Tonawanda News

December 2, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Robots better than the real-deal in zoos?

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — In April 2010 the well-known primatologist Jane Goodall visited Canisius College. In 1960, she pioneered research on chimpanzee behavior in Tanzania and it was an honor to hear her talk. She thought back on her five decades of research and what it means for the future of animals in the wild and in captivity. In her speech she said she did not like zoos, but understood that there are not many alternatives for the wild animals since poaching, habitat loss and climate change were affecting every facet of their lives.

In February 2012 Canisus College hosted a symposium entitled “The Future of Zoos.” Animal behavior experts, conservationists, zoo directors and international zoo architects were invited to share not only what they think will be, but also to articulate what should be the future of zoos. Presentations were placed into three major topics: anticipating the nature of future zoo visitors, the role of zoos in conservation and species selection in future zoos. 

A representative from the Wildlife Conservation Society argued with the diminished state of wildlife, zoos should be responding differently. Other presenters urged zoos to change the educational role that they play. The most emotionally evocating talks were based around what animals would be in zoos 50 and 100 years from now.

Some thought highly intelligent animals like elephants, great apes and killer whales should never be in zoological intuitions. Some thought that cloning extinct animals such as saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths, and having them alive and in zoos would be the future. Dr. Michael Noonan, an animal behavior professor at Canisus College, spoke about the role of robotics in zoos. Could you imagine going to a zoo and just like Disney or Universal Studies seeing animatronic animals instead of the real thing?

This brings me to one of the many essays in the newly published book, “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation,” by Marc Bekoff. The book was published three weeks ago and includes many of his 400 essays, which present research about animal cognition as well as his own personal views of what each of us can do to improve the lives of animals.

In one essay, Bekoff argues that the movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proves that real primates no longer need to be used in movies. Much like “Avatar,” the movie was created by using the latest technology and having the apes computer-generated did not take the audience out of the movie.

I found part eight, “The Lives of Captive Creatures: Why Are They Even There,” to be mostly his own personal view with which I disagreed most of the time. This section consists of 11 essays and much like the Canisus symposium puts into question the use of animals in the entertainment industry, including zoos. Part nine, “Who We Eat Is A Moral Question,” on the other hand, I disagreed with only a tiny part.

The essays in the book range from several pages to two paragraphs, like “Brain Scans Show Vegetarians And Vegans Are More Empathic Than Omnivores,” a favorite of mine, most likely due to my commitment to being a vegetarian for the majority of my life. 

In addition to finding out why dogs hump — page 97 — and bees get depressed — page 149 — you will also learn why flies self-medicate by drinking alcohol and how spiders play among many other scientific-based research. The essays are organized by themes rather than chronologically and each of the 11 parts opens with an introduction that frames the topic. Many of these topics do overlap and it is designed for the reader to jump around based on their interests.

I enjoyed all the science-based essays including many that dealt with critter companions, especially dogs. Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a very passionate animal advocate, which can be seen clearly in his work.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.