Unlock the Skinner Box & Animal Happiness
(B.F. Skinner was a mid-20th-century behavioral psychologist who considered all animals including humans as basically stimulus-response machines.)
Photo by: UPC
The heart is hard in nature . . . that is not pleased with sight of animals enjoying life. William Cowper, from his poem The Task
In the previous issue of Poultry Press, we ran a cover story asking, “Is It Unscientific to Say that an Animal is Happy?” It was our answer to zoologist Marian Stamp Dawkins’s claim that ideas presented in books like Jonathan Balcombe’s Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (2006) threaten to create a chaos in which there will no longer be any distinction “between the anthropomorphism of Bambi and the scientific study of animal behavior.” (Bring it on.) Two of our members responded as follows.
A Mother Duck and her Ducklings
“Is it unscientific to say that an animal is happy? I once rescued a white Pekin duck who, while protecting her young, was caught and severely injured by a dog. Her two half-grown ducklings escaped into the lake, and a local couple fed them while their mother recovered under my care. She took a full month to heal, as meanwhile her ducklings spent time learning from the mallard ducks who also lived on the lake.
“On the day chosen for the mother duck’s return home, we spotted a small flock of ducks on the bank. As we approached, the mallards went into the water. But the mother duck in my arms spotted the white ducklings and began to squirm and quack. The young ducks turned from the lake and ran excitedly toward us, quacking in return. When I put their mother on the ground, they raced to greet each other, gabbling in duck-talk, in what sounded to me like, “Where in the world have you been?” After moments of renewing their bond, the three slipped into the lake and swam away.
“Were they happy? Would they have acted the same way if I had put another adult Pekin duck on the ground? My years of experience as a bird rehabilitator have taught me that they would have tolerated the other duck’s presence, but they would not have come enthusiastically to meet the newcomer.” – Sandra Krebs, Virginia Beach, VA
“I have lived with animals all my life, but my brown hen, Bertha, and my 18-year-old cat, Clara, were my favorites. They were very much alike – tough, opinionated, loving Empresses. Bertha was with us for nine years, the first four outside and free, the latter five enclosed after a hawk attack almost killed her. The enclosure I built for her when she recovered was in the midst of nature with trees in it, grass, dust for baths, and she had an entire shed with open door for shelter and privacy, two mattresses with blankets, and heat when needed.
“I visited with Bertha daily, summer and winter, read to her (she liked Edgar Allan Poe!), talked with her (they were really conversations), watched her dig up the grass I planted for her, to enlarge her dustbathing area. She insisted upon sitting in my lap and having her head stroked before falling asleep there. (I can still feel the cramp I endured so as not to disturb her.) If she was not happy in these moments, I am as limited in my perception as Prof. Dawkins.
“Bertha enjoyed her life, had distinct and positive tastes, preferences, and emotions. She fell in love once with a turkey, who spent two weeks on top of her pen, or beside her on the ground outside, until someone killed him, and she mourned for a long time, as I could only look on helplessly. She lies where she lived, with a statue, life-size, of a hen for a gravestone. I find myself still speaking to her when I go into the shed for daily bird seed, squirrel feed, bunny feed . . . In the midst of a city, I have turned my area into a sanctuary.” – Paul Deane, retired University professor and author of published books, Stoughton, Massachusetts
Photo by: Paul Deane