belief system, i.e. the need to be free from harmful spirits.

It is this belief system which I argue supports the idea of symbiosis, rather than commensalism. The hyena is provided with food and a sheltered place to live. The human is provided with an animal that devours evil spirits, thus conferring heightened feelings of safety and protection. The term symbiosis is also appropriate as hyenas dispose of a plethora of human waste products that would otherwise litter the streets, decreasing the occurrence of vermin and disease. In addition to their functions as devourers of both jinn and refuse, there is one aspect of these atypical interactions that provides a very concrete addition to the Harari mode of subsistence: hyena tourism.

The domestic animal contract:

As with anything exotic, unusual and dangerous, the ‘hyena men’ of Harar have become a tourist attraction. The hyena men take a small fee from tourists, providing them with a modest income. Attracting tourists to the city in the first place will presumably provide income from food, accommodation and additional purchases of local produces. This further supports the theory that both human and hyena exist in a symbiotic relationship. This touristic utilisation of the human-hyena relationship suggests a semi-domestication has occurred.

When Baynes-Rock asked a butcher why he fed hyenas bones from his shop and gave them names he said “I love animals. All animals”. Nonetheless, he favoured hyenas over cats and dogs. Baynes-Rock questions whether ‘loving animals’ is enough to lead to relationships with super-predators. “Why not leave a pile of food at the other side of the common for the hyenas to eat undisturbed?” he asks. Baynes-Rock states that: “It’s not enough just knowing that they’re out there. We want them to come to us and acknowledge our presence in the world as fellow creatures, but we don’t know why. For some reason, we crave these creatures’ validation and acceptance, grounded in their close presence. With regard to animals, the word love is often interchangeable with the word need”. Could it be human desire for acceptance that led other predators in the past (wolves, for example) to move slowly towards domestication? Or is it a desire on behalf of both species?

For years it was thought non-human animals played no part in social contract theory as, without speech, there can be no contractual relationship. However, some believe that processes of animal domestication are based on a form of social contract; “a pact between man and beast, sought by each for their mutual aid”. Are hyenas and humans in Harar entering into a domestic animal contract? Is there a hypothetical agreement between both species based on trust, which secures rights for both? It would seem so. Humans in Harar do trust the hyenas and uphold a ‘duty’ to feed them and allow them the ‘right’ to survive in their city. Hyenas do seem to trust humans – unlike elsewhere they will show themselves in human presence and not resort to stealth. The hyenas could be seen to uphold their ‘duty’ to rid the city of jinn and to clean up refuse from the streets whilst allowing humans the ‘right’ not to be attacked by them.

It has been stated that there are three universal social obligations: giving, receiving and repaying. It could be argued that the hyenas give humans protection from jinn, humans receive this protection and repay the hyena with food. Or the humans give hyenas food, hyenas receive this food and repay the humans with atypical behaviour towards humans which grants them safety. Of course, the idea of the domestic animal contract is fraught with difficulties, not the least being that non-human animals are not treated as free and equal individuals who understand the nature of the agreement. Using the idea of hypothetical consent to domestication, on the part of the animal, can be a method of justifying their domination. Animals who enter the contract are not only bound by trust but by methods of control.

I believe calling the domestication process a domestication contract is misleading. I feel it is more a mutual relationship emerging from changing and evolving human and non-human behaviours. Behaviours change based on necessity, whereas a contract should be binding no matter what.

Unless, of course, you consider contract breakers…

The contract breakers:

Whether considered a tacit contract or an evolving relationship, the situation in Harar can be broken by either species. Let’s first look at the human contract breakers. Baynes-Rock (2018) describes a video on his blog: “This clip shows a wild hyena suffering from the effects of being poisoned. This particular hyena, a juvenile, is lying in the middle of a busy road in Harar, Ethiopia. Whereas poisoning (and other killing methods) is common elsewhere, in Harar this is rare. Two objects lying next to the poisoned hyena in the picture portray the entangled history of humans and hyenas: a lime and a box of matches. Match smoke is traditionally used to treat epilepsy and lime is used to treat those who have swallowed bleach. It appears that humans intervene to try to redress the balance when the contract is broken.

And what about the hyena contract breakers? There are no reports of hyena attacks in Harar. However, there are some telling interviews that would suggest that the realisation that this symbiosis is precarious: “When the tourists don’t appear, the men still feed the animals. They say if they do not, Harari livestock and children will be in danger. The reason the hyenas don’t eat my cattle, cows and goats is because we take care of them.” It has already been shown that hyenas change their feeding behaviour based on changing human behaviour, such as during fasting periods. As semi-domesticated relationships are based on giving, receiving and repaying but if changing circumstances, such as famine, prevented the gift of food, could we foresee that the repayment of ‘predatory behaviour kept at bay’ would end also? What happens when the food runs out?


The typical view throughout Africa, and especially Ethiopia, is that spotted hyena are hostile animals with both a practical and a spiritual repugnance. Ethiopia’s history has been typified by a relationship of conflict due to the hyena’s behavioural parasitism. The relationship that has evolved in Harar, however, has required humans to perceive hyenas as protectors rather than deviants. This may have been possible because of a pre-existing belief that hyenas devour jinn and because of a lack of a belief in buda-as-hyena (as seen in the previous blog). Or it may have required a change in beliefs over the last 60 years to accommodate hyenas as symbionts.

It seems unrealistic that symbiosis, where hyenas form a part of modes of subsistence rather than disrupting it, could become widespread in Ethiopia. Yet Harar raises interesting questions about which relationship is better long term. Does semi-domestication increase trust and positive perceptions of misjudged predators? Or is it creating a pseudo-contract with fatal consequences if broken in such proximity? For the new generation of humans and hyenas, what does the future hold for those who live among the bone eaters?

References on Page 2…

Josh Keyes: Animals in post-apocalyptic art

“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” ~ Ray Bradbury


The Artist

Josh Keyes, born in Washington 1969, received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1998. He currently lives and works in Oregon and displays his artwork through an online gallery and also numerous public and private collections throughout the world.

Keyes’ art explores environmental issues and depicts dystopian visions, embodying messages about harmful impacts humans have upon the Earth. Scrutinising the way  we view animals helps us understand our own humanity. Keyes’ animal depictions do just that, forcing us to analyse the effect we have on those we share the planet with. By juxtaposing wild animals with landscapes littered with remnants of human society, Keyes’ symbolises humankind’s damaging legacy we are leaving for the future. Despite situating animals in human environments, not a single human is depicted. The broad message across the artist’s oeuvre would seem to be that humankind was the damaging influence on the Earth and its  inhabitants… but it is the non-human animals that have survived. “OASIS”, below, provides the first example of this theme of wild animal survival within an urban, but human-less, landscape.

“When the reality of human atrocities toward nature and each other reach a certain level of intensity” says Keyes, “sometimes fantastic stories and imagery are useful and necessary to describe the barbarism that is felt throughout the world”. In this blog I’ll look at a collection of Keyes’ ‘fantastic imagery’ exhibited online and try to relate the way animals are represented to anthrozoology. What themes and messages are contained in his work? What makes Keyes’ art impactful and who may the message be reaching? To what extent is the artist’s fantastical dystopian future, in fact, a reality for the animals with whom we share the Earth?


