Lori Marino: Leader of a Revolution in How We Perceive Animals

Science shows that animals should legally be recognized as persons, Marino argues.

Lori Marino doesn't hide how she feels about animals.

Yes, she's a biopsychologist who's spent the past 18 years at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, delving into the behavior of captive dolphins and measuring the brain size of dead cetaceans. Yes, to become a scientist, she has euthanized lab rats and studied their neural anatomy. And yes, Marino knows that due in part to medical research on animals, she overcame a life-threatening illness (which she chooses not to reveal) and is alive today.

Still, Marino's experiences haven't given her that cool, objective gaze that people sometimes adopt when looking at other creatures.

Instead she's used her scientific objectivity to become one of the foremost advocates of animal personhood, and at a time when a tectonic shift is changing how we regard and think about nonhuman species.

It's Marino lawyers with the Nonhuman Rights Project called on to support their argument that a privately owned and caged chimpanzee, Tommy, is entitled—as a legal person—to freedom, a case recently presented to a county court in New York State.

It's Marino the producers of the documentary Blackfish, about the orca Tilikum who killed his trainer at SeaWorld, turned to for an explanation of the neural underpinnings of cetacean intelligence, and why these animals suffer and sometimes go mad in captivity.

And it's Marino who launched a public crusade to end the use of captive dolphins for entertainment and research, an effort that struck many as quixotic. Yet two weeks ago the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, announced that it was considering retiring its eight dolphins to a seaside sanctuary.


Formerly a full-fledged research scientist who found measuring the braincases of dolphin skulls utterly absorbing, Marino has become a self-described "scientist-advocate" for all animals, large and small.

While she's continuing to do research (for instance, she's doing a comparative study of pig and dog intelligence), she's also devoting herself full time to the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, which she founded four years ago. It's the only organization, she says, that is solely dedicated to bridging the gap between the academic world and the animal advocacy movement.

The move will keep her even busier working for animal rights groups seeking expert testimony that this elephant or that orca or chimpanzee is suffering in captivity and ought to be freed. Her efforts will also be directed to the Someone Not Something Project, which helps people better understand the cognitive and emotional sides of farm animals.

"I can do it because I know the science," Marino says. "And because I have a Ph.D. You can't imagine the power that title and hard data give you in court."

A slender woman in her early 50s, with a heart-shaped face, soft features, and expressive hazel eyes, Marino doesn't look like a fighter. But she wields her knowledge of animal cognition and behavior like a cudgel to argue that many other species have such sophisticated cognitive capacities that they can only be regarded as persons. No other term suffices.

"There is abundant, unquestionable evidence for personhood for animals," Marino says to me over coffee at a café near her university office. She thought it best that we meet here rather than at work because she's soon moving to Kanab, Utah, to join her partner and fellow animal activist, Michael Mountain, and her office is crammed with half-packed boxes.

Who Is a Person?

"Person doesn't mean human," Marino explains. "Human is the biological term that describes us as a species. Person, though, is about the kind of beings we are: sentient and conscious. That applies to most animals too. They are persons or should be legally."

Marino nods at a pet dog lying near our table. "He's someone," Marino says. "Not something. Someone. A person."

Earlier, Marino had used the same word for the dogs and cats she'd introduced me to at a no-kill animal shelter where she volunteers once a week.

"Hello, Calum," she'd said to a black Scottish terrier. "You're such a cute little person." Then she'd turned to a pit bull. "Oh, Jazzy, you're such a loving person."

She'd greeted every dog and cat in a similar fashion, as if calling them "persons" was the most natural thing to do. Was it for my benefit, or to make a point? Either way, it sounded odd to my ears, and provoked almost a mental double take: Isn't that a dog?

Seeing the Person in the Animal

By now, though, I was becoming accustomed to Marino's habit. It's her way of gently jarring people, of reminding us that animals are not objects but beings—of getting us to see the person in the animal.

And while it might seem a long shot to expect any court to recognize an animal as a person, Marino radiates confidence that this will happen.

"Just look at the case with Tommy," she says, referring to the chimpanzee whom the Nonhuman Rights Project attempted to free last December. Tommy's lawyer, Steven Wise, had argued that New York State's habeas corpus provision should apply to this chimpanzee "petitioner" too.

"It's true, the judge ruled against Wise," Marino says, "but he did so in a way that allows an appeal. That's huge. And the case really hinged on the science."

At one point in the proceedings, after Wise declared that chimpanzees are autonomous beings, the judge interrupted him abruptly. "Says who?" he demanded.

