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Sorrow, mourning, empathy, feelings animals are all to familiar with

Sorrow, mourning, empathy, feelings animals are all to familiar with

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Suppose you’re a scientist and you get a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Pim Martens, professor of Sustainability, would like to put dogs in an MRI scanner.

Just like doctor Doolittle, professor Pim Martens would like to be able to talk to animals. Well, talk... That may be asking for too much, but at least be able to communicate with them. Or just to start off: be better able to understand them, he says. That is why he would like to put dogs in the MRI scanner so he could learn more about their brain activity.

This sounds futuristic but in Atlanta (US) neuroscientists have already done it, says Martens. Such a study is not an easy thing, because how do you get a dog to lie stock-still? It is a matter of training, with treats as a reward. Once they are inside the scanner the researcher gives various hand signals, which the animal has learned to interpret. One of them is Food! It then appears that the same area of the brain is activated as in humans.

Martens: “This also happens when you show a scary video. The same regions light up and show that a dog's brain processes fear in the same way. I suspect that emotional processes in animals are much more similar to those in humans than we think, and that they also experience sadness, joy and shame. Biologist Frans de Waal even argues that we should turn that reasoning around: just assume that this is the case, and focus on any anomalies.”

Martens would like to develop an app that recognises emotions in animals. So you point your telephone at your cat or dog, and ping: ‘your dachshund is sad.’ Or ping: ‘your cat is lonely.’ He once tried to obtain an NWO grant, but it wasn't awarded. “The software for facial recognition has improved tremendously. Dogs have less expression in their faces compared to people, but they do have a tail that can wag or droop.”

If we can understand animals better, says Martens, professor of Sustainability, then we can live more harmoniously together. Because how can we justify the bio-industry and tests on laboratory animals, he says, if we can prove time and again that pigs and rats sympathise when one of their own is in pain. That they miss other animals and that they mourn. “Imagine that you yourself are part of this industry, that friends are taken away every day to be slaughtered. This may give you, even though animals are less sensitive to pain than humans, an idea of how unbelievably great their suffering must be.”

The next step after harmoniously living together, would be to ask: What can humans and animals mean to each other emotionally? Martens has recently received a subsidy from the Limburg university fund SWOL to do research into the so-called animal assisted therapies in the Maastricht UMC+. For some time now, sick children are being visited once a month by animals from the children's farm in De Heeg. “We will carry out interviews with staff and parents in order to map out the effects on the well-being and any improvement of patients.”

More and more hospitals have animal visits or therapies. At the university hospital in Brussels, this takes place in Villa Samson, where children and older people can cuddle and play with animals. Animals also play a role in the treatment of depression, autism, eating disorders, cancer, abuse or reading and concentration problems. The latter is also done in the US, where children with reading problems read to animals from shelters. “It works both ways: the children lose their inhibition to read out loud and the animals receive emotional attention.”

Martens is an advocate of an (international) study programme of anthrozoology at the UM, in which everything is centred around the relationship between humans and animals. Including the dilemmas. “Things like the ecological footprint of pets, a dog's diet is just as detrimental to the environment as driving a car. Or the havoc caused by cats. They catch a tremendous number of mice, blackbirds and butterflies. One shouldn't underestimate the impact this has on biodiversity.”

He himself has two cats. “Wonderful, just how headstrong those animals can be. I give them food and I am allowed to pet them every now and then. It feels like I work for them.”

 

 

In this series scientists talk about the research they would really like to carry out

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