The Drowned World

Environmental art is an alternative to more practical methods in the fight against human’s environmental impact. It is a form of communication “aiming to promote sustainable living through its psychological influence”. It acts as an educational tool, edifying audiences about the perils facing the natural world and, in some cases, promoting activism. Keyes’ paintings could certainly fall into the category of environmental art. “TURBULENCE” and “THE CHASE” below capture a warning message about global warming. For how many people would these images create a psychological link with ideas of climate change, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels?


Other than depictions of submerged streets, what is striking is the meeting of two seemingly incongruous animals: the polar bear of the arctic and the great white shark of the warmer ocean; the tiger of deep Asian jungles and a tropical fish from the coral reef. By including animals from different areas of the globe, Keyes’ message is clear: these disasters haven’t only affected these once-populated localities but have had far-reaching consequences on the animal kingdom. The accomplishment of these painting is that a deep message is conveyed by depicting just a few objects and two animals.

Art plays a part in challenging anthropocentric views by reversing the typical portrayals of human dominance over nature; in these encounters between shark and bear, tiger and fish, nature clearly dominates all. In ”TURBULENCE” the animals seem to size each other up for an attack and there is a clear predator/prey relationship in “THE CHASE”. Could these dynamic encounters suggest the trials of life will continue long after humankind’s demise? This challenges our often anthropocentric elitism and certainly challenges Aristotle’s ‘Great Chain of Being’, as animals have clearly ended on top.

Similar to “TURBULENCE” in theme, Keyes’ painting “SOUNDING”, with darker colours and deeper submergence, holds a sombre and mysterious air. “There are many reoccurring themes in my work,” says Keyes “one of these is a sunken, flooded forest, dreamlike and inhabited by phantom sea life”. In these paintings, lines are blurrier, light more scarce and, in ”SOUNDING”, human constructs are limited to just one thing: tombstones. The graves could be seen as signifying the end of human dominance. The fish, trees, water and, of course, the whale surrounding these tombs could just as easily imply nature’s retrieval of Earth from man.


Whales, as a pecies, are often totamised by mankind to symbolise purity and beauty. And it has been said of artistic depictions of aquatic and airborne animals that “they represent the dream of unimpeded movement through air or water: a non-human, non-pedestrian movement in the strange imaginative spaces of the animal”. Could the whale’s graceful movement over human graves be symbolic of a future where the beauty and purity of non-human animals  prospers? Does the “imaginative space of the animal” dominate in this underwater scene, leaving conventional human spaces long forgotten? Even more forgotten, in the following two paintings, “GLIDER” and “PHANTOM”, Keyes’ includes no manmade objects at all, leaving his subjects to enjoy the drowned world uninhibited by the human legacy.

Left: “GLIDER” Right: “PHANTOM”

The Frozen World

We move from water to ice – another dystopian theme of Keyes’ artwork. Still, the message of environmental disaster is present and, again, by situating manmade objects within post-apocalyptic environments, Keyes points the finger of responsibility. The portrayal of non-human animals continues, seeming to represent both those we have affected and those that have become freed, represented in many of his frozen paintings.


In one of Keyes’ starkest painting, “A WHOLE NEW WORLD”, juxtaposition reigns. Firstly, there is clean, white snow highlighting the dirty, vandalised statue. Other than vague outlines of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the only manmade object seems to represent something vulgar. In sociology, graffiti has largely been synonymous with crime, community decline and uncleanliness. Placed next to the pure snow and symbolic power and beauty of the tiger, the legacy of mankind is portrayed here as something far less beautiful, sapped of all former power.

The second contrast is between what Disney symbolises in western culture – magic, innocence, charm – and the dystopian environment they inhabit. In Disney, animators were often told to “keep it cute”, even portraying super-predators in non-threatening ways. To have a statue of Disney himself, holding hands with his cuddly character Micky, next to five realistically drawn, powerful tigers in a blizzard is arresting. Something as iconic as the Magic Kingdom is reduced to a washed-out silhouette on the horizon, leaving only this vandalised statue to represent the magic-that-was. Even the   title, a love song from Aladdin, is co-opted to describe this dystopia. Is Keyes saying that, in the harsh reality we have created, the real magic here are the tigers themselves? A man-eating predator would, in a human community, be seen as the outsider but here, in Keyes’ dystopia, it is flipped and the suggestion is that man who has become the outsider.

A final contrast is between the expected behaviour of tigers and that which is portrayed: A Whole New World depicts five tigers running, or hunting, together – yet tigers are known for their solitary behaviour. Solitary behaviour of adult tigers is, arguably, not something requiring a particularly intimate knowledge of animal behaviour, so a number of Keyes’ audience may note its unusualness. Why are so many tigers together? Has the ‘new world’ forced the tigers to adopt a new behavioural adaptation? Is the banding together of non-gregarious species symbolic of togetherness and unity, a transcendence made possible by the removal of divisive mankind? Furthermore, with no humans, the tiger’s divided nature in the eyes of man, between the dangerous wild killer and the beautiful personification of the wilderness, is removed. There is no liminality when there are no human perceptions, no other world to inhabit except the tiger’s own savage wilderness. There is no longer the question ‘Where do they belong?’ because the painting tells us: ‘they belong here’. Again, Keyes art represents both anthropological disaster and zoological emancipation.

In Keyes’ words: “These images emerged from three different sources, all having a common foundation in their emotional resonance. The three sources were political, environmental, and personal”. Significantly, the animals that Keyes chooses to depict, especially in his frozen worlds, are ‘flagship species’ that have been used to mobilise environmental messages in political and personal spheres. With the pieces below (“RED DAWN”, “GLACIER” AND “WHITE NOISE”), polar bears, wolves and rhinos have all been considered flagship species and have appeared in the 20 ‘most charismatic species’ list (as have sharks, whales and tigers featured in previous pieces). Whether consciously or sub-consciously, Keyes seems to be making artistic use of flagship species in an oft-used strategy to tackle personal, political and environmental issues. Whereas polar bears and wolves have been used in environmental messages about Polar Regions, the use of the rhino, outside of the species’ usual flagship ‘African mega-fauna’ context, may suggest that this dystopia is more far-reaching than we even imagined.

Bottom Left: “GLACIER” Top: “RED DAWN” Bottom Right: “WHITE NOISE”

 Abandoned World

“Abandoned places speak to me of our own culture and even our bodies, eventually surrendering to the elements of time and reuniting with nature” says Keyes. In this final thematic exploration, we move away from water and ice to a world far more familiar – and for that reason perhaps even more disquieting. In many of Keyes’ paintings, wild animals inhabit far more urban scenes. Such post-apocalyptic images, of nature having conquered our concrete jungles, are more common in artistic representation than some of Keyes’ other dystopias. In the film ‘I Am Legend’, lions and antelope battle for survival in New York; Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy of novels depicts a dystopian future where the city streets are menaced by mutated wild animals; a number of other artists who share gallery space with Keyes’, who similarly depict animals in dystopia, choose urban settings. Yet Keyes seems to break the boundaries that other postmodern wildlife artists remain within, going beyond these more typical wild-animal/urban-jungle metaphors and into frozen, drowned and (as yet to be seen) stratospheric worlds. However, when Keyes does paint these urban portrayals the effects are arresting.

