Among wolf observers in Yellowstone National Park, alpha female 40 of the Druid Pack was notorious for her brutal irascibility and the fierce abuse she meted out to others, especially her sister, 42, a gentle wolf who never retaliated and coexisted easily with other pack members. One spring, both females were pregnant and giving birth, a time of great vulnerability when the pack needs to support the new mother with food and protection while she stays near the den to care for the pups. But the pack did not rally around vicious alpha 40. Instead, they went to the aid of her more easy-going sister even though she was lower in rank.
A short time later, there was a fight to the finish between the sisters and the gentler wolf triumphed. The winner even adopted her cruel sister’s puppies, and 42 ruled the Druids gently from then on.
Wildlife biologist Craig Smith has been studying the wolves of Yellowstone for over 20 years and recounts this story in his book, with Gary Ferguson, The Decade of the Wolf (2012). Smith has come to believe that personality is a significant and underappreciated factor in the lives of animals. “Beyond all our current theories and speculations, there’s an enormous wild card that gets played again and again in wolf society, and it has to do with personalities,” the authors write. “The personality card influences much of what wolves do and how they do it.”
The scientific study of personality in animals is a new field. A few decades old, personality research is still sometimes discredited as an advanced case of anthropomorphic projection.The resistance to according personality to animals and seeing them not as individuals but as mechanisms driven by automatic responses to cues and associations has wide implications. But there is an increasing appreciation for the ways that personality can tip the balance and help determine how well animals cope with and adapt to the challenges in their environments, not to mention their co-existence with humans.
Charles Darwin allowed for the emotional lives and personalities of animals but his book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), has never been held in the same esteem as his other works. Although Ivan Pavlov is best known as the man who made dogs drool at the sound of a bell, he also believed that dogs had identifiable personalities and that the emotional life of animals was eminently worth examining.
It was Jane Goodall who broke with scientific decorum in the 1970s when she referred to the chimpanzees she was researching by names rather than by numbers. For that reason alone, some critics dismissed her decades of field observation as nonobjective, unscientific and unreliable. When personality has been considered it is more likely along the lines of the traits of an entire species or the temperament of a breed not the attitudes and identity of an individual.
Allowing that animals have personalities remains a fraught topic. For if they are individuals who feel fragile and afraid or joyful but sometimes irritable, how can we treat them en bloc as objects at our disposal for use at our sole convenience? And does acknowledging animal personality make a difference to how we think about and conduct animal welfare and management?
Above all, without their telling us so, can animals prove that their feelings even exist? With so many issues regarding animal cognition and animal welfare still unsettled, personality may be a limb too far out of reach.
And yet trying to come to terms with animals as individuals with unique personalities—something any pet owner will readily vouch for—offers the chance to better understand nature’s extraordinary flexibility and versatility.
Science appears to prefer the more solid ground of describing animals as bundles of optimized behavior wrapped in fur, feathers or scales calibrated in minute detail to adapt, survive and reproduce. Individual differences can be written off as within the margin of error as traits hew ever closer to the most adaptable norm.
But with the rise of behavioral ecology and its emphasis on the individual’s behavior within its niche there has been growing interest in personality as more than a “suboptimal tendency” that gets in the way of performance and adaptation. And even science is beginning to acknowledge that emotions, intelligence and personality may be heritable traits that play their part in evolutionary fitness. Personality quirks, in other words, do not equal a failure to launch.
Dr. Samuel Gosling at the University of Texas has been studying animal personality for two decades trying to lend the new field scientific credibility through rigorous research. He believes that just as the biology of all living things is on an evolutionary continuum so too is psychology. And like fins, wings and arms, personality traits evolve. Extroversion and emotional stability, he has found, can be traced all the way down the phylogenetic ladder to octopuses and guppies.
