Collaborating to protect endangered animals

Associate Professor of Psychology Kathleen Morgan, Emily Blanchard ’17 and Akrofi Akotiah ’18 observe a betta fish during a lab experiment in
Associate Professor of Psychology Kathleen Morgan, Emily Blanchard ’17 and Akrofi Akotiah ’18 observe a betta fish during a lab experiment in “Comparative Animal Behavior” class.

Associate Professor of Psychology Kathleen Morgan’s professional work has focused on the behavior of animals in captivity, including stress in captivity and ways that it can be eliminated. Currently, she is involved in research that explores attitudes about endangered animals, in hopes of saving them. That work is being done in collaboration with Betsey Brewer Bethel ’92, the executive director of the nonprofit E.A.R.T.H. Ltd, located at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, Mass. In October, the two went to the 2016 International Zoo Educators Association Biennial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to present a poster on their recent data on attitudes among zoo visitors titled “Differences in Beliefs About Rhino Horn Between U.S. and Chinese Citizens: The Need for More Targeted Storytelling.” We recently asked the professor about the work.

How long have you been working with Southwick’s Zoo?

I have enjoyed a great relationship with this zoo since I arrived at Wheaton in 1991. The very first animal behavior class I taught at Wheaton had a nontraditional student enrolled in it—Betsey Brewer, a member of the family that owns the zoo. We met as student and instructor, and have become great friends since. We have worked on many wonderful projects together over the years. The relationship has also been of great value to our Wheaton students, allowing them access to animals and opportunities at the zoo that can be hard to obtain elsewhere.

What inspired the research you recently presented in Buenos Aires?

International trade in endangered species is at crisis levels right now—especially for some of the charismatic megavertebrates like elephants and rhinos. Poachers collect body parts from animals that they kill and sell these body parts to middlemen who will market them all over the world. Poachers can make so much money from elephant ivory and rhino horn that it seems almost impossible to stop them from trying. In fact, the white-lipped rhinos at Southwick’s Zoo are themselves literally refugees from this trade. They came to us from an African preserve that was being so badly poached that the decision was made to simply get all of its remaining rhinos out of the country before they were killed. We see our rhinos—Thelma and Louise—as perfect animal ambassadors to help us tell the story of illegal trade in animals.

How can your research help?

One approach to trying to save the animals being destroyed in this trade is to try to dry up the market for it. The largest markets for rhino horn are in Asia—specifically China. I’ve formed a partnership with Southwick’s Zoo aimed at exploring the beliefs, attitudes and cultural practices that foster continued illegal trade in rhino horn in China. The Chinese government has banned trade in ivory and rhino horn, but the trade persists. We are collecting information from the U.S. and Chinese citizens who visit zoos to compare their attitudes and beliefs regarding the selling of rhino horns and the status of rhinos in captivity as well as in the wild. We also pilot some projects at Southwick’s Zoo to test whether they can potentially have a positive impact on these attitudes and beliefs. We’re hoping to adapt these projects for use in Chinese zoos. In my “Comparative Animal Behavior” class this semester, I have a Chinese national student, Keran Yang ’19, who is from Yunnan province; we are looking forward to working with Keran to further our efforts to share with Chinese zoos.

What have you discovered so far?

In our most recent study, we surveyed 193 Chinese citizens and 124 U.S. citizens during the summer of 2015 on their beliefs regarding the status of rhinos in the wild, the use of rhino horn, how the horn is typically obtained, and attitudes toward nature. To conduct the surveys, we made use of SurveyMonkey here in the U.S., and a similar online survey tool in China. We found that the Chinese citizens surveyed differed in some but not all cases from the U.S. citizens in how they responded to questions about the balance of humans and nature, with Chinese citizens placing more value on that balance than do U.S. citizens. However, Chinese citizens expressed significantly more certainty than U.S. citizens about some things that are not correct, such as that rhinos shed their horns, that rhinos are not endangered, and that the horn is collected without harm to the animal. Not surprisingly, Chinese and U.S. respondents also differed in their view of the medicinal and spiritual value of consuming rhino horn. These data suggest that in most ways, Chinese and U.S. citizens do not differ in their interests in wild rhinos and concern for wildlife; if anything, the Chinese citizens surveyed revere nature more than the U.S. citizens who responded. However, they also suggest that at least part of the task for rhino conservation education efforts in China requires more effective delivery of factual information about rhinos and the illegal horn trade, while in the U.S., the task is to try to improve people’s feelings of empathy with nature.

How have you involved students?

To date, we have worked with about a dozen students on this project. The students have been integral in collecting data both in the U.S. and in China through the administration of surveys and the conducting of interviews. In the U.S., the students have done some behavioral data collection at the zoo. Our Chinese students also translate materials for us and find resources in China that are difficult to obtain here in the U.S. These students are essential also for ensuring that whatever questions we ask and ideas we generate are culturally appropriate for China. And everyone brainstorms ideas about what questions to ask next and how to ask them.

What are the students learning from this collaboration?

They are learning some specific kinds of research skills—such as what makes a good and effective question in a survey, or how to collect and analyze behavioral data on human subjects. Learning how to appropriately compare cultural beliefs in two very different nations is also invaluable as a lesson in understanding those with different perspectives. Perhaps more important are the less concrete but even more significant elements of research with human subjects, such as the ethical nature of asking people questions about something that is illegal, or the need to be respectful of the opinions and beliefs of others, even when those opinions and beliefs conflict greatly with your own.

Read: Making the case for rhinos in Alumni