As art critic Sierzputowski writes: “Keyes paints hyperrealistic depictions of what he perceives the world might look like after the fall of humans. Animals such as sharks, tigers, and bulls remain as the final witnesses to the aftermath of human destruction”. Certainly in ”MAD WORLD”, the grizzly bear does seem to play the part of a witness, an onlooker – possibly even a judge. Could the title be referring not to a bear situated on a skyscraper, but to the human world the bear looks down upon? Studies have shown that elevation is psychologically linked with a perception of dominance, so could Keyes be using the bear’s position above all of the constructs of mankind as a metaphor for the dominance of non-human animals in this futuristic dystopia?

Left: “MAD WORLD” Right: “PURSUIT”

In ”PURSUIT”, the life and death struggle of wild animals is played out in a city street; blades of grass growing through the tarmac tell of the lack of a human presence for some time. Keyes does not seem to be “speaking for” the animals, there is no element of anthropomorphism; he simply depicts behaviours that would occur in the wild within an urban landscape. This displacement of the wild into the cityscape allows the viewer to simply form their own perceptions about the animals without having been humanised by the artist, a common theme in Keyes’ realistic paintings.

It has been proposed that humans can distance themselves from non-human animals by choosing to ignore characteristics in animals that suggest personhood or similarity to humans. By becoming aware of these similarities, or “egomorphising” animals, humans can gain a greater awareness and empathy with non-humans. Keyes’ artwork brings these animals (who can so often be ignored, anthropomorphised or marginalised because of their lack of immediate presence) right into the everyday landscape. This allows the viewer’s egomorphism to develop. Notice the one-way arrow on the road and that the animals are running in the opposite direction. The imposed rules and regulations of humans do not apply in this world – all that is left on display in this dystopia is the physical and emotional lives of the animals depicted. Not only is the fear and fatigue in the deer’s face, and the determination and power of the bear, rendered clearly – the fact that this emotional battle takes place in the city makes the behaviours even more impactful.

“Environmental concerns are always present in my work and lately, some of the images I have seen in the news around the world are as bizarre as any post-apocalyptic scenario” says Keyes, “I did not want to create literal depiction, but rather strive to create images that occupy symbolic, lyrical and poetic expression”. All of Keyes’ representations are metaphors, of course, but some of his pieces which combine urban life with animals are more symbolic than others. Despite their fantastical nature, in the paintings seen so far, there is always the possibility that Earth could have flooded; a change of weather pattern could have blanketed everwhere in snow – these are slightly more tangible. “DESCENT II” however, depicts a scene more unusual and more difficult to secure in reality.


In ”DESCENT II” Keyes is not literally saying that a wale has been captured and subjected to graffiti. Rather, the graffitied tail is a representation of the destructive and vulgar impact that humans have on the natural environment. Again, Keyes has taken a graffiti, a symbolic representation of moral decline, and whales, a flagship symbol of the beauty and fragility of nature, and used them together to send a message to his audience. This metaphorical theme occurs numerously in Keyes’ work, such as in ”HAMMERED” and “SPRAY” below.

Left: “HAMMERED” Right: “SPRAY”

In other paintings, Keyes’ metaphors are slightly less obvious. For example, in ”LAST LIGHT” the initial focus is, of course, the sleeping lion. Yet there are numerous subtle metaphors about human decline if we look. Notice the broken telephone wires: could this be the lost human connections between each other and the loss of any connection to our planet? The rib cage, too, has a sinister, human appearance to it: another symbol of the dominance of nature over humankind? The lion himself sleeps across disused tyre tracks: the disregard of human authority? And, finally, the setting sun itself. The human city, as with Disney’s magic Kingdom in “A WHOLE NEW WORLD”, is marginalised to the background. The biggest metaphor may be in the paintings title and in the dying rays of light over the human landscape; the sun has set on the age of humans and it is now  time for non-human animals to reign and, as the lion shows, to be at peace.



“For me, the symbolic elements in these paintings allows for a personal and poetic expression, a catharsis in making sense of current events and the concern for the future for all living things” says Keyes. So, as well as Keyes own artistic expression, to what extent is his dystopian future a potential reality? Can we conclude that his work is truly representative of human and non-human prospects?

The answer depends on the viewer’s belief in two messages: 1) that an anthropogenic catastrophe will occur and 2) that non-human animals (especially the species depicted) survive. The probability of point 1, in academic reports, is high. Increased snowstorms during climate change, rising sea levels and the increasing potential of nuclear war are all possibilities. Point 2, however, is arguably open for greater debate. “The work always makes you think; did the animals win? Did Mother Nature conquer? Did really anything or anyone become the victor in the human’s demise?”. Juxtapoz Art and Culture blog ask a good question here – can animals ‘win’? By the time a future arrives that witnesses mankinds end, the survival of many of the charismatic animals in Keyes’ work seems unlikely.

Josh Keyes artistic representations of ecological concerns depict a human dystopia, certainly, but in doing so they depict an animal utopia. The audience may find themselves hoping for outcomes against their own species. If the outcome of Keyes’ paintings is to be desired (the continuation of these beautifully painted species) then humans must become absent. Ultimately, we do not know. Animal futures hang in the balance; in a limbo where the whole world’s human population decides their future. Do they wake up to freedom, or are they forever lost in darkness? Perhaps, then, the  painting below, “FOREVER AND EVER” is the most meaningful of Keyes’ metaphors.


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The lion the penguin and the chimp: Depictions of sex in BBC’s ‘Dynasties’

 ‘All television is educational television, the question is: what is it teaching?’ ~ Nicholas Johnson

The promotional image for the Dynastie’s series

The BBC series ‘Dynasties’ aired in 2018, with 5 one-hour long documentaries on the family lives of 5 species: emperor penguins, lions, chimpanzees, tigers and painted wolves. As the series’ title suggests, the focus was on the animals’ struggles to continue their family lineages; thus, the intricacies of sociality, mating and rearing offspring were central to each episode. What I found the most interesting was the difference in the way that courtship and intercourse were depicted in each species.

The carnivores (lion, wolf and tiger) were depicted similarly (and so are represented in this essay by the lion), yet the way the sex lives of the carnivores, the apes and the birds were visually represented was strikingly different. By looking at stills of video footage, we can see how the videography told the stories about the sexual encounters of lions, penguins and chimps. It got me asking, what might this reveal about human attitudes toward sex in different species?


The courtship and mating behaviour of Charm and her suitor is on screen for 16 seconds. The start of this footage is of playful engagement prior to mating, where the pair is shown licking, nipping and nuzzling each other. Both have their full body, head to tail, on screen. The music that plays in the background is very soft, with gentle chords that gradually ascend, becoming more audible, and reach an uplifting crescendo.

The camera angle changes as the lion mounts charm. The camera looks up at the pair from ground level, with the lower half of the shot hidden by earth and grass. We cannot see Charm’s eyes and the lower halves of their bodies are entirely hidden from view.

Charm’s face is shown once more, unobstructed by the grass, as she looks up at her mate. The camera angle pans upwards to follow her gaze, but the males face is not fully shown. Instead, the mating scene ends with a shot of the male lying down in the grass by himself and looking into the distance.


The courtship and mating behaviour of the penguins is on screen for 39 seconds. The start of this footage is of the female lying prostrate in the snow and the male walking up behind her. As he mounts her the music begins to play; it is a light, comic piano piece.

There are 7 different camera angles used throughout the sequence, ranging from wide angle, where the pair is shown amongst the larger group, to mid-range front and side shots with their whole bodies on screen. There is also one close-up shot of the male’s flipper and foot being dragged down the females back as he tries to remain on top of her.