Wise responded by producing a stack of affidavits Marino had gathered from the world's leading primatologists, testifying to chimpanzees' cognitive abilities and sense of self. The judge's dismissive tone changed.

"He got it," says Marino. "That's the power of science."

She took a breath. "You know, Tommy is sitting there in that basement. He's all alone in the dark in the most disgusting cage. If I think about him too much, I'll go mad."

How does she stop herself from thinking about him?

"I think about the dolphins in captivity who need my help. And the elephants. And Lolita, the orca, who's stuck in a pool the size of a toilet bowl. There are so many. But every little positive step helps—even the tiny one we got in New York."

Research Nightmares

Marino didn't set out to become an animal rights advocate, but her experiences as a student sowed the seeds for her future calling. An animal lover from her childhood days in Brooklyn, she attended New York University, where she studied how animals see the world.

"I always wanted to know what it is like to be another animal," she says, "so I took classes in the neurobiology of rat behavior. It was fascinating."

But some of her courses required her to intentionally damage areas in the brains of rats to see how the animals responded. Afterward she killed them.

"I did it," she says. "It bothered me—the distress the rats showed. The struggling."

Even worse for Marino was the "callousness" of some of the researchers, their indifference to the suffering the rats endured.

"I told myself it's OK because the work is necessary, it's justified."

But it also wore on her. At night she had nightmares. Yet she excelled at her studies and won a full scholarship to study for her Ph.D. at Princeton University, where she'd been invited to join a lab investigating the visual system of cats. To her parents' dismay, she turned it down.

"By then, I knew there was no way I would be able to do that work—changing cats' vision to see how it affects their brains and then killing them. I decided right then: no more."

In 1989 Marino earned a master's in human psychology at Miami University in Ohio, and went to work for NASA's Johnson Space Center. She dated an astronaut, rode the Vomit Comet to experience weightlessness, and helped design experiments to put aboard the space shuttle.

Yet the lure of her old question—what is it like to be another animal?—drew her back to academia, but this time at a lab that didn't require her to do invasive research on animals.

Animals and Mirrors

Instead she studied animal behavior with Gordon Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist at the State University of New York in Albany. He had shown in 1970 that chimpanzees recognize themselves in mirrors, while monkeys do not. The capacity for self-recognition—for knowing that is you in the mirror—seemed to suggest a dividing line between the mental abilities of humans, the great apes, and all other animals.

Gallup's lab focused on chimpanzees, but with his approval Marino decided to look at another group of intelligent species: cetaceans.

For her Ph.D. thesis, she did a comparative analysis of the skulls of toothed whales (such as dolphins, orcas, and sperm whales) and those of great apes, using a collection at the Smithsonian Institution. It led to her first major discovery: Cetaceans had larger brains relative to their body size than any other animal, including chimpanzees. Indeed they had the second largest brains on the planet, just below those of humans.

So how would a dolphin fare if given the mirror-test challenge? In 1998 Marino teamed up with Diana Reiss, a comparative psychologist now at Hunter College in New York, to find out. Their first tests at Marine World/Africa USA were inconclusive.

Presley and Tab

Then the pair received permission from Brooklyn's New York Aquarium to test Presley and Tab, two male dolphins who spent most of their days performing leaps and spins for cheering audiences.

But Presley's and Tab's mornings were free, and the scientists were allowed to set up controlled tests to see how the dolphins reacted to a mirror. As they looked at their reflections, the cetaceans twisted and turned their bodies, very much like a human waving at a mirror. "It's like they were asking, 'Is that me?'" Marino says.

Over the next year, Marino and Reiss gave the dolphins a series of tests paralleling those that Gallup had given the chimpanzees, which they hoped would show that the dolphins did, in fact, recognize themselves in the mirror. For instance, they might scribble a black triangle on Presley's right flipper and a circle on Tab's forehead and back. The animals, of course, couldn't see these marks on their bodies. But they swam right over to the mirror and used it to inspect their newly tattooed body part, contorting themselves to get a clear view, while the scientists watched and filmed their reactions.

Marino and Reiss knew what the dolphins' behaviors meant: Like humans and great apes, these cetaceans understood that they were looking at themselves—and thus must also be aware of themselves as individuals. It was a breakthrough discovery, and upended the old idea that only humans and our closest primate relatives have a sense of self.

"I couldn't stop thinking about what it meant," Marino says. "Because dolphins see themselves in mirrors, it means that in some ways, their minds work the way ours do. They know who they are."

At first Marino tried to put aside the full implications of the discovery she and Reiss had made and began to plan a self-awareness test for captive orcas.

