Can Computers Help Improve Animal Welfare?
For many decades now, scientists have been evaluating and trying to measure animal intelligence in laboratories. Often, they use computers as a testing device to measure the intelligence of different non-human animals and their ability to do different tasks. Anecdotal stories from such experiments suggest that some animals have enjoyed using the computers and have even elbowed the researchers aside to use them. These stories suggest that captive animals may find enrichment when using computers, and if that’s true, computers could enhance animals’ welfare in captive settings.
In this article, the authors explore computers as a potential tool for psychological welfare enrichment that could, in turn, satisfy the demands of the Animal Welfare Act, which mandates that non-human primates in lab settings have “a physical environment adequate to support psychological well-being.” In particular, the authors look at a case study at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, where comparative psychologist Duane Rumbaugh developed a computerized test system known as the Rumbaughx. Though the purpose of the original Rumbaughx was to answer scientific questions about animal intelligence, over time researchers realized that it could “support the monkeys’ psychological wellbeing by introducing the joystick-based, game-like testing paradigm.” This type of computer enrichment was provided along with other forms of environmental enhancements.
Over time, the Rumbaughx has advanced with technological developments in computing; for instance, it now uses “advanced micro-processors, digital/USB joysticks (or, in some cases, touch-screens), and upgraded IO board/relay board combinations.” The system has also evolved from a stationary system to a mobile one that can “go where the animals go.” Thus, researchers have been able to expand the use of the Rumbaughx to zoos. The authors note that computers with comparable designs have been used to test cognition in bears and have potentially provided the bears with psychological enrichment at the same time. The study notes that “there is a need for continued development of enrichment for zoo animals,” and the Rumbaughx or similar systems may accomplish this, just as they do in lab settings.
For animal advocates, the results of the study are a mixed bag: though any advancements in captive animal enrichment are welcome news, the idea that such enrichment could make captivity seem “less bad” is a significant potential downside. The authors note that, in many of their examples, “the welfare significance is either indirect or implied,” and that a trade-off underlies their promotion of this type of research: the history of using computers in labs has, they claim, “produced significant benefits for the psychological wellbeing of the animals that were tested. In turn, those animals have used the technology and procedures in ways that have — and will continue to — benefit our understanding of psychology.” For animal advocates, and animals themselves, the question is whether their captivity — even with this potential boost to their psychological welfare — is worth the data collected.