At one point in her career, Lori Marino worked with NASA astronauts, studying how they respond to being in zero gravity conditions. While that was somewhat exciting, Marino says she “simply didn’t find humans as interesting as other animals.” So the neuroscientist and behavioral biologist went back to her first love – studying nonhumans. Internationally known for her work on the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins, whales, and primates, Marino is scientist of a rather rare order – one who thinks it’s “morally objectionable” to use other sentient animals for our purposes, whether it be for food, or for captive and invasive research.
In the early 2000s, Marino started a controversial public campaign to end the use of captive dolphins for entertainment and research. In 2010, she founded the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, a Utah-based nonprofit that seeks to transform our troubled relationship with other animals by bridging the gap between the academic research and the animal advocacy movement. She is the former science director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which works for the recognition and protection of fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.
Despite her deep empathy for animals, Marino didn’t always hold such strong views on animal rights. When she started off as a researcher, she euthanized lab rats to study their nervous systems. And she spent nearly two decades at Emory University in Atlanta, observing captive dolphins and measuring the brain-body ratios in dead dolphins and whales. In a free-wheeling conversation, Marino talked with me about everything from the evolution of her thinking about our relationship with other animals to why she believes “scientists make the best advocates.”
Maureen Nandini Mitra: What got you interested in science?
Lori Marino: I was always interested in science. I always had to get in there to find out how something worked or what would happen if I did this or that. But I think the question that always drove me was to find out what it would be like to be another animal. And that’s kind of the question that’s always driven what I’ve tried to do in my research.
MNM: So you had an early interest in animals?
LM: Always. From the first time I can remember, I was the kid in the backyard who was watching the worms and picking them up and looking at the beetles. I was always in the garden just marveling at little insects and creatures that were in there. So yeah, it just came naturally to me.
MNM: What’s your view on our relationship with animals?
LM: We are great apes and, it’s kind of funny saying that because it’s not as if we have a choice. We are great apes. When I used to teach, I always had a day that I would call Proud to Be a Great Ape Day. On that day we would talk about how and why we were great apes and I would show [the students] the evidence. The fossil evidence, the genetic evidence that we are more closely related to chimpanzees than many species of monkeys are to each other. There’s no way to get out of it and we should be proud of it. I’ve never had a problem with being just another animal. I think the truth is something that can be very refreshing and I don’t think anything good comes from trying to be something you are not.
MNM: Yes, but we have kind of reached a place where we have far more power over other animals.
LM: Well, sure we have much more complex technology, cultures and language and all that, but to me, that is a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. That doesn’t mean that somehow we are not in nature. We are.
MNM: Hence our relationship with other animals should be?
LM: One of equality and parity and considering them as—I don’t remember who said it—but as other nations. They are not resources. They are not here for us to manage. They are here just for us to live with on the planet. We are not very good at doing that.
MNM: How does that translate to the whole moral quandary over eating meat? I mean if we keep in mind that we are animals who are also carnivores?
LM: Being a carnivore is one thing but promoting factory farming and the absolute manipulation and objectification of other animals is another thing. There's no other animal that does what we do to its prey. We've really taken that so far that it's impossible not to see that we are responsible for a tremendous degree of suffering in other animals. Even if our ancestors were carnivores, it doesn't mean that we have to be. I mean, just because we are animals it doesn't mean that we don't have autonomy or choice in the matter. Our technology assures that we have choices. So we should exercise them. This whole idea that we were carnivores once doesn't let us off the hook by any means.
MNM: Was there a specific turning point, some particular incident that propelled you to give up invasive research on animals?
LM: There were a few turning points. One was when I worked at NYU and Rockefeller universities. I was doing invasive work with rats and I realized that I could not continue doing so. It gave me nightmares because I just inherently knew it was wrong. I mean, the science was interesting, but I couldn’t get over what I was doing to these little creatures in the name of asking questions. So that was sort of one turning point.
Then, as I got into research later on, my work was mainly in the area of animal cognition and I did some work with captive dolphins. Probably my best-known work is the mirror self-recognition study I did in 2001 with Diana Reiss. At that time, again, it was sort of the same feeling. I knew that it was not right to keep these animals the way they were [kept]. But I sort of set that aside because I was so interested in the research question. The dolphins that Diana and I had worked with were transferred to other facilities where they died at very young ages. That really hit me hard.
At the same time, I found out about the Japanese drive hunts of dolphins in Taiji, and I found out about the connection between the aquariums and those massacres.
