Q: Most children are fascinated by animals, particularly bugs. I wonder if you were a "normal" child, who pulled the wings off flies or squished bugs. Did you ever do anything like that?
A: I think I went through the stage that most little boys go through when I had no real feeling for the integrity of an animal. My father ran a pet store and brought home all kinds of things. Like most kids I would look after them for a few weeks and then my mother started looking after them.
At about 12 years old I got hooked on tropical fish and started a home aquarium. When I started getting interested in breeding tropical fish and seeing them lay eggs and raise their young, my whole attitude to animals changed, and I became very interested in natural history and from that in biology. After that I don't think I could neglect some kind of animal even if it were only a bug.
Q: Did you lose your fear of any animals at that point as well?
A: I don't think I was ever afraid of any animals.
Q: Even snakes?
A: We don't have any poisonous snakes in England. There are three species of snakes, one of them is mildly poisonous -- the adder. But it's not like being raised here where you have rattlesnakes and things like that. I don't think I was ever afraid of any animals. I always wanted them around. I wanted to live with them, to see them. And that's one kind of biologist. There are biologists who are excited by animals and they're probably little boys all their lives, in a sense. And there are those who are fascinated by problems. They probably do really good science but they're not turned on by animals at all.
They could use a computer and simulate the whole problem of animal behavior in a computer. They wouldn't have to have a flesh and blood animal anywhere near them. It's probably a much more sophisticated kind of biology but it's not my kind.
Q: I understand you have animals all around your office and you used to bathe with an otter. Is that true?
Q: Don't you think that's a little strange?
A: No. It may sound slightly -- . The otter lived in the house and it had to swim regularly and, of course, when the bath was full of water it got in. I mean we didn't say to the otter, "Come on, jump in the bath." It just regarded the bath as its swimming pool.
Q: And you used to sleep with -- ?
A: A kinkajou. One of the tropical relatives of the raccoon. It's called a honey bear. A rather attractive sort of golden-colored, fruit-eating nocturnal animal. I kept all kinds of animals around, including spiders. But the otter was by far the most marvelous house pet I've ever had. But that finally convinced me that I should never ever take a wild animal from the wild and raise it in captivity as a domestic pet. Because when we left Panama the otter was utterly dependent on human beings, it couldn't find its own food. You had the moral dilemma. You can't release it into the wild because it can't make a living. I vowed then never again to take a wild animal as a pet.
Q: What do you think about the importation of exotic animals, such as the fabulous parrots that have been brought up from South America? Does that make you angry?
A: I can see why people want to do it. When I was a kid I desperately wanted a coatimundi -- one of these Central American animals with a long nose and a striped tail like a raccoon's. I went to one of the local zoos and they had a baby one and it ran up and down and was utterly fascinating. I thought I would give anything to have a coatimundi.
When I went to Panama you could buy them in the market. Trappers would trap them and sell them for $5 each. As long as people buy things like that people will go out and collect them and create a situation where a wild animal is totally altered in behavior and becomes something that isn't real. Being an expert in spider mating habits must make you an interesting dinner guest. Do people corner you at cocktail parties and make you talk about the subject? Ever since I graduated (from college) I've have been paid for doing what I would do as a hobby if I didn't do it as a job. In those circumstances you talk at the drop of a hat about the things you're excited about. If you live doing something exciting I suppose it's like being a workaholic. But it isn't just the work that absorbs you, it's the ideas and programs and everything contained in the work. I'll talk about spider mating behavior or Papua New Guinea or the animals of North Borneo or the plans for the zoo or the intrinsic interest of animals and never feel like switching off.
Q: Does it ever bother you that people tend to anthropomorphize -- attribute human characteristics -- to animal behavior?
A: Not really. The interest of human beings in animals is probably even deeper than attributing human emotions or motivations to animals. We have a deep, almost mystical relationship with animals. Primitive man domesticated at least two major wild animals -- the dog and the cat. We don't really know the steps in the process by which they became such commensals (companions) of man. But it must have been man -- in the non-sexist sense of the word -- sitting around the campfire, scared, primitive, alone, with dogs coming in beyond the firelight out of the dark and stealing a bone. That association is so long, that that relationship between man and dog has some kind of really non- rational basis in our affection for dogs and cats.
Think about people who keep parakeets and snakes and all kinds of things. There's a deep human need to associate with animals in an intimate way, in the sense of touching.
Q: Possibly even a genetic -- .
A: Yes. An innate response. If man was a predatory animal, in order to hunt effectively he would have to have an intimate knowledge of animal behavior and the way packs of food animals moved about and how he could best catch them. So studying the behavior of live animals in the wild probably is a very, very ancient part of human culture or innate behavior.
Q: You don't necessarily believe that man was a predatory animal?
A: It's controversial. Since predators are what I find most interesting, I'm predisposed to believe that man was initially a hunter. Predatory animals to me are the ones that have the most highly developed systems of coordination and intellect. Dogs and cats -- the big cats in particular -- are such wonderful machines for catching food. When you compare those to herbivores there's a whole range of difference. Their behavior's more variable, more adaptable, intelligent. They're much more exciting to watch.
Q: What has generated this anthropomorphism in the tremendous interest in the pandas?
