April 24, 2008

Do dogs think? Undergraduates explore animal cognition, disposition in interdisciplinary philosophy course

Sara Waller

Dogs listen to iPod music. Cats stare at computer animation. It's all part of students observing animals during Sara Waller's service learning philosophy class on animal behavior, consciousness and cognition at Case Western Reserve University.

While students are walking dogs, playing with cats or observing animals, they have some bigger philosophical questions to answer. Do animals think? Can they reason or are they just machines such as philosopher Rene Descartes suggested.

"I think animals are more than machines, but I'm also interested in how animal minds might be set up differently from our own minds," said Waller. "That is the point of intrigue for me. I do think they are conscious, but I don't' think we will know everything about their consciousness or how they conceptualized the world."

She added that it also raises questions about the human limits to understand languages of animals or our own abilities to conceptualize.

To find out how animals might think, Waller links students to animals through the volunteering component of her class.

Katherine Taylor, a first-year biology major from Troy, Ohio, walks and socializes adoptable dogs at the Animal Protective League in Cleveland. She closely tracks the animals' temperaments. As part of an experiment Taylor designed, she duly notes on a checklist responses dogs have during exercise.

She is interested in finding out if they are curious, stressed, fearful, contented or something else. From the collected data of the 49 dogs (including Taylor's own dog), she plans to determine what the dogs' behaviors mean about their philosophical disposition and cognition.

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Taylor isn't alone at the APL as other students from Waller's class join her to conduct their own experiments while volunteering. Waller's students are also observing animal behavior at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Wolf Park in Indiana, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Medina Raptor Center, Shaker Animal Clinic and with a trainer for psychiatric service dogs in Oberlin.

The assistant professor of philosophy said, "I think this is the exciting feature of the course. They volunteer 25 hours in exchange for the opportunity to observe the animals."

Part of the goal of the four-credit "Philosophy of Animal Consciousness and Cognition" is that these organizations can learn from the student research and find ways to make it less stressful for the animals in their care or develop ways to enrich the environment for animals in captivity. The course is cross listed with biology and cognitive science.

But for Waller's students, they have an opportunity to use what they learn in class in real world experiences and research.

In the past, Waller's students have howled at wolves to find out that wolves respond better to professional wolf handlers than students, but overall the wolves like the enrichment of howling to new stimuli.

Jason Wark, a first-year doctoral student in biology from Marcus Hook, Pa., is located at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo with Kristin Lukas, the zoo's curator of conservation and science and an adjunct biology professor at the university.

Wark is studying the effect on the vocalizations of the Geoffroy's Tamarins (monkeys) in the zoo's rainforest. The primates live near the constant noise of a waterfall. He will determine whether the animals adjust their vocalizations (louder and possibly longer) to compensate for the noise. He is comparing the behavior of the five Tamarins in the rainforest habitat with the two Tamarins in the quieter environment of the Primate, Cat and Aquatic Building. Three students from Waller's class—Doug Cifranick, Maggie Min and Jake Moskowitz, work with Wark on the project.

"Opportunities to conduct research at zoological institutions are very rare, and even more so for undergraduate students," said Wark. "I am very excited that this course enabled me to share this opportunity with others."

With a Freedman Fellowship grant, Waller has installed cat and dog cameras at the APL to allow students to observe the day and night behaviors of the animals. Eventually the APL plans to post similar video footage to their website to assist in linking people to adoptable animals.

Waller is no stranger to animal communications. She has been studying dolphin communications and differences in how groups in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans communicate. She also has begun to analyze the language and cognition of coyotes through recorded howls and calls from populations in Ohio and Southern California.

"I'm branching out into other groups and predictors at the top of the food chain," said Waller, adding it is mostly animals that hang out in packs and hunt for prey.

Waller incorporates her experiences with animal communications in her class in having student explore the question of whether animals think and have emotions like humans.

"Who doesn’t want to work with dogs and get credit for it?" asks Taylor. "However, it was challenging too especially because philosophical concepts are difficult to understand. Still, it has not only been rewarding, but fun."

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, April 24, 2008 01:08 PM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, HeadlinesMain, Research, news

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