I was also working at Yerkes Research Center [at Emory University in Georgia] at the time, doing cognitive research with chimpanzees. My favorite chimpanzee, Clint, was a great guy and I worked with him for a time. [Some years later] I went back [to the Center] to do some other work and I looked on a shelf, and on that shelf was a glass jar, and in that jar was a brain. And the label said “Clint.” He had died of a heart disease at a very early age and it’s a common disease in captive chimpanzees. And that really hit me.
All of these things happened in a span of a couple of years [in the early 2000s] and it made me realize that I not only didn’t want anything to do with working with animals in captivity but that I really had to give something back to them because of all they had gone through.
MNM: Was that when you got involved in animal rights advocacy?
LM: But I knew I had to use my scientific expertise as a platform to advocate for them. That’s when I created the Kimmela Center.
The other big driver [for the Center] was actually the students. During that time I was also teaching, and I’d have students come to me and say, Well I want to study neuroscience but they want me to cut up animals and I don't want to do it, but they said I don't have a choice. I had a lot of students in office crying, under such stress, because they were made to believe that you are either going to be a science major and cut up animals in a lab, or you are not. I thought that was grossly unfair and that's why I decided to create the Kimmela Center with its specific focus on scholar advocacy. I wanted the students to know that, yes you can be a scientist and you can be an animal advocate.
MNM: What kind of research do you do at Kimmela Center?
LM: One project that I’m currently working on is the "Someone Project." That’s a joint project with Farm Sanctuary aimed at compiling all of the scientific data on what we know about farmed animals like pigs and cows and chickens and creating papers that can inform people about who these animals are. We published a “chicken paper” and “pig paper” last year in high impact scientific journals. The idea here is to really understand from the science: What do we know about these animals? Who are they? And put that information out there in accessible ways. We just submitted a cow paper, that's in review and we are working on a sheep paper as well.
The signature component of the Someone Project is that it uses science. So it's not about, you know, Oh, I have a chicken, and I think my chicken does this and knows that. It’s about placing advocacy clearly in the mainstream of science and giving it the credentials it deserves.
These papers have been so well received that even I'm surprised. These papers have legs; I mean, people are still interested in them. I happen to think the reason they are interested in them is that they are in scientific journals. It gives validity to what they instinctively feel.
MNM: How has your choosing to be an advocate affected your relationship with your scientific peers?
LM: Well, I think that there are a couple of things about that that are really important. One is that I was already known as a scientist, so I already had some credibility coming into the discussion of these issues. And I’m not going to kid you, there were some people who just were horrified. They didn't like it and still don't like it. Mainly, these are people who think you are a scientist or you are an advocate, but you can't be both. And I disagree with that. I actually not only disagree with that, I actually think scientists make the best advocates because we know the most about the animals we are advocating for. We have the data.
The other thing is while I was at Emory, I always was willing to talk to my colleagues and be an open dialogue with them. I didn't shun everybody who did animal research. I remained collegial, and that's extremely important. If you want to make change, you have to keep lines of communication open. So I treated my colleagues with respect, and they treated me with respect.
MNM: You once told me that people working in invasive research have to tell themselves certain stories to be okay with the work they are doing. Could you elaborate on that?
LM: In one sense, I’m glad that I used to do invasive animal research because I understand the psychology of it. Unless you have no feelings at all, which is not true of most people who work in the sciences, you have to find a way to do what you do and convince yourself that it’s justified. So the stories you tell yourself are things like: I’m doing this to help people, to cure some horrible disease. I am treating this animal humanely and according to all of the rules specified. So you trudge ahead with all of these justifications in the forefront and you put in the back of your mind all of your feelings about the animals themselves. As long as you keep that going, then you can do the research. But if you can’t keep that going then it catches up with you.
It really takes mental energy to do invasive research, for most people. I think it takes a certain mindset that you have to maintain and that's why a lot of people who do invasive animal research are so defensive. Because when you challenge them on that, it makes it more difficult for them to maintain that frame of mind.
MNM: What about the use of animals in biomedical research that can save lives? I believe that you yourself suffered from a life-threatening illness that was cured using a treatment that couldn’t have been developed without research on animals?
LM: That's right. And I don’t expect people to give up their lives because they are against animal research. Given the track that we are on, of course, I wouldn't fault anybody for availing themselves of biomedical research that's been done on animals. I, myself, and everyone alive have [benefitted from it]. But I do think that there are limits to how we should use animals and that we need to move away from using animals. So I’m, in principle, against the use of animals in invasive research, because basically, you are saying that your life is more important than theirs. But I also recognize that it can’t all stop tomorrow. What I advocate is to move away from that model towards the use of non-animal models. I think we can do it. It's just a question of whether we really want to do it or not.
