By Sidney Campbell, Education and Outreach Coordinator
At the American Bald Eagle Foundation, we work with three bald eagles, all of them adult females. Not infrequently, a guest will be surprised when we can tell them all apart. When they ask how, I usually point out a few physical differences (and really when you look at them every day, they look VERY different), but I also mention that they have such different personalities, I could probably do it blindfolded. This almost always gets a surprised reaction, which has made me realize how difficult it is for some people to think of animals as individuals.
From left to right: Vega, Bella, and Arden
In college, I read a paper by Thomas Nagle which really solidified this concept for me. It’s called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, and it’s one of the most instructive tools I’ve ever come across when teaching about consciousness and agency. It can be a little heavy on the philosophical jargon, but boiled down, the message is this: a human individual can never know what it is like to be a bat (can you imagine flying? echolocating?), but we can recognize that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Put another way, a bat knows what it is like to be a bat; bats experience the world as individuals which suggests that they are conscious, agential beings.
Confused? Let’s try another example. Have you ever had one of those moments where you see a stranger, maybe through the window of your car, and they don’t see you but they are going about their day, living their lives, and you suddenly realize that they have absolutely no idea that you exist but are nonetheless still experiencing the world? There’s even a word for this. To sonder is to realize that each random passerby is experiencing a life that is just as vivid and complex as your own. This is exactly what Nagle was saying, but with a species that is far more difficult for us to relate to.
Can you imagine what it’s like to be a porcupine? A caribou? A Eurasian eagle owl?
Bald eagles and other raptors are perhaps even harder to relate to because they aren’t even mammals. They have feathers instead of fur. They have scaly legs and beaks made of keratin which hold no teeth. But when we consciously make the effort to respect them as individuals, we can start to work on understanding what motivates the choices they make. This is especially important if you, like I, work at a facility which employs empowerment training. By empowerment I mean that the animals who work here are given control over our interactions. They choose whether they want to come down and work (or not), which behaviors they are willing to perform, and aren’t punished when they say no to a request. Understanding their motivation helps us to build behaviors without needing punishment or coercion.
When we take the time to explain this to guests and emphasize the importance of empowering the ambassadors we work with, we send an important educational message. Beyond advocating for conservation because biodiversity is important to ecosystem health, we can plant the idea that conservation is to protect a species made up of individuals who deserve it.