Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 10 May 2012
Thursday, 10 May 2012 14:06

Animals in the Eye of a Scientist

An interview with a young French scientist

My name is Laetitia Kernaleguen, I just spent 14 months on the Crozet Island as a civil volunteer for the French Polar Institute. My mission was to study the demographic evolution of the penguins colonies there, with a special attention to the possible impact of global warming on their diet and their reproduction.


How would you describe your relation to animals?

Before going to Le Crozet, I was in French Polynesia where I studied the fish population and previously I had been doing researches in a farm on milking cows. The relation to the animal depends on the context: for example, in a farm where the objective is to make the cows produce as much milk as possible, the well-being of the animal is seen as a strain. As in research on animals, it depends on people but usually scientists want to stay neutral towards their study objects. For scientists who work with laboratory rats on which they conduct experiments, they have sometimes to sacrifice them so the relation is complex. Of course, it is also completely different if the animal is your pet, it is easier to identify oneself with it.

As for myself, I endeavor to avoid any form of anthropomorphism, that is to say to attribute human feelings to animals. For example, when seeing a penguin half-eaten by a seal, one would tend to think that the animal is in pain but that’s a projection. In fact, I was not even sure how much the penguins could feel. For our experiments, we sometimes had to take small samples of muscles or flesh from them and it was really not obvious whether they were feeling pain or not.

I should say that working as a scientist has probably changed my perception of animals, I think I have developed a professional point of view and tend to look at every animal in a scientific fashion...


So to you the penguins always remained a scientific object? What do you think of the people who humanize their pets?

I may sound a bit contradictory. Penguins are very cute animals and I cannot deny that there can be some growing affection for the penguins, especially in the rookery (ndlr: the place where the penguins gather to procreate). When you spend so much time with them, you are able to identify them and to distinguish different personalities. I did have some favorite ones and I did sometimes hug a chick or two, but I would try to avoid it as much as possible as it causes stress to the animals. Hugs stress the chicks.

As for people who treat their pets as humans, I wouldn’t do that, I would never dress my dog or my cat if I had one! But I don’t mind if others do that.


Do you think that man is bound to disrupt the animal equilibrium? Are the human society and the animal society two incompatible worlds?

The extinction of animal species is a natural process but man accelerates it. On the Crozet island, the human presence has disrupted the original equilibrium. Men have for example introduced the rat who has become a terrible new predator for birds of which some species have disappeared. There are no trees on the island, so birds have to lay on the ground and thus the eggs are eaten by the rodents.That said, man is not only the destroyer of nature; man has a strong impact on nature but every other animal has too, so it is mostly a question of to what degree. I think that man has fully occupied its place in the animal kingdom.

Besides, the observation of animals helps to put human evolution into perspective. In some respects, animals are more evolved than men: for example, penguins are capable of diving up to a depth of 400 meters; these birds also possess a special molecule which allows them to conserve food in their stomach during several weeks without digesting it, this is a remarkable adaptation to their environment!



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All photos courtesy of L. Kernaleguen

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