We hear Attenborough’s narration explain: “A penguin’s is beautifully designed for many things, but mating is not one of them”. We hear the up-close sound of the male’s claws scraping against the females feathers and the constant chatter of surrounding birds.

The final scene is of the male dismounting – or rather falling off the back of the female. At this point the piano piece which has been playing in the background has perfectly timed notes to accompany the wobble and the fall, as if lending a comic soundtrack. We watch as the male and female rise and stand next to each other after mating.


The chimps’ mating behaviour is on screen for 6 seconds. The initial footage is a close-up of David’s eyes before he walks behind the flora and meets a female. There is a blurred view of copulation, mainly shielded by branches in the foreground. The music playing is of gentle chords, quiet and reverential. More noticeable is the crunch of leaves under their feet as they walk; sound is heightened as if it has been given specific consideration.

Once body contact has been made, there is a change of camera shot – now looking at a young chimp as he or she looks off screen towards the mating couple, eyes darting about. The footage returns to the couple behind the branches and we see David thrusting behind the female for 3 seconds. The young chimp jumps onto the female and mating finishes as the couple break apart. Two aerial shots of the forest follow, for 20 seconds, accompanied by almost silence, with a few gentle piano notes.


This table shows the key differences of the three clips.

Clip length39 seconds16 seconds6 seconds
Camera angles6 (high angle)3 (low angle)1 (eye level)
Body exposureFull bodyUpper bodyObscured
Animals namedNeitherOne (female)One (male)
Background musicComicalPeacefulPeaceful
Silence post-mating3 seconds7 seconds20 seconds
Key differences in representation

Clip length: Mills (2010) explains that, with the new era of wildlife documentaries, an ethical debate has arisen over animals’ rights to privacy. Production teams have the challenge of balancing the viewer’s expectation of witnessing the crucial events in the lives of the animals with a species’ desire not to be seen. An argument is made that, in order to create interest and concern around the future of the animals depicted, an inevitable consequence is the denial of their right to privacy.

Perhaps the balance lies in |length of footage. A key consideration of zoos is areas that allow animals to remove themselves from human presence and provide privacy (Hosey, 2013). In an analysis of |CCTV footage of a giraffe’s labour, Buckler (2017) quotes Chambers (2008), stating: ‘CCTV intimates a feeling of control over that which is under view’ (p129). It is the sheer pervasiveness and length of time, believes Buckler, the giraffe is on screen that violates privacy and asserts human dominance. With this in mind the diminishing length of footage of animal mating, from penguin to lion to chimp, could be seen as an increasing right to privacy and admission of the self and sentience of the ‘other’.

Camera angles: Most of the camera angles in the penguin sequence are shot from a distance at either eye level of high angle. With the lions, there is one eye level and two low angle shots, and, with the chimps, there is one eye level angle as they are behind the tree. What can the nature of angles tell us about the differences in portrayal?

High angle: tends to make characters look small and symbolically suggests detachment and insignificance. Eye level: are used to explain story development. Low angle: highlights the size and importance of a character, symbolically demonstrating power and authority. Based on this it could be suggested that the mating of the lions is lent an air of majesty and power, that of the chimps an air of storytelling at a distance and that of the penguins, an air of detached triviality.

Body exposure: Close shots, especially of the face, imitate an ‘intimate relationship’ with the animals on screen. The shots used in the penguin sequence are all further away, showing both penguins’ whole bodies, suggesting a less intimate investment in their mating. The only close-up shot used is of the male’s claws scraping the females back as he tries to maintain purchase. Conversely, the shots of the lions are close-up, focussing on the upper bodies and faces of the couple. The scene feels far more intimate, especially as the camera is nestled in the grass at the lion’s feet and pans from the females face to the males as he mounts her.

Lastly, there are no close-up shots of the chimps during mating (perhaps this was necessary as they were behind a tree). However, the intimacy, instead, can be seen in the close-up shot of the male’s face, particularly his eyes, as he walks towards the female and almost portrayed through the look int the eyes of the young chimp who looks on at the mating. The lack of intimate shots and body exposure in the chimpanzee scene feels as if it is due to respect rather than a disregard for intimacy.

Animals named: Giving animals a name often draws them closer to us, allowing us to think of them as an individual and less so as something ‘other’. “As we have come to regard other animals with greater complexity (and consider, for instance, that they might be able to think or feel), it has become more common to use human names for them”. Consider, then, how the penguins remain nameless, whilst we learn that the lioness is named ‘Charm’ and the male chimp named ‘David’. Are the film makers, consciously or unconsciously, depicting a perception of greater mammalian complexity and emotional capacity?

Language choices in wildlife documentaries may invoke ideologies about sex and sexuality. Film makers have a choice of pronouns – either the neutral ‘it’, the gendered ‘he/she’, or the use of personal names. The latter being a way ofestablishing empathy between commentator, audience and the animals represented. Perhaps a greater sense of empathy and connection has been established between the audience and the lion and chimps (as we know at least one of the partners’ names in both cases) than between the audience and the penguins, who both remain nameless.

Background music: Many times has it been stated that music is filled with meaning and emotions. For example, an ascending major elicits feelings of outgoing, assertive joy whereas a minor pattern elicits feelings of gloom, brooding and fear. Comedy in music can be achieved through compositional techniques such as unexpected turns of melody, tempo and musical textures. An example of this can be heard in the musical accompaniment to the penguins, where the tempo of the piano notes both slows and descends until a final deep note is played as the male penguin falls off the female’s back.

It has been demonstrated that the music of animal documentaries can affect the way that people feel about the animals being portrayed. As non-human animals cannot speak for themselves, background music may be a powerful factor in the way we perceive animals on screen, even extending to which species we should or should not care about. In the case of the gentle, harmonic, major chords playing during the chimpanzee and lion mating, it seems that the producers aim is to imbue the scene with a sense of joy and reverence. Conversely, the mating of the penguins has a sense of comedy and farce lent by the varying tempo and pitch of the humorous soundtrack.

Silence post-mating: In many cultures, silence is an act of respect and reverence; ‘a moment of silence is an act of reverence we can all comfortably share’. In film, silence is used to heighten the importance of a particular scene or event. In Dynasties, each scene of copulation is followed by a period of silence. If this silence is indeed an indicator of reverence and respect, the length of each post-coital silence may be a measure of the import that the producers imbue the act of sex in each species. With silences of 3, 7 and 20 seconds for penguins, lions and chimps respectively, the connotation may be significant.

Photo by Colin Perry @ Flickr Colin P2009

A sliding scale of sentient sex?

This sliding scale of depiction, from hard-core penguins to soft-core lions to pre-watershed chimps, could rest on the producers’ notions of what they, and their audience, wish to view as other and what they wish to view as similar. To make an animal other is to remove their characteristics, behaviours and motivations out of the realm of human possibility, a way of separating our human culture from the ‘bestial’ nature of animals.

Some species, however, can fall on the human side of this metaphorical them and us dividing line. This may render some of the more humanised animal behaviours unacceptable, lest they hint that we are capable of the same. Could it be that chimps, and to a lesser extent lions (which have been humanised and represented in human cultures as ‘kin’) are portrayed in a way that 1) protects their right to privacy, as closer-to-human others and 2) reduces the portrayal of their sex lives as vulgar and animalistic, to protect the stronger links we see between them and us?

