Before we look at possible answers, we should try to establish an ethical baseline we all can agree on and work with. Most but not all people will accept that it is wrong to intentionally inflict harm onto others with the exception of acting in self defence. Intentionally harming other people is morally seen not acceptable. Violence is generally not regarded as normal behaviour, as it obviously can cause harm. It seems natural to most of us to help others, who have been harmed or are about to be harmed. But what drives us to help? And where does empathy and compassion come from?
The list of animal exploitation is long and includes the abuse of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and experimentation as well as as companions and workers. Right now, there is a new scientific project making its rounds through the media, which is suggesting a new method to keep our cities clean. The idea has been developed by Dutch scientists und is focussing on the utilisation of specific traits of an animals species, which could theoretically help to tackle one of the biggest human evolutionary shortcomings – to be willing to live in harmony with nature and the environment. The project design incorporates a machine and is recruiting and training city crows, who would take care of recklessly discarded cigarette butts.
It is known that cigarettes take between ten and twelve years to decompose. The scale of this waste problem is huge, as it is estimated that every year approximately 4.5 trillion cigarettes are discarded with no regard for the environment. The project is using a so called ‘Crowbar’, which is based on a design created by an American inventor. The device has a large funnel, where cigarette butts can be deposited, and a dispenser for releasing peanuts as a reward. The hope is that crows get busy cleaning up the streets in exchange for some easy food. This idea is trying to utilise the generally acknowledged fact that crows are very intelligent and adaptable being known for their ability to solve complex problems and also to create and use tools.
Before looking at ethical questions related to this idea, there are at least two ‘technical’ problems to address, which the inventors might not have fully thought through. First off all, it is very likely that crows will always have a food choice in our crowded cities, meaning that peanuts may not be that much attractive as a food reward. Secondly, our crows are usually territorial, which means that only one territory holding pair is going to use that machine, which doesn’t seem very efficient, when it comes to cleaning up our large cities. These two problems alone are likely to be sufficient enough, to put this questionable idea to rest.
However, without a doubt, this project raises also several ethical issues, the most important ones being the egocentric and anthropocentric way of human thinking and attitude. Obviously, common sense tells us that the far simpler and cheaper way of solving the cigarette butt problem is to educate people, in this particular case smokers. Instead of constructing, deploying and maintaining machines, which are leaving a noticeable carbon foot print behind, one should rather educate and encourage smokers to quit smoking, or at least to discard their waste products appropriately, which is the least one could expect from a grown up human being.
However, the problem is far more complex than that. Firstly, as mentioned already, the suggested solution is based on an anthropocentric view point. Humans have long tested animals to see how smart they are by seeing if they can do human-like tasks. We are too quick to judge animals by our own human standards, instead of testing within the limits of the animals’ natural behaviour and within their natural setting. By any standard used, we all know that corvids are clever enough to be able to fulfill this particular task, but so are other sentient beings, like toddlers too. And this leads to the second problem.
Humans do not treat sentient and intelligent beings like crows as equals, meaning we treat them differently, and by far not the way we would want to be treated, despite that there is a general agreement about the fact that humans and crows are both, sentient and intelligent. It is actually even worse, the anthropocentric view point is so deeply rooted, that many humans are often tend to focus on the level of animal intelligence (compared to humans) rather than sentience, when it comes to decide how to treat an animal, ignoring completely the fact that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
The truth is that this machine, when it would actually work, would exploit crows, ignoring the fact that it is morally wrong to use or exploit sentient beings in any way. Even worse, this machine is putting these birds at an additional risk by encouraging and rewarding them to handle toxic and also possibly still burning cigarette butts, which might even end up in a place, where we might not want them to be. Furthermore, at least to a certain degree, these birds will be made dependent to rely on human handouts. Based on the natural behaviour of corvids, they will also cache their food, or potential valuables like cigarette butts, as they might want to trade them in later. The result will be that litter will not only be removed, but also be distributed in a different, not nessarily desired pattern. It is also to expect that crows will test the built in scanner to its limits, simply to find out, if other items like pebbles or pieces of paper also trigger food rewards, something which will put the whole machine to a test.
Sadly, even some bird and corvid lovers seem to find this idea fascinating, as they feel that this approach spreads the word and is helping to change and improve the traditionally bad reputation of corvids. It might even do that, but by disregarding the rights of an individual sentient being and by supporting exploitation. Luckily, regardless of all ethical issues, and purely due to technical problems alone, it remains doubtful that this machine is ever going to work.
Animal culture describes the current theory of cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviours. This involves the social transmittance of a novel behavior, both among peers and between generations of the species concerned.
