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March 3, 2019

In philosopher Vinciane Despret’s essay “Sheep Do Have Opinions”, (1) she argues that ethologists’ questions about the nonhuman animals they study have elastic properties. Certain lines of inquiry may make behaviours more expansive, complexity more visible, allow for new and unexpected discoveries. Alternatively, she says, their questions can shrink our understanding by reproducing assumptions – that males always dominate, or that competition pervades every dimension of animals' lives. For Despret, expansive questions mean allowing animals to “testify to what interests them”, rather than simply what interests the researcher. This, she argues, is a form of inter-species “politeness”.  Primatologist Thelma Rowell's experiments with a flock of sheep, she says, are a case in point. After decades studying apes and monkeys in Africa, Rowell became frustrated by the ‘hierarchical scandal’ that saw some animals the glamorous subjects of fascinating questions about social relations, and others...

December 17, 2016

           Twitter/National Geographic

Last month National Geographic disseminated a video with a sequence between three penguins, in which a male comes in to disrupt a monogamous nesting couple, successfully mating with the female as the previous partner is bloodily expelled ‘in humiliation’. The video went viral,  and the invader’s characterisation as a ‘homewrecker’ drew evident ire from penguin expert Norman Ratcliffe, who stated in  i News  that the label ‘made no sense’:  “There is a drive to fight for mates, resources and territory. But the video uses very anthropomorphic language, there is absolutely no indication animals feel humiliation”.

The  programme-makers put a playful  gloss on the penguin drama, transposing it to a melodramatic marital meta-narrative so hackneyed it can only have been conceived of by a human. That is a question of aesthetic taste. There are many words one could use to criticise such choices: naivety, sent...

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