Horror of Taiji

But when she learned from Reiss about the annual slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, in Japan, Marino decided she could no longer sit on the sidelines—even though she knew that most scientists, including her mentor Gallup, cast a dim eye on scientists who advocate for causes. ("If you're going to be an advocate, you cannot be objective," he told me in a phone interview. "And so you cannot be a scientist.")

But Marino was deeply troubled that as self-aware beings, the dolphins at Taiji must know and understand what is happening to them and their family members as they are being killed.

In 2005 she joined Reiss in an advocacy group, Act for Dolphins, with other cetacean and cognition researchers. The group circulated a petition calling for an end to the slaughter and sent it to the government of Japan. While their petition had little effect on Japanese authorities, who noted that hunting dolphins was one of Japan's cultural traditions, it did help bring some attention to Taiji. And it gave Marino her first taste of the power of using science to advocate for a cause.

There weren't any serious questions, either, about whether she or the other scientists had lost their objectivity—perhaps because the horror of Taiji was so compelling.

Then tragedy struck closer to home. Presley and Tab died from infections after being moved to another aquarium. They were only about 20 years old—half the normal life span of a dolphin in the wild.

The Turning Point for Marino

"They'd lived their lives in a disgusting cement tank on Coney Island," Marino says. "It was so wrong, so completely wrong, and I decided, OK, I'm in my mid-40s, I have a lengthy CV; how do I want to make a real difference? And I knew it wasn't just going to come from doing the science."

At the time, Marino was publishing groundbreaking papers on her scans of dolphin brains (which came from wild dolphins who had died after becoming stranded). Her studies showed that the animals have an extremely complex neocortex—an area that in the human brain has been linked to self-awareness, problem-solving, and emotions.

Deeply affected by the deaths of the two dolphins, and in light of her new data, in 2009 Marino resolved to take a stand: She would no longer study any dolphin in captivity. And she called on her colleagues to make the same pledge.

Some, such as Denise Herzing, a psychologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, did—but Herzing has long studied only wild dolphins. Others, such as Richard Connor, a cetacean expert at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, thinks it's a bad idea. He too studies wild dolphins, but he argued that there were still legitimate reasons for doing research with captive cetaceans. After all, he pointed out, it's largely because of this type of study that we know dolphins are smart.

"Plus, there's still a real need for this research," Connor said to me in a phone interview. "We know so much about the cognitive abilities of so many species—the great apes, elephants, parrots—because we're able to study them in captivity. But we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to dolphins."

Moreover, he notes, many zoos and sanctuaries now actively promote such studies as a way to exercise the minds of their animals—something he thinks more public and private aquariums should be doing for their cetaceans.

Reiss, Marino's key colleague, also refused to stop studying dolphins in captivity—leading to a public break between the two. While they've patched it up to some degree, they are no longer best friends.

"I regret that," Marino says. "But I don't regret calling for an end to that type of research."

She had become an advocate, after all, and to be taken seriously, she felt, she could not be inconsistent in her actions. If holding dolphins, like Presley and Tab, in captivity was wrong, then studying captive dolphins—using them for one's own purposes, even if these were for science—was also wrong.

"They should be free," Marino says. "They shouldn't have to entertain us or be used as therapy animals for us or sent on naval missions for us—or any of it. They should be free to live their lives in their own way."

Mission to the Next Generation

There's one other group that Marino plans to advocate for through Kimmela: students who do not want to do invasive research on animals. She's not forgotten her nightmares from when she did such studies or the mocking tone of other students or professors who teased her for having feelings for the rats.

At Emory, where many students are pre-med or biomedical majors, Marino often saw younger versions of herself in her courses. Some of her students quit their chosen career because they couldn't bring themselves to harm animals.

"And so they leave science," Marino says with exasperation. "They're bright and talented, but they're forced into a different career because they won't do invasive research."

Marino often counseled such students on how to continue in their chosen field without having to do invasive research, and she plans to do the same thing at Kimmela via the Someone Not Something Project. It has raised the funds to provide students with grant money to do such things as cognition research on domesticated animals at shelters and sanctuaries, and Marino will evaluate their proposals.

"But it must be good science, not just nicey-nicey. It must be methodologically very strong; otherwise we undermine ourselves."

Marino pauses. "Of course, it will be so much easier for those kinds of students when animals are treated legally as persons. That's the key to it all."

Lori Marino visits the Whales: Giants of the Deep display at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia.

Whales: Giants of the Deep was developed and presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

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