About six years ago I have been called for help as a fledgling crow has flown into a window in one of the enclosed courtyards of the hospital. When I arrived I found a concussed carrion crow fledgling being cold and wet. The bird also showed nutritional deficiencies and subsequently a poor plumage with many white primaries and secondaries. All these problems made it necessary to take the fledgling bird into our care to treat the immediate concussion issues but also to keep the bird for at least one year to allow a full moult into a new healthy plumage, which only happens once a year. Whilst assessing and securing the crow fledgling I have been closely watched and scolded at by the crow parents, and by another crow sitting in some distance on a roof.
Crows are territorial birds. The hospital grounds are forming the centre of the crow territory occupied by the pair of crows, whose fledgling I have been asked to rescue. As documened in the literature, the third crow is likely to be a male crow, who has been accepted by the territory holder pair to reside in the outskirts of the occupied territory helping them to defend their home. One year later I have been called again to rescue another crow fledgling which got stuck in an open hospital sewer canal. The poor bird was soaking wet and hypothermic and had to be taken into care as well. As the year before, the parents watched the incident and tried to defend their youngster.
Corvids Never Forget A Face
Ever since the first incident five years ago, as soon as I enter the hospital grounds to go to my work place, these three crows including their offspring will raise the alarm and at least one of the crows will accompany me until I enter one of the buildings and disappear from their sight. Interestingly, it does not matter what clothing I am wearing, they will easily identify me and recognise my face. Even youngsters born the years after the last incident will raise the alarm and join in, as soon as they become independent and are able to fly and follow me. The members of this extended crow family are also able to identify me when I stand seemingly at random behind one of the hospital windows watching them whilst they are doing their daily business.
This encounter, which demonstrates nicely cultural learning, shows clearly that information regarded as essential and worth keeping is communicated between family members, related and unrelated birds, even years after the actual incident. This lets us conclude that long living animals like crows have some sort of cultural heritage, which is being passed on to future generations. As it is also known that territorial carrion crows will also visit communal roosts, there is also the possibility to consider that some of this or other more essential and useful information of this cultural heritage will also be passed on even further.
This short story of carrion crow Boing Boing’s first encounter with another crow unknown to him, whist being introduced into our communal aviary, nicely illustrates what animal consciousness or awareness is about. Animal consciousness is the state of self-awareness within an animal, or of being aware of an external object or something within itself.
Carrion Crow Boing Boing
Boing Boing is a now six year old male carrion crow, who came into our care four years ago, when he started to cause behavioural problems to his previous carers. Boing Boing has been hand raised after he has been found orphaned as a youngster, also being at the time in a very poor condition. He is not releasable and a permanent resident, as he is suffering of a scissor beak, which makes it impossible for him to survive in the wild. Boing Boing would not be able to eat carrion, as his beak disorder will not allow him to tear his food into manageable pieces. We took over his care at the time carrion crows usually mature, and when they commonly show behavioural issues, in particular when held in captivity without companions, adequate housing and mental as well as physical stimulation.
Carrion Crow Chili
Chili is a young dominant male carrion crow, who has been found together with his sister Pepper after becoming orphans following the destruction of their nest during a storm. Another sibling died during this accident, but Chili and Pepper luckily survived, despite suffering of starvation, injuries and infections. Due to Chili’s personality being characterised by a strong will and determination, he grew up quickly and took on the vacant position of the territory holder. His sister Pepper is rather the opposite of Chili, having had considerable problems with her legs caused by calcium deficiencies. She is very gentle and shy, but also very observant and clever.
Animal Consciousness And Awareness
When we introduced Boing Boing into the communal aviary, Chili immediately came, which was not unexpected, to greet the new arrival. Boing Boing announced himself with a cawing display usually used by dominant birds or territory holders when arriving at the communal roost. During this display head and neck are held forward whilst neck and belly feathers are raised. Wings are usually closed and the tail is fanned out slightly. Whilst cawing, the head will be slowly lowered until the beak is touching the belly, and at the same time the nictitating membrane is drawn across the eye. Then the head will be moved up again back into the normal position, and the display begins again. Chili replied to this demonstration by immediately sleeking down his feathers to appear smaller and less aggressive, meaning that both birds have, without any aggression or even fight, just addressed and clarified their position in their crow society.
But this was not the end of Boing Boing’s and Chili’s first encounter and communication. Both birds sat silently on the perch next to each other for more than a minute. Boing Boing was intensely looking around taking all the new information in, whilst Chili seemed unable to take his gaze of Boing Boing’s beak. Eventually Chili made his move by approaching Boing Boing and by gently and carefully examining Boing Boing’s beak by using his own. Boing Boing didn’t move, he did not even twitch. He allowed Chili to examen his beak. After another minute Chili stopped his assessment, now obviously having satisfied his curiosity, and then he eventually moved away from Boing Boing and flew off to continue with his usual business.