Of course, for these reflections to be valid, we would need to ascertain whether the Dynasties footage is a product of necessity or design. Was this the only footage of the chimps mating, and therefore all that could be used? Were wide angle shots used for penguins because the camera crew couldn’t get closer in the crowded colony? Was the camera low to the ground in the lion scene because a fixed ground camera was used? The practicalities of filming may say more about the scenes presented to viewers, rather than intent-laden production and editing. However, despite numerous attempts to ascertain this information from the BBC, their policies meant that this kind of information could not be obtained. For now, we will have to be content with some stimulating thought and debate on the obvious and numerous differences in sex depiction between these species.

References on Page 2…

Apes in Iceland: Politics of orangutan conservation

“Orangutans look straight into your soul” ~ Willie Smits

“Ook” ~ Terry Pratchett

Image by Colin Perry @ Flickr: Colin P2009

Apes in Iceland

In 2018 Iceland decided to do something very different with their Christmas advert. Following a year of “leading the industry in sustainability initiatives”, Iceland decided to highlight the destruction that intensive palm-oil production can cause rainforests.

The ad depicted the impact on orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo, pledging that their own brand products would be palm-oil free. The advert portrays the story of Rang-Tan, an orangutan who has lost his home due to the deforestation caused by palm-oil production for food and shampoo. To hammer this point home, the ad ends with a dedication to “the 25 orangutans we lose everyday”.

The one minute thirty second clip, however, did not air alongside other supermarket adverts; it was blocked by the independent organisation Clearcast, who approve adverts on behalf of commercial broadcasters. The media dubbed this decision a ‘ban’, claiming it was because the advert was ‘too political’. However, the details behind the headlines are slightly different.

Rang Tan the animated orangutan from Iceland’s advert

Behind the decision, it transpires that the advert had not been produced by Iceland but had instead been made by the political organisation Greenpeace, several months earlier. Greenpeace collaborated with Iceland to expand the reach of their (Greenpeace’s) message, whilst simultaneously advertising Iceland’s ‘Palm-oil Free’ range.

The advert, then, did not become banned because its message was too political but because it breached well known rules of the BCAP code (the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising). The code states that “an advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is: an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature.

This decision blocked the ad from appearing on television but did not prohibit the advert from appearing on social media sites. A great deal of publicity was generated because of the advert’s ‘ban’, with many people outraged that messages of conservation were deemed too political. As a result of this publicity the advert became the most powerful ad of 2018, with combined social media channels amassing over 70 million views.

The advert (and its subsequent ‘ban’) have brought the discussion of orangutan conservation to the front of public consciousness, including the topic of whether conservation discourse has a place within, or outside of, politics. So, not only should conservationists ask what the impact deforestation has upon orangutan ecosystems, but also what challenges may arise between politics and conservation.

Umbrellas, Keystones, Flagships       

As of 2017 there were two known species of orangutan: the Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran (Pongo abelil). New genetic data, however, has identified a distinct population of orangutans living in the mountainous regions of Tapanuli, Sumatra. These Tapanuli orangutans (Pongo tapanuliensis) have a higher genetic similarity to their cousins on the neighbouring island of Borneo than they do to the species that share their island. Even more interesting is that the oldest evolutionary lineage belongs to this newly discovered species.

All three species are critically endangered under the IUCN red list, justified by the rapid fragmentation of their habitat and the conversion of their forests to plantations. Palm-oil plantation threats are specifically stated for Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans, with Bornean orangutans being threatened by the looser term of ‘agro-industry plantations’. Many, many animals are designated critically endangered – so what makes orangutans so important in the eyes of conservationists?

Three endangered orangutan species


An umbrella species is one “whose conservation is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally cooccurring species”. A number of scientific papers deem orangutans as umbrella species. The habitat density required to support orangutan populations (vegetation for diet, nest building, arboreal movement) is linked with abundant habitat for several other forest species. There is an economically practical aspect to designating orangutans ‘umbrella species’. The international REDD scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) allows countries to earn carbon credits (additions to carbon emission levels countries can legally produce) by retaining tropical forests. Payments can be linked to conservation performance, measured byindicators of the health or population size of an umbrella species such as the orangutan”.


Keystone animals are deemed exceptionally important due to the reliance of many other species in the local habitat on the keystone’s ecological function. Biologists advocate that keystone species should be targets of concentrated conservation efforts in order to safeguard the greatest amount of biodiversity. One keystone attribute of orangutans is their role in seed dispersal; they are responsible for distributing seeds (through consumption and elimination) up to 6km away from fruiting trees. Researchers have recorded orangutans feeding on over half of tree species in certain forest habitats. This means that all subsequent animals that rely on the flora whose dispersed by orangutans benefit when orangutans themselves are safeguarded. Furthermore, orangutans form a part of the diet for a number of other predators. Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans are predated upon by tigers, crocodiles, hunting dogs and leopards and, while Bornean orangutans have few predators, they are a source of food for many indigenous humans.


Whereas umbrella and keystone species fulfill ecological objectives, ‘flagship species’, instead, drive strategic conservation objectives. Using charismatic species that create interest is a method of generating financial support and public awareness. Although flagship strategies have been criticised for being mammal-centric and ignoring lesser known species in favour of megafauna it has been noted that “it is a fact that ‘big, cute, and furry’ sells, and as much should be made of this as possible”. There is, arguably, an ethical consideration as to the use of ‘flagship lures’ to generate money which is then distributed more generally – but then, how often do we consider the ethics of using shop window mannequins dressed in the latest fashions to lure us inside to spend money more generally?

Orangutans are the fourth most frequent animal referred to as flagships in academic papers (behind tigers, gorillas and giant pandas). An  analysis of orangutan popularity as flagships states: “the humanoid facial expressions of orangutans and evolutionary proximity to humans, bridge with frames relating to compassion, brotherhood, and human rights such that the species comes to be perceived as a relative among certain publics”. In shirt, orangutans possess ‘nonhuman charisma’, their position as flagships generating prosocial behaviour which helps counter deforestation. Iceland’s advert typifies orangutan flagships and in this they are not alone, with the charities ‘Born Free’, ‘Greenpeace’, ‘Rainforest Alliance’ and ‘World Wildlife Fund’ all using orangutans in their conservation media.

Orangutans as flagships in charity media

Precautionary Principle

These three aforementioned metaphors play a role in promoting conservation in academic and public communities. However, none of these concepts are a panacea. Even highly organised schemes cannot guarantee protection of all species if they rely solely on one conservation tool. In the face of our imperfect knowledge of ecosystems, the precautionary principal recommends a combination of all three approaches. The orangutan’s position as umbrella, keystone and flagship species necessitates a focused, urgent and multinational conservation effort.

Politicisation of Primate Conservation

Government Involvement

An explicit political consideration is that governments implement, or cooperate with those who implement, conservation policies. Whereas some nation-states may legitimately implement strategies with conservation as the soul aim, others may appropriate conservation ideology merely to gain political control over resources or populations. Ultimately, governments work alongside conservationists, which means politics and conservation are inextricably linked. One such example is the Indonesian government’s collaboration with organisations such as the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which helps manage forests to conserve orangutan populations in Borneo.