In fact, relatively few animals up or down the chain of life have been studied in terms of personality. Unsurprisingly, our close relatives, the chimpanzees, have gotten the most attention. Recent research on the primates has focused on revealing just how nuanced their personalities can be, exhibiting not just extroversion but altruism, deceitfulness and senses of humor. Another recent study found that in chimpanzees, personality traits are more likely to predict success in cognitive experiments than rank, or even the difficulty of a task.
In the complex matriarchal societies of African elephants, many decisions are based on personality. Groups form and un-form depending on who wants to spend time with whom. Dogs have also been extensively studied; specifically, research shows that owners’ appraisals of their pets’ personality seem to be remarkably accurate.
In spite of the popularity of Flipper, the 1960s television show, personality assessments of bottlenose dolphins were not conducted until very recently. By unfortunate chance, one experiment (Highfill & Kucjaz, 2007) was able to establish that dolphins have remarkably stable personalities even in the face of adversity.
Sixteen dolphins were given personality assessments by keepers who knew them well at a marina exhibit in Gulfport, Mississippi. The plan was to conduct comparative tests a year later, but in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck and wiped out the facility. The dolphins had to struggle to survive. Fifteen of them were relocated to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas where they were assessed again by a staff unfamiliar with their new charges. And yet, the second assessments came out much the same as the first, strong indication of stable personality development, not to mention extraordinary resilience.
Personality assessments are the focus of much of the current personality science, both for human and nonhuman animals. It has taken awhile to refine what exactly it is that is being assessed and measured. One of the earliest who tried was the American psychologist Gordon Allport who identified 4,500 personality traits in the 1930s. British psychologist Raymond Cattell whittled that down to a less effusive 171.
The most commonly deployed assessments look at the Big Five traits: Agreeableness, Extraversion, Openness, Neuroticism and Conscientiousness. The last dimension is sometimes dropped with animals, although there’s considerable debate about primate display of empathy and conscientiousness, and even Machiavellian behaviors. But assessments are not always as systematic as you'd imagine.
In 2002, two Scandinavian scientists published the results of their personality test of over 15,000 dogs. The experiment involved pets and their owners walking down a forest path where they would confront a range of experiences to test how the dogs rated in terms of Curiosity, Playfulness, Chase proneness, Sociability and Aggressiveness. Among the encounters along the path, the dogs faced a hooded stranger flapping a cape; furry objects zigzagging from the underbrush; chains dragged over corrugated metal and supine dummies attached to ropes suddenly jerked erect to block the pooch's path. It’s only a wonder that Nervous Breakdown was not one of the categories.
The research into defining personality in animals, especially beyond pets and primates, continues. But it is not premature to consider how personality relates to welfare management particularly of animals in captivity, whether shelters, zoos, farm factories or research facilities. Does understanding personality provide more ways to help, or does it only complicate conditions on the ground?
Testing stray dogs at shelters who are already under considerable stress, for instance, due to being lost or suffering from overexposure may get results that doom rather than help them find the right new homes. But when trying to breed zoo animals—notoriously shy pandas, for example—would it not be advisable to make sure that mating pairs have compatible dispositions?
Dr. Debra Durham, a Seattle-based animal behaviorist, believes in animal personality but also thinks that in a world where basic needs of entire groups are not often met, an individualized approach is too much to expect at this point. Then again, a focus on minimal standards for collective welfare also falls short. Durham suggests that mandating animal-based outcomes is the most reliable approach that both allows for individual differences while respecting the need to serve an entire community of animals. She notes as well that scientists and conservationists are only now beginning to consider the potential significance of other factors in addition to personality, including cultural differences and shared experiences and the role they play in animal wellbeing. There’s a long road ahead in exploring the minds of animals.
Finally, anthropologist Barbara King slices to the heart of the matter in her new book on the ethical conundrum we face as a society coming to grips with the realization that animals have thoughts and feelings and our own seemingly unquenchable appetite to exploit them. The title of her book says it all: “Personalities on the Plate: The Minds and Lives of Animals we Eat” (University of Chicago Press, 2017)
5 May 2017