In session is a class at the Humane Society University, which in 2009 began offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the once-esoteric field of animal studies. Students can log on to HSU’s site for a list of courses unlikely to show up in most university catalogues, including “Understanding the Human-Animal Bond” and “Sociology of Animal Abuse.”
Presiding over the Wednesday class as chair of HSU’s animal studies department is Jonathan Balcombe, 53, a Germantown resident with a doctorate from the University of Tennessee in ethology, the study of animal behavior. (The university’s other two departments are animal policy and advocacy, and humane leadership.)
This evening, Balcombe is teaching a course called “Animal Behavior, Animal Minds and Animal Protection” to six students stretched out over seven time zones.
Tonight’s topic is animal sociability and virtue. Balcombe begins with the thesis that animals take votes on decisions affecting the group. For instance, he says, geese will honk in agreement or disagreement as to whether they should fly off or stay in their present locale. Sixty percent of the geese need to be honking/voting to leave for the whole group to decide to move on.
“Honeybees also vote,” Balcombe says. “As more foraging bees visit prospective food or new hive locations, the intensity of their dances, when they return, conveys the quality of the target. Depending on who does the best dance, thus goes the decision as to where to move the hive.”
Two students sit at a table with Balcombe: Jesse Grimes, 27, a District resident who works in information technology for a government contractor, and Kristin Lamoureux, 39, of Silver Spring, a professor of tourism at George Washington University who rescues boxer dogs in her spare time.
Lamoureux is not looking for a second career, she said, but “I recognize this university would give me the tools to combine what I love: my passion for volunteering for animal rescue and the skills I have as a business professor. In the rescue community, there’s a big need for better business practices.”
Laura Vancho, 46, of Maple Shade, N.J., is one of the four students who are tuned in remotely via speaker phone or webcam. A chemist for a drinking water utility, Vancho says she decided to take the class after learning how animals are forced to swallow or inhale a product or chemical to test the toxicity of cosmetics or household items.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw an ad in a science journal for beagles for sale,” Vancho says. “It said how docile they were for tests. It just broke my heart, and it changed my life.”
Balcombe explains how animals cooperate with each other: Female bats help nurse unrelated pups and have been observed assisting other bats in delivery. Sperm whales babysit one another’s young. The discussion veers into the thought life of coyotes, whether virtue resides in birds, and whether animals bear grudges. Someone mentions Moby-Dick, the whale who had it in for Captain Ahab. Others posit the theory that cats are the most begrudging.