Indigenous Communities

“Indigenous Peoples are particularly vulnerable to having their prior territorial rights violated by conservation programs”. It is the realm of politicians to balance a location’s conservation strategies with the rights of human populations. The conflicts between conservation and culture must be considered to avoid Western conservationist efforts imposing ideologies upon populations who may be politically and economically disadvantaged. For example, the indigenous Batak tribe of Sumatra rely on orangutans for food, despite the taboos of many other cultures. There is a need to balance the impacts of conservation with the cultural, economic and sustenance considerations of the Batak.

Political Instability

Civilian disorder is another political concern that impacts primate conservation. The 2014 docufilm Virunga exposes the impact political unrest has on the lives of primates, documenting conflicts between local people and endangered gorillas. The documentary focussed on violent rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Some of the world’s most endangered species reside in areas of the globe plagued by critical human rights issues. It can be hard for governments to focus on conservation and habitat protection in the midst of political instability”. For example, primatology research that could have given insights into both local culture and orangutan conservation was prevented due to political unrest in Sumatra and Borneo in the early 2000’s.

Conservation and conflict depicted in ‘Virunga’


The way governments distribute money to the multiple concerns involved in running a country has a political impact on conservation. Money spent on protecting primates is money not spent on other political concerns (infrastructure, health, education). Economic factors drive the issues that threaten primates in the first place, such as the economic benefit of logging, plantations, mining and hunting. There is also added complications of property rights: whose land is being used and who will economically benefit – the government, the community or the individual? The newcomer or the native? Conflicting property claims can impact how primate habitats are governed. A final consideration is the economic benefit that primate ecotourism can bring, potentially offsetting monetary loss due to restrictions on primate commodification. Orangutan ecotourism contributes to the socioeconomic stability of Sumatra and Borneo in order to further implement orangutan conservation efforts.

Transcending Politics?

Despite imprecise public understanding of Iceland’s advert ban, the debate successfully raised awareness of the plight of orangutans and Indonesian deforestation. By using primates as flagship species, organisations can bring conservation issues to the forefront of public consciousness. This can be done alongside the mobilisation of other scientific and strategic conservation metaphors to drive prosocial behaviour in protecting primate habitats. As to whether this can be achieved apolitically, it is evident that the surfeit of social and economic factors impacting upon, and impacted by, such projects means that conservation will forever remain a highly politicised issue, unable to transcend the boundaries of regional, national or international politics.

References on Page 2…

Laughing buda, hidden jinn (Part 1): Hyenas as parasites

Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone”. ~ Lewis Carroll

Living in Conflict: Hyenas as parasites

After lions, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), are the second largest land predator in Africa. Their reputation precedes them, depicted in various cultures as devilish, unclean and macabre. Spotted hyenas are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, living in forest, desert and alpine biomes. Despite their abundance throughout Africa, studies of human-hyena relationships have focussed on Ethiopia for various reasons. In Ethiopia a substantial proportion of the human populace depend upon agriculture for survival. Ethiopian modes of subsistence rely heavily on crops and livestock and this presence of dense numbers of livestock brings humans and hyenas into conflict. Due to extensive farming, urbanisation and habitat degradation the availability for natural prey sources for hyena are fragmented and depleted. Perhaps more so than in other regions of Africa, spotted hyena survival relies heavily on predation of livestock and domestic waste disposal.

Impact on livelihood:

Predation of livestock will impact on any farmer; a lost animal has a lost ‘value’ attached, whether the loss of a direct food product for the farmer’s family or the loss of the animals saleable value for the income. However, livestock predation in the context of Ethiopian agriculture may have even more powerful consequences:  Around one-half of the rural Ethiopians live in poverty and, as rural populations increase, the amount of land held by any one person has decreased. Among a group of other comparable countries, Ethiopian agriculture performed worst. It would be fair to suppose, therefore, that livestock losses due to hyenas have an even more significant impact on Ethiopian modes of subsistence.

Perhaps the best way to elucidate hyena impact on Ethiopian livelihoods is to look at economic impact studies. Research in Tigray, Northern Ethiopa, found hyenas were responsible for 11.8% of all livestock losses between 2005 and 2009. This amounts to just over a loss of US$ 27,000 to the district. Other studies measured the loss per household, calculating annual household loss in the Wukro district to be US$6.1 (just under 1% of annual income). Loss due to predation varies across Ethiopia but can certainly be an economical cause for concern. In addition to livestock losses, there is also evidence that hyenas can pose a risk to human life.

Impact on lives:

“A doctor from Jugol Hospital told me that, in the 14 months during which he had been stationed at the hospital, he had treated at least 30 cases of hyena attack. When I was conducting surveys of rural dwellers in the region, 30% of people across eight different villages reported that they knew someone personally who had been attacked by a hyena.” These reports, gathered by Marcus Baynes-Rock who studies hyena in Ethiopia, highlight the risks living in proximity to hyena can pose to human life. In most instances, attacks are on children but there have also been news articles on humans sleeping rough on the streets who have been attacked.

The cause of hyenas transitioning from fringe predators that attack livestock to predators moving further into human living spaces is twofold. Firstly, in response to livestock predation, farmers enclose their livestock in wooden corrals at night, as well as owning watchdogs. This reduces hyena access to prey in rural communities lying outside the denser human populaces. Secondly, Ethiopian villages, town and cities (as anywhere else) create human food waste, perfect for scavenging hyenas. This can be any type of organic matter in human refuse including bones, carrion, garbage, dung and even cooked porridge. This plentiful supply of anthropogenic food allows hyenas to subsist in the heart of human dwellings.

Studies have analysed scat from hyenas who live in proximity with humans in Ethiopia, focussing on undigested hair in faecal matter (one of the few substances that hyenas cannot digest). In 610 scat samples, human hair was found to be more prevalent than that of goat or sheep. However, due to the nature of hyenas concentrating around human waste dumps, human hair may well be a component of human refuse, rather than the more macabre suggestion of widespread human predation. Despite this unreliability of scat samples, anecdotes and interviews are enough to indicate the opportunistic predation of hyenas on humans. This poses major concerns for humans living in proximity to spotted hyena.

Impact on hyena:

In addition, hyena attacks on both livestock and people have an impact on the lives of hyena themselves. An anthropological study on 200 residents of Kembata Tembaro in Ethiopia identified that 79% of residents developed negative attitudes towards hyenas due to conflict. The three main contributors to this negative attitude were: fear for the family, fear for personal safety and fear of livestock loss. These negative perceptions can lead to ‘mitigation techniques’ that are harmful to hyenas, including burning the hyena’s natural habitat, poisoning carcasses for hyenas to eat and, despite regional prohibitions to killing hyena, they are often trapped, shot, poisoned or snared.

This impact on hyenas themselves is an example of negative reciprocity, a term known as the ‘dark side’ of reciprocity, whereby humans maintain moral order in social relationships through responding to negative actions with the same. These corrective actions tend to occur after attacks have been made on livestock or humans. Retaliations on hyenas are carried out by local inhabitants and those who personally knew those affected by hyena attacks. However, in Ethiopian populations with greater authority involvement and support, the government can endorse retaliatory actions. In December 2013 authorities in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa organised a cull of hyenas living near the centre of the city. Licensed hunters killed 10 hyenas after a spate of attacks on city residents.

