IEC and a nasty case of Bristol Envy

31 08 2013

Early August saw me, Jamie, Becky & Carole all travelling to Newcastle for the International Ethological Conference, held in a giant glass Norman Foster slug called the Sage. With over 800 participants, and dozens of friends and colleagues there, the meeting was enormous fun (at times verging on overwhelming). Highlights for me were seeing Mike Mendl, Liz Paul, Melissa Bateson (who was organising the meeting), Suzanne Held and Hanno Wuerbel – friends for over 20 years now; meeting people I’ve long heard about and read, but never met before (Louise Barrett, Sergio Pellis and Kate Lessells); having my talk go well, in the “death” session organised by Dan Weary & Joanna Makowska & Huw Golledge (and being introduced by Dan, the chair, as “the Queen of Experimental Design” – may have to get that as a tattoo); hearing from UFAW‘s Robert Hubrecht that yes, me and Mike (Walker) did get a $5000 grant for our mixed strain experiment (phew); seeing Jamie chair a session with aplomb, and him and Becky both give good talks on their play and enrichment research; catching up with my former supervisor, Pat Bateson, and my intellectual heroine Marian Dawkins (and learning from her that chicks really, really like orange…); seeing Andy Sih and his lovely partner Kate; and hearing all the new work that’s emerging on the neurobiology and the evolutionary functions of emotions and moods (this gave me a severe case of Bristol envy, as that place is such a hub of cool fundamental work relevant to welfare).

Frustrations were that everyone is still sidestepping the feelings component of emotion (but maybe that all’s the better for me and Walter); that the one poster I sought out (of the 400 or so: it was insane) did not show what it claimed (that pets cats recognise their names: the experiment was too badly designed to say anything much); and that with this vast venue and multiple parallel sessions, there were some people I really like who I barely saw, save to wave at them as I went up an up escalator while they went down a down one…

Guelph phonography

31 08 2013

Cool photos taken on phones; they make Guelph look stuck in the 1940’s and strangely buccolic, but that’s part of their charm:

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Meerkat research

25 08 2013

Dissertation Boot Camp

25 08 2013

Maria disappeared for a week at the end of July to participate in the one of our library’s regular “dissertation boot camps“. Would she re-emerge wiry, newly-muscled and with strange tattoos, we wondered? Disappointingly not, but it did make her knuckle down and blitz Chapter 1. Her verdict (once she’d recovered)? “EXCELLENT! I wish it’d go on for at least one more week… or a month! I don’t think I’ve ever had so many positive things to say in a final evaluation form”.

Hilarious search terms

25 08 2013

A while ago I commented on the bizarre routes that accidentally bring people to this blog, and I thought you might enjoy seeing the top 30 or so search terms. It’s a funny old world.

Hilarious search terms

Calling about consciousness

25 08 2013

In June, Walter sent detailed requests for information to the eight key researchers who’ve studied the use of interoceptive states as discriminative stimuli (DS). We’ve been using their papers to assess whether this use of internal states to guide the selection of learnt responses can occur without reportable feelings (in a “blindsight”-like way), or instead whether subjects can only do this if they are consciously aware of how they feel. Our motive is to assess whether such actions are potentially markers of conscious awareness. Pigs and rats can use an anxiety-inducing drug as a DS for example (learning to use it versus a saline injection to guide which of two operants to perform for food), and will generalise from it to apparently-frightening situations like being beaten up by rivals (as revealed by them picking the “anxious-drug lever” after such experiences; here is a similar example). Do such studies demonstrate conscious emotions in animals? We cannot tell for sure, but we can get close by looking at human studies that involve not just similar DS tasks, but also questionnaires that assess subjects’ reported sensations.

These studies are technically challenging & tough to understand though, and so Walter needed some last methodological details not mentioned in the published papers to really judge which to use and which not. He was also hoping to get some raw data from the researchers. I had been worried that some would not reply, and insisted we sent them real old-fashioned letters on fancy paper as well as emails. Turns out I was wrong – all eight replied within a week, and with enormous helpfulness and warmth. In the following few weeks we also had phonecalls with three of them: Kenzie Preston, Dora Duka, and Craig Rush. These were fun and extremely useful; also inspiring, even though at least one was convinced we won’t find what we are seeking ….

