How I Became an Animal Behaviorist

Some kids seem to be born knowing what they want to do when they grow up. I was not one of those kids.
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Some kids seem to be born knowing what they want to do when they grow up. I was not one of those kids.
emily-kane

Even when I was very small I would make up some random answer to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?": doctor, teacher, whatever. But in reality I could not picture myself doing anything in particular as a career. I did very well in chemistry, but to my teacher’s obvious disappointment I knew it simply did not interest me. Between leaving high school and getting halfway through my bachelor’s degree I had decided on and discarded four different careers: architect, graphic designer, journalist and clinical psychologist. I found the ultimate answer to my career question only in small pieces. 

Like when I went to enroll at university the person checking my paperwork seemed to sense my diffidence about the courses I had selected. There were at least 50 people behind me in line and I remember telling him: "I can’t discuss it here with all these people waiting."

The lecturer looked at the line and at me and just said, “They aren’t going anywhere.” Simultaneously rude and inspiring, he inspired me to change my course of study and three years later he became my Master’s degree supervisor. 

About halfway through my Bachelors degree in psychology, I turned up to my first animal behavior course; my small group was given a chicken and told to teach it how to peck a key to get food. We stared at the chicken through a small Perspex window in the “Operant chamber,” and the hen stared back out at us with obvious confusion. It was very cold in the chicken housing building, and I can’t say that any of us showed much skill when it came to chicken training. 

Eventually I handed in an experiment report documenting my chicken training prowess, for which I received a failing grade. I once told this story to a discouraged student many years later and she actually accused me of lying, as if no one who ended up a lecturer could ever have failed anything. 

So okay, it was certainly not an illustrious beginning to my career as a behaviorist. But that’s life isn’t it? It has its ups and downs and not everyone is instantly gifted in their chosen field. I was, however, hooked. I was motivated to get better and I was given the time and the opportunity to do this.

When I approached that lecturer to ask him to supervise my Masters thesis, we discussed what it might be like working in this area. He was pretty honest about animal behaviorism not being an area where you could expect fame, fortune, or job security. The only thing he was emphatic about was that if I stuck with it, I would never be bored. 

I think deep down I realized that was what part of what I was looking for. To never be bored. 

I went on to do a thesis on a subject of my choice: whether chickens could see television pictures and understand what they were showing. Two years later I had the answer. No. It remains my most highly cited paper. When people ask why I chose what seems like a weird and useless topic the short answer is: I wanted to know. The long answer gets into how research both builds and distorts our understanding of animals by building in all these false assumptions -- most often assumptions that other animals are like people when they often are not.

During my PhD I was working with rats. Students and visitors to the lab would often ask the same question: are the rats happy? I was trained to give a range of rational sounding answers. The rats have all their needs met, they live much longer than rats in the wild, and so forth. Once day it struck to me that these were not really answers to the question that they were asking. And if I was really honest, I felt the answer was: No. I went on to be a researcher, focusing more and more on finding ways to understand what animals need and to improve their welfare. I tried to find ways to really capture what animals wanted, and to create the kind of place they should live in order to be… happy. (I mean you can call it a lot of more scientific sounding things, but what we mean is happy.)

Over the years, I guess that I discovered that I am not one of those people with a deep and intuitive connection with animals. But sometimes I think this is actually an asset in my job. If you are one of those special people, it must be hard to even understand how the human race has gotten to misunderstanding and treating animals the way we do. It's like when they drag in mathematics professors to teach statistics to undergraduates in the social sciences. People who specialize in math generally have a deep fascination and intuitive understanding of numbers. When it comes to teaching people who don’t really give a damn about numbers per se, they often do a terrible job. 

The inner life of animals is a bit like mathematics -- enormously nuanced, subtle and complex. But at the same time, as revealed by a good study and explained as a process of discovery, it is also profoundly simple. Animals are what they are and want what they want, just like us. You just have to let them tell you. 

After 15 years of doing research, I wanted to get into really advocating for animals and for science as a way of understanding animals better. I wanted to try to convey my journey into the minds of animals to the people who most needed to know: regulators, industries, customers -- all the people that collectively determine how animals are kept in our society and the ones that will ultimately have to decide that we need to do better. I have to somehow take them on this journey of not only how to do better for animals, but how to care enough to make out animals based industry answer the question the public is asking. Are the animals happy?

As I moved onto the next stage in my career and I had a little time to think. Why is it we expect children to all develop career aspirations far before the age when many fascinating jobs are even known to them? Why do we pressure them so that failing anything at any stage seems like the end of the world? Even worse, why are we creating a system that may be making this expectation a reality? 

These days kids enroll online without ever getting guidance directly from their future teachers until they are already committed to a course of study. When a kid is found to have specific gifts they seem to be tacitly expected to follow their gifts rather than their interests (or it just never occurs to anyone these might not be the same). Grade requirements are steep and now CVs are meant to be packed with extra curricular training, international experiences, competitive hobbies, and charitable work. Kids are told they must aspire to be leaders before they even know where they want to go. Educational programs harden early not allowing people to switch tracks without losing time or a competitive advantage. People are coming out into a chaotic job market with rigid expectations and may not have seriously thought about whether this really is the job for them.

So here I am: an animal behaviorist whose dog just destroyed the sofa. (Animals have a way of keeping you humble when it comes to filling the role of ‘animal behavior expert’.) It is exactly the right job for me and until I was in my twenties I could barely even imagine that such a job existed. 

So maybe next time you ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, let them know it is okay not to have an answer yet, maybe tell them what you do -- no matter how obscure or specialized your job might be. Who knows, you might be the first step in their journey to becoming what they are really meant to be, to finding the things they need to get what they want, to be happy.