Belief systems and buda:

In these asymmetric interactions, hyenas act as behavioural parasites. Behavioural parasitism is where the investment of one organism is exploited by another, thus providing the exploiter with an adaptive shortcut. In the light of this disruptive behaviour it is no wonder that there are widespread belief systems upholding negative attitudes towards hyenas. The Bedoin of North Africa believe that transforming into a hyena represented the pagan ‘pull’ of the hyena’s desire to destroy a believer’s commitment to Islam. In Senegal it has been believed that witches ride on hyena to carry out their devilry. In Sudan here is a legend of a half-man half-hyena creature that terrorises people at night, and in Tanzania it I said that if a child is born when a hyena is crying, they will grow up to be thieves. Images in the Aberdeen Bestiary (below) shows the hyena as a vicious man eater.

Image from the Aberdeen Bestiary (1542)

Ethiopia has its own regional folklore depicting the negative aspects of hyena animism. These beliefs centre on entities known as Buda, part of the folklore of the Oromo people who represent the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Buda are entities imbued with powers derived from the devil to bring harm upon people that they envy and, importantly, they can transform themselves into hyena. One account of the interplay between buda and hyena in the Amhara states: “because of the power of the evil eye, buda people can change into hyenas and roam the countryside at night. It is convenient for a buda to attack a victim in this form in order to conceal his human identity.”

The hyena expert Baynes-Rock suggests that the Oramo give personhood to hyenas through their intentionality. He came to this conclusion after villagers, who held hyenas in fear and disgust, “stated that hyenas were a benefit to the area and supported an increase in hyena numbers”. Initially confused by this dichotomy, further interviews found that these positive responses were given out of fear that negative responses would be overheard by the local hyenas who would attack them. Although hyenas elicit feelings of fear and disgust, they are not seen as animals without the capacity to think, scheme and plan. Instead the Amhara see hyenas as intentional persons inhabiting a complex social world that includes humans: “With their acute senses, hyenas monitor the worlds of humans, listening for and responding to insults, avenging injuries to their compatriots, and always seeking opportunities to feed, whether on the dead or the living, livestock or human”.

These belief systems perpetuate and intensify negative attitudes towards hyenas, demonstrating the complexity of human-hyena interactions and the conflict that occurs throughout most of Ethiopia. Most, but not all. [Continue: Hyena’s as symbionts].

References on Page 2…

Canine Dreamscapes: A Poem

George (left) and Oz (right)

Canine Dreamscapes

A soft-eyed smile

On a sleeping jaw

Slow tail wagging

And twitching paw

Old friend, it seems

You see far more

In canine dreams

At twilight.

Bottle a sound

To love and keep

No heavenly host

Could sound so sweet

Than the gentle woof

Of hounds asleep

In the gentle kiss

Of starlight.

Lullaby sigh

And tranquil mind

I watch, and wait,

And hope you find

Whatever treat

Lies undefined

In visions seen

By moonlight.

For all of us

Who watch dogs dream

Who hear the worlds

To us unseen

I share a smile,

A link, between

Our friends who dream

Of sunlight.


‘Other Minds’: A review of cephalopod sentience

“I wonder if, in the dark night of the sea, the octopus dreams of me.” N. Scott Momaday.

A good anthrozoological book to sit down and read with a cup of tea

One of the pillars of Anthrozoology is the desire to understand how animals perceive the world; whether there are two sentient beings in human/animal interactions. There have been numerous studies on animal sentience with convincing evidence in species such as chimps, gorillas, whales, dolphins, crows, elephants and parrots.

These species share commonalities: 1) they are chordates (have a spine), 2) they are warm blooded, and 3) they are terrestrial (or, in cetaceans, have returned to the ocean after having been terrestrial). I have recently read a book, however, that looks at sentience in a group of animals far removed from these commonalities. These are the cephalopods – octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. The book is Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, which uses research from his and others’ interactions with cephalopods to investigate sentience in animals that may be “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”.

Anthropology by its very nature is anthropocentric, and zoology has tended to focus on the purely anatomical and physiological aspects of non-human animals. However, the last few decades have seen these two disciplines merge, moving away from speciesism towards an inclusive view of how animals perceive the world. The reason I view Other Minds as more than a book on zoology or psychology is its basis in animal interaction and the author’s desire to empathise with cephalopod behaviour. A key question in Anthrozoology is: how does this look from the animal’s perspective? In Other Minds Godfrey-Smith asks the question: “What does it feel like to be an octopus?” Are cephalopods sentient?Do they have the ability to feel, perceive and experience the world subjectively? I’ll try to condense the book’s central arguments for cephalopod sentience into three topics: a) learning and recognition b) subjective experience and c) ‘inner monologues’.

Learning and recognition.

There are some interesting anecdotes about the capacity for cephalopods kept in laboratories to learn fast. The book discusses octopuses squirting water at light bulbs to turn them off, disrupting power supplies and raiding laboratory tanks for food. Godfrey-Smith avoids an anthropomorphic view of these behaviours, avoiding seeing them as clever and goal directed. “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” Instead, the author provides alternative innate drives for such activities; a scientific standpoint which I believe makes his insights into other behaviours that do seem sentient even more convincing.

Godfrey-Smith describes the behaviours he finds most intriguing. “It has long appeared that octopuses can recognise and behave differently to individual human keepers”. Also: “their behaviours are affected by their awareness of captivity”; Godfrey-Smith describes how octopuses explore their tanks, testing all areas and objects and, more importantly, will often perform these tests when humans are not observing. Recording devices have witnessed cephalopods preparing and manoeuvring for escape when humans have left the lab.

The argument for sentience regarding learning is strengthened when the author contrasts human/animal interactions in the laboratory with the (relatively) minimal social dynamics of octopuses in the wild. Godfrey-Smith argues that this ability to “adapt to the special circumstances of captivity” when interacting with other human and non-human animals, despite solitary social lives, supports cephalopod sentience. A key element of this ability to adapt is insight learning, (solving problems by understanding relationships between various parts of a problem), an element of sentience widely studied in cephalopods.

Subjective experience.

“If it feels like something to be an octopus, then these are sentient beings”. Godfrey-Smith goes beyond learning as a component of cephalopod consciousness and into animal subjectivity. The chapter on consciousness explains perceptual constancies which cephalopods are known to possess. This is where some animal brains distinguish changes in the environment due to their own actions (e.g. I move forward therefore the tree in front of me appears larger) and changes due to external actions(e.g. the predator is moving towards me). Godfrey-Smith writes with clarity as he takes what could be a difficult psychological topic and explains how perceptual constancies can lead to an awareness of our own actions on the environment, and therefore and awareness of self. Having framed this evolution of subjective experience, it is the author’s anthrozoological perspective on interactions between octopuses, cuttlefish and humans that gives the most persuasive argument for cephalopod sentience.

“A giant cuttlefish has reached an arm out, just a few inches, so it touches mine… They’ll send out an arm or two, first to explore you, and then – absurdly – to haul you into their lair”. Emotive descriptions of Godfrey-Smith’s interactions with cuttlefish and octopuses fuel his belief that these animals are having subjective experiences. “This was my first experience with an aspect of these animals that has never stopped intriguing me: the sense of mutual engagement that one can have with them.” This ‘mutual engagement’ is described as curiosity, exploration, caution, insightful. Anthropomorphic language, certainly, but the author goes further to give weight to the argument for cephalopod subjectivity.

Scientists have suggested that consciousness arises from an animal’s ability to detect and process novel situations and that the brain’s role in consciousness is to serve as a ‘novelty detector’, activated when animals are confronted with unprecedented situations. Applying this to cephalopods, Godfrey-Smith describes how they “have an opportunistic, exploratory style of interaction with the world” and that they seem to embrace novelty, interacting with humans and their environment, with “a mixture of caution and puzzling recklessness”.

