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Given a choice: animals can show us what they prefer

Given a choice: animals can show us what they prefer

The real Dr Dolittle: Scottish scientist ‘develops method for talking to animals’

Dr Ian Duncan says pets and livestock animals live ‘much richer lives than we ever realised’

Sunday 09 March 2014


A scientist claims to have developed a method for “talking” to animals, allowing owners to ask them questions about how happy they are with their living conditions and welfare.

Dr Ian Duncan, emeritus chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph, Canada, has admitted his aims are similar to those of the fictional character Dr Dolittle – but said his methods are based strictly on science.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Dr Duncan said he is ready to set out his methods publicly after years of work across a host of livestock and pet species.

His research previously led to changes in the regulation of battery farming for hens and pigs in the 1980s and 1990s, and next week he will set out his new theories on the science of animal welfare and sentience at a conference in Washington.

He told the newspaper: “We are devising ways of ‘talking’ to animals and putting questions to them about their welfare and happiness.

“Each species has to be treated differently but the common factor is to devise tests where the animals are offered a choice. If they make the same choice repeatedly . . . it shows what they want from us.”

Dr Duncan, who is originally from Scotland but now based in Ontario, has spoken out firmly against the religious slaughter of animals for the production of halal and kosher meat.

He said there is much more to the lives of livestock animals – even farmed fish like trout or salmon – than many people realise.

“It used to be thought that animals were ‘dumb’, driven by programmed instincts and responses, but now it is clear they live a much richer life than we ever realised and can remember the past and think about the future. We can use that knowledge to ask questions about their care and then improve it.”

Last week John Blackwell, Britain’s top vet and the president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, said the religious slaughter of poultry, sheep and cattle caused unnecessary suffering to animals.

His comments came after Denmark’s government brought in a ban on halal and kosher slaughter on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion”.

  1. Lolabelle! It seems normal that a canine living with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed would be so musical. Yay, thank you for sharing this video and thank you from the animal kingdom for you wonderful work!

    Comment by Mary on December 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm
  2. Mary, I think you are right about Lolabelle and her exposure to really interesting music all the time. The wonderful thing about it was that she was able to make it her own and derive such enjoyment from it.

    Comment by Elisabeth Weiss on December 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm
  3. I really really enjoyed watching this video, reading about her story and most of all being inspired by her piano playing!

    Comment by NewYork DogNannt on July 19, 2012 at 10:59 pm
  4. i am so glad you like it! So many dogs can benefit from occupational therapy at home. The mutual joy and satisfaction really is hard to describe.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

    Comment by Elisabeth Weiss on July 20, 2012 at 6:07 am
  5. Thank you for sharing this. I knew about Laurie’s dog, but didn’t know she was so bright. My neighbor had a terrier though, so I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise (they seem pretty intelligent). I was sad to learn Lolabelle has died, but these videos and artwork show what a great life she had and how well loved she was, and is!

    Comment by Diane on October 21, 2012 at 2:08 am
  6. Thank you Diane for taking the time to comment here.

    I think the astonishing phenomenon with Lola was that she became so passionate about playing the keyboards. Even if she felt bad and weak, if she could possibly drag herself to the keyboard and play: she knew she would feel better. She was very musical.

    Comment by Elisabeth on October 21, 2012 at 6:39 am