A old favourite from the Onion

25 08 2013

Years old but even after many watchings this still makes me laugh.

Staggering Response to Draft Pig Code of Practice

24 08 2013

4700 public responses were submitted to the draft NFACC Codes of Practice for Pigs. Penny Lawlis came to speak to us in Behaviour Group a few weeks ago, and mentioned that even in July, a couple of thousand had already come in — mainly from industry folks not wanting any type of change. Since then I think and hope animal protection groups contributed too, to try and redress the balance. The draft codes are admirable. They recommend that sow stalls are phased out in favour of group housing; that animals are fed every day (radical huh?); and that boars are not deliberately injured before being loaded onto trucks (currently — and unbelievably — common practice is to break their jaws with a baseball bat or similar, to stop them fighting during transport; North America is still the barbaric wild west in some ways…).

And yes, I did send my comments in before the deadline! Below is Friday’s press release from NFACC.

(Ottawa) 23 August 2013 – Over 4700 submissions, representing 32,340 individual comments, were received on the draft Code of Practice for the care and handling of pigs when the public comment period closed on August 3rd. Submissions came from across Canada, the United States and around the world. Producers, processors, veterinarians, animal welfare advocates, the general public and many others contributed valuable input that will now be considered by the pig Code Development Committee.
“The response has been tremendous. The National Farm Animal Care Council appreciates the level of engagement across interest groups and constructive input that so many provided in their submissions,” says Jackie Wepruk, NFACC General Manager.
The pig Code Development Committee met for two days this week to consider the submissions made through the public comment period and work toward a final Code. The diversity of views, complexity of the issues and sheer volume of comments, made finishing the Code within a two day meeting challenging.
“The Code Development Committee is engaging in rigorous dialogue to ensure the range of views is being given fair consideration,” says Wepruk. “The committee is positive about the progress made. However, more time will be required for deliberations. NFACC is committed to ensuring the necessary resources are in place to make this happen.” A November meeting is planned.
Codes of Practice represent our national understanding of animal care requirements and recommended practices. They are developed utilizing a multi-stakeholder, consensus based process that involves producers, processors, veterinarians, animal welfare researchers, animal welfare advocates, governments and other expertise in animal welfare. This collective decision-making model enables informed discussion on animal welfare issues that leads to realistic outcomes for real and continuous improvements in animal welfare.
The public comment period is an important component of the Code development process. It provides an opportunity for individuals and organizations to provide constructive input that will further ensure Canadian Codes of Practice for the care and handling of livestock and poultry are practical and implementable by producers and reflect societal expectations regarding farm animal care. ?
Funding for the Codes of Practice is provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Agricultural Flexibility Fund, under the Addressing Domestic and International Market Expectations Relative to Farm Animal Welfare initiative, as part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan.

Just how “social” is the social transmission of food preferences?

23 08 2013

Laura Harper (who’s joining the lab as a MSc coursework student in September) and I had a useful fact-finding day in July, learning how to measure the social transmission of food preferences. Once again we were helped by Elena Choleris, whose group specialises in this, and particularly her PhD student Richard Matta. Inspired by Maria’s work on courting and mating mink, Laura is interested in assessing the ability of stereotypic animals to interact normally with conspecifics, using mice as a model. She won an OGS to assess whether stereotypic animals are poor at demonstrating or picking up socially transmitted food preferences – the process whereby mice and rats eat novel food faster if they have previously smelled it on a conspecific’s breath. Rats seem to treat adults as more convincing demonstrators than juveniles, and in gerbils, the familiarity of a demonstrator is important too (even though strangers do sniff each other a lot). So far so good. But rats will also pick up food preferences from the breath of unconscious animals, and even from the breath of humans! So as a way of seeing if stereotypic animals are socially normal, it’s pretty clear this is going to be blunt instrument (i.e. prone to false negatives). Nevertheless for an intensive two days’ work (including 7am starts, yuck), we can get a tonne of data so it seems worth this risk … just as long as we supplement it with other approaches too (perhaps seeing whether enriched-reared, non-stereotypic females are particularly preferred by other females as nesting partners). 

One million Syrian children are refugees

23 08 2013

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What an appalling amount of misery; a damaged generation does not bode well for the future either… see the UNHCR for the full story.

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