Whilst reading descriptions of cephalopod behaviour in many chapters, it is hard not to be convinced that these actions are performed by subjective, sentient animals. We read about ‘wound guarding’, where octopuses will manoeuvre themselves to protect injured sites on their bodies.

The book contains colour pictures of the individual cephalopods Godfrey-Smith interacted with

Inner monologues.

In this third line of reasoning for cephalopod consciousness the author seems to be ‘thinking out loud’. Godfrey-Smith first talks us through an explanation of ‘inner monologues’, describing how internalisation of speech (in whatever native tongue we speak) plays an important role in conscious thought. “Inner speech is apparently one of a family of tools that enable complex thought” asserts Godfrey-Smith. So how does Other Minds argue that interacting with cephalopods gives an insight into their own version of inner speech? It does this with colour.

In my favourite passage from the book, Godfrey-Smith describes his observation of a lone cuttlefish that, the author believes, barely registered a human presence and was not communicating to any other animal:

“As he faced out past me towards the sea, I watched as his colours changed… I realised that these colours were changing in a concerted way… it reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other… He was not displaying much with his body… he was paying so little attention to me that this might have been going on whilst he was asleep… I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream… I’d been beside him for perhaps forty minutes. Now he was calm, and with the symphony or dream over, I swam in”.

This quote captures the intensity of the author’s feelings when experiencing this interaction. Godfrey-Smith unites this fascinating observation with the theory of internalised language in conscious thought. He proposes that external colour change is a manifestation of internal nervous activity. In the same way that humans talk to themselves, both internally and externally, could cephalopods undergo ‘colour symphonies’ in conscious thought?

Godfrey-Smith is proposing cephalopod colour change evolved for camouflage and inter-species signalling but that non-directed colour change may be an unintentional utilisation of its original function, a consequence of conscious thought. Just as human facial expressions change without us realising during thought, could colour displays in solitary cephalopods have a non-directed basis? Is this a valid suggestion if there are no predators, prey or conspecifics present during this display?

Godfrey-Smith states [cephalopods] go through an almost continual, kaleidoscopic process of colour change that appears disconnected to anything going on outside them, and appears instead to be an inadvertent expression of the electrochemical tumult inside them”. He believes the skin is connected to the brain in a way that can’t help but reflect “a kind of on-going chromatic chatter”.

Godfrey-Smith admits that his intriguing theory requires more scientific evidence to back it up. One of his arguments that not all colour change is for signalling to conspecifics is that, amazingly for animals relying so heavily on colour, cephalopods are thought to be colour blind. They lack colour detection pigments in their eyes to distinguish the world in anything other than black and white.


Animal sentience has often been a used as leverage to improve how animals are treated.  The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness (2012) proclaims many non-human animals possess “conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours”, mentioning cephalopods explicitly. Organisations have subsequently used the declaration to influence change in animal welfare. Other Minds is no different, using sentience as a springboard for cephalopod welfare and a ‘call to arms’ for marine conservation.

“Quite a lot of the early work done treated octopuses badly…Until recently, octopuses would be operated on without anaesthetic …Many of these experiments make for distressing reading for someone who regards octopuses as sentient beings”. Godfrey-Smith commends modern research for moving away from experiments such as this, where nerve severance, electric shocks and amputations were common. He heralds this as a step forward in the way cephalopods are treated in the interactions scientists have with them.

This is one of the main reasons I regard Other Minds as a work in Anthrozoology, rather than simply a zoological exploration of anatomy, physiology and behaviour. Godfrey-Smith is clearly trying to add to the body of work that supports shifts in ethics and legislation in favour of cephalopod welfare. Indeed, as the book discusses, Cephalopods are now often listed as an “honorary vertebrate”. For example the EU (2010) directive on the protection of animals for scientific purposes states “cephalopods should also be included in the scope of this Directive [for standards of welfare], as there is scientific evidence of their ability to experience pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm”.

The reason Godfrey-Smith feels cephalopods are only recently receiving higher welfare attention is their sheer difference to humans. He argues that there is something more readily recognisable in the consciousness we share with other mammals, even birds, than creatures as different to ourselves as the cephalopods. Other Minds does not onlytry to raise our awareness of the ability to recognise cephalopod sentience. The book briefly uses the components of sentience described to ask whether other animals we relate less readily to may be equally as sentient and in need of higher welfare. The author mentions species such as spiders and mantis shrimp which, although being very different to humans, display solitary behaviour that some could consider conscious.

I think the importance of Godfrey-Smith introducing the idea of other species lies in the leap of acceptance we must make when considering invertebrates as ‘intelligent and sophisticated’. How willing are we to accept that spiders and mantis shrimp have aspects of consciousness before and after reading Other Minds? I think ‘much more willing’. Godfrey-Smith helps place cephalopods on the next rung of a ‘sentience acceptance’ ladder, looking upwards to further rungs of even less ‘human-like’ animals. Hopefully, as our human species climb this ladder, we can carry our welfare legislation along with us to encompass their species.

There is a secondary, far more encompassing advocacy at the end of Other Minds – one that goes far beyond species-level welfare. Godfrey-Smith reflects that it was in a marine sanctuary that he first encountered the cephalopods that impelled him to write the book. This sanctuary in Sydney, Australia, had been created in 2002 to protect marine species from overfishing and without the Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve Godfrey-Smith may not have had the initial animal interactions that led to Other Minds. It is this, along with a passion for our oceans, which leads him to finish with an entreaty for marine conservation.

Capturing a child-like wonder…

A number of writers have described the sense humans have, when observing other animals, that they share sentience with us. In addition to the thousands of studies we now have to qualify and quantify sentience in non-human animals, when we “listen to our hearts, we are recognizing how much we know about what other animals are feeling”. In addition to highly researched scientific material, many descriptions of Godfrey-Smith’s cephalopod encounters capture the ‘gut feeling’ that some of the animals we observe possess consciousness.

The book is written with a fervent enthusiasm and an almost child-like wonder which is as much a support for the importance of cephalopods as the scientific research. The stories, quotes and discussions Godfrey-Smith includes, as he explains the conversations he has had with other scuba divers and marine researchers, are important qualitative elements to Other Minds. It is the enthusiasm that people throughout the book share for these enigmatic creatures and the insights they provide into their behaviour which completes the exploration of cephalopod sentience.

Godfrey-Smith himself shows an agreeable degree of reflexivity. Octopus arm waving, squid and cuttlefish colour displays, all of which the author witnessed in solitary individuals, were always accompanied with a consideration as to whether the behaviours were a result of his own presence. When camera traps are positioned to record behaviour with no humans present, Godfrey-Smith contemplates the effect that these novel objects may have on the animals’ behaviour. The ability to recognise the influence observers have on their subjects is evident throughout Other Minds and does credit to the books anthrozoological approach.

The final chapter ends poetically – “There are many reasons to appreciate and care for the oceans, and I hope this book has added one. When you dive into the sea, you dive into the origin of us all”. It is the book’s final pronoun ‘all’ that I find resonant. After reading Other Minds do I think of ‘all’ as all people? I don’t, and that is why I think the book has true anthrozoological significance, because to me it means all animals.

References on Page 2…