I see things getting worse and worse in that area. I think that it's getting more and more manipulative and more and more invasive for some reasons that are not that important. For instance, yeah, I get it, [we need to find cures] for childhood cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. But a lot of research goes on that's just for "human enhancement." I'm not in favor of that because it is the enhancement of normal human abilities. You are not trying to save lives.
MNM: Are you referring the recent breakthrough research where scientists have been able to create some sort of human-pig chimera embryo?
LM: Yes. I’m very much against the chimera research because I think it’s going too far. I understand that there are terrible diseases out there that people want to cure, but I want to see those cures happening without causing the suffering of other animals.
If we are so smart, we can find other ways. I think that what happens in science is you get stuck in a tread and there’s a lot of momentum for one particular model, one particular way of addressing a question and that’s where all the money goes, and that’s where all the notoriety goes, and so everyone follows in line. It’s hard to break out of that, but we have to.
MNM: That research reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, where they clone humans to harvest their organs…
LM: Oh yeah. You know, at some point we'll get dangerously close to that, but I think we are already way past the line that should have been drawn. I think it's morally objectionable to use other sentient animals for our purpose. In my capacity, I will do everything I can to speak against that.
MNM: You’ve become well known as an advocate of animal personhood because of your work with the Nonhuman Rights Project. Why is establishing personhood important?
LM: I think that most of the change [in how we treat animals] is going to come with the legal personhood idea because something that’s legal is enforceable and is not dependent on what people feel like doing at the time. So, legal personhood is to me the cutting edge of advocating for other animals. And I do, I advocate for their rights, not just their welfare. That’s why the Nonhuman Rights Project is one that I’m really happy to work with because it’s one of the only organizations that’s really fighting for actual rights for other animals, not just welfare and more humane standards, or a few more inches in a cage or something like that.
MNM: But one of the arguments animal welfare activists make is: Well, we can't change things overnight. At least we are trying to improve their existing conditions.
LM: Of course, and everybody wants that. But it’s a question of asking yourself: What’s really the end game and what really is important to the other animal? So if you are a chicken in a battery cage, a couple of more inches, yeah ok. That might make your life a minuscule degree better. But in the end, if you are a chicken, you don't want to be eaten. You don't want to be put in a cage. You don't want to be used that way.
Believe me, I think that welfare is incredibly important and I use welfare arguments all the time. But in the end, this really is about whether other animals have the inherent right not to be used the way we use them.
I think there's a risk when you make welfare arguments. For instance, if you spend 10 years working with the egg industry to get the couple more inches in a battery cage for chickens, you might consider that a victory, but the fact is that what you've also done is made it much more difficult to abolish using chickens. Because you've gotten something from that industry and you're going to have to wait a very long time before you get anything else. The problem is that when people make welfare arguments, sometimes they don't understand the impact it has on rights-based efforts.
MNM: I think where the welfare argument comes from is this worldview of humans being at the center of the universe.
LM: Exactly. It's a whole stance that those of us in the animal right arena don't agree with. In that scheme, it is ok to think of welfare only, because, you know, we can still use them, we just have to be as nice as possible to them. To me, that's not good enough. It's just a fundamentally and qualitatively a different way of looking at things than a rights-based perspective.
MNM: But that worldview is so entrenched. Are you hopeful that it can be changed?
LM: Obviously, I'm hopeful and I do think that at some point the Nonhuman Rights Project is going to win a case. And probably sooner rather than later. When they do, that will be one of those watershed moments when there will actually be a shift in our relationship with someone who's a member of another species. I think that at this point, between all the problems that we have with factory farmed animals and animals in research and the mass extinctions and the poaching and climate change, you know, at this point, we are all just trying to do whatever we can to help whoever we can. Who knows what the future holds.
MNM: What has been the most difficult or painful for you over the span of your career?
LM: I think the one thing is that when you do invasive research with animals, you never really get over that. You just put it somewhere where you can live with it. So that’s just one thing.
The other thing that really bothers me is all of the individuals who have died, who never got a chance to be rescued. When Tilikum [the SeaWorld orca] died, for instance, the worst part was, that was it. There’s no future for him, nothing to do to make up for what he was put through his whole life. The same thing was true of Clint, the chimpanzee at Yerkes. When I was working with Clint, I always had at the back of my mind that I’m gonna come back and find a way to get you out and end this. And then, of course, once I realized he died and his brain was in a jar, that was it. So those kinds of things really hurt, because on an individual level, you can’t help somebody who’s gone.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.