A: Behaviorist talk about "sign" stimuli -- things that trigger responses in reactors. A panda's got all the sign stimuli for evoking a maternal affectionate response in human beings. It has big eyes -- which are exaggerated in size by those black patches -- a big forehead and a round face. Konrad Lorenz, the German ethologist, said that the perfect maternal releaser has the proportions of a baby's face as opposed to the adult human being. A baby has a very high forehead and the eyes are disproportionately large and that released maternal behavior. That is scientifically unproven but if you think of all the toy animals and the Walt Disney characters that elicit the "Ooooh" and the cooing response, they all have big eyes and big high foreheads.
A panda's perfect: it looks cuddly, fluffy and rounded and has those big black eye patches. In actuality it's got tremendously powerful jaws and is quite a dangerous animal. In the wild they can be quite aggressive and those jaws are capable of crushing bamboo, quite capable of inflicting a really painful bite.
Koala bears are an example. They're really stupid little marsupials with very little brains at all but they've got that fluffy look and the big eyes and rounded faces. People really go ga-ga about koala bears.
Q: I understand they smell pretty awful as well.
A: Most marsupials do.
Q: It must be frustrating to you, an animal advocate, to be accused of being cruel to animals.
A: We are, in fact, a kind of modern Noah's Ark. Where habitats are being destroyed because of pressing human needs, we exist to try to save for posterity the wonderful and beautiful species that are in danger. The golden lion tamarin project is a wonderful example of that. When there were a few left in Brazil we raised hundreds of them in captivity and then this year for the first time took them back to Brazil and reintroduced them into a new national park.
They had to be reeducated. In the wild, tamarins unrolled curled leaves, to look inside for insects to feed on. We had to train them to do that because after two or three generations in captivity that behavior was no longer there. They put toilet roll tubes inside the cages and put insects inside. The tamarins learned to look and put their hands inside. Then from that they moved from toilet roll tubes to uncurling leaves.
We give elephants things to do which makes them happy and occupied. We clearly can't give live food to our large animals, so part of their natural life is in a sense not replicated in the zoo condition. If we could devise some system such as they use at greyhound racing, where they have an electric hare that moves along that gives them the opportunity to chase something. Not by using live food for them but by making dead food move in some way so that they could really behave naturally.
There was a zoo that had a machine rather like one of these automatic baseball pitching machines that throws balls. This threw fish for the polar bears. They could trigger this thing and a fish would fly into the air and the polar bears could catch it.
Q: What if you are confronted by the more radical humane society groups that say that animals should not be in cages at all?
A: You can point out, purely on scientific grounds, that most animals live within very restricted territories which they themselves establish by intra-animal disputes.
Q: Even in their own natural habitat?
A: In their natural situation. Theyre in effect caged by their own behavior in a sense, restricted to a relatively small area. The idea of the wild situation as this heavenly and Eden-like state with no problems and no difficulties is an illusion, and completely false scientifically.
Q: Some of the apes are in cages.
A: Yes, the new ape house has got huge cages but we have somegibbons in relatively small cages, and that is going to be corrected within a year. We're going to create the most beautiful gibbon exhibit in the United States and probably in the whole world. A huge cage in which the animals will be able to free range as though they were in the jungle. It's going to be like a big bird flight cage with trees inside and swings and a small number of gibbons in it and it's going to be a wonderful experience because gibbons are amongst the most gymnastic and athletic of all of the primates.
Q: Do you get in the cages with the animals?
A: I visit the ones that one can do that with, but recently we had an elephant trainer here from one of the other zoos that really specializes in elephants and we decided to walk our two Asian elephants round the zoo in the early morning. They walked beautifully and enjoyed it. They were able to reach up in the trees and get leaves and eat them. Suddenly thought, oh my goodness what would happen if they decided to run. I'd been on an elephant in Nepal that was spooked by a rhinoceros and it just lifted its trunk up, trumpeted and ran. It ran through trees and we were on top of the thing and it's a terrifying experience. They're absolutely uncontrollable when they do that and I decided that now was not the time to train our elephants to walk around the zoo.
Q: Have you ever thought about what your epitaph should say?
A: Oh my God, I don't want a tombstone. I want cremating and sprinkling over Barro Colorado Island in Panama to be regenerated into the tropical life cycle. I was impressed when I was in Burma last year -- the Buddhist philosophy that you acquire virtue in this life by doing good things, so that when you are born again, you are born into a higher plane of existence. That seems to me to be a basis for morality.
Q: Do you think that animals live in a higher plane of existence?
A: No. I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I think animals are animals. They have one life.
Q: You don't idolize them or idealize them?
A: Not really. The overwhelming feeling is of admiration for coordination, beauty, efficiency. To watch one of our tigers walking up and down and see all those muscles rippling under the skin, you realize you've got in front of you the product of millions of years of evolution, imperceptible changes, that's produced an almost perfect machine that does what it's designed to do so superbly well. It's a hunting machine (with) senses that can detect its prey, stalk, pursue and make a living out of it. Biologically an exciting phenomenon.
Q: Do you have any pets yourself?
A: Just a cat and a dog. And a tarantula. The fishes are really for study, and research. But without a dog and a cat, I would be lost altogether.