Pim Martens Pim Martens

Animal research puts sustainability on the map

In Society
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 17 September 2014 09:38
We’re happy for animals at the zoo to have large enclosures, but if we’ve bought a ticket we do want to be able to see them. We like to eat meat, but we’d rather not be confronted with pictures of battery cages. We may be vegetarians ourselves, but still have a big dog that eats meat. “We live in glass houses”, says Pim Martens, professor of Sustainable Development at ICIS, Maastricht University’s sustainability institute. He recently began studying the role of animals in our society. “Through animals, you can put the sustainability debate on the map in an engaging way.”

The measure of a civilisation, Gandhi said, is how it treats its animals. In Martens’s view, sustainability revolves around how compassionate people are when it comes to the world in which they live. “Animals are often left out of this discussion.” This needs to change, he thinks. In his research on ‘animal sustainability’, he studies the emotions of pets and the degree to which their owners recognise these emotions and feel a connection with their pet. He also examines the role of zoos from different perspectives, and uses mathematical models to study zoonoses (diseases transmitted from animals to people) in combination with climate change. Yet more other projects are in the pipeline, such as the development of an ‘animal happiness index’ and research into the ecological ‘pawprint’ of different animals.

Overwhelming response

The response to the study on pets’ emotions was overwhelming, he says enthusiastically. “We were hoping for around 300 completed surveys, plus photographs by the owners capturing an emotion of their pet. We ended up with over a thousand. Including a number of less useful photos and messages, which shows how attached people are to their pets”, he smiles. At the time of the interview, the statistical analyses of the data are in full swing, and Martens is aiming to have two publications out by autumn. “One will be on the differences between men and women in the degree to which they recognise the emotions of their pets. In the other, we’ll look at how the stronger a bond an owner feels with their pet, the more they tend to think that the pet shares their emotions, such as happiness or sadness.” Later, he hopes to gain access to the homes of pet owners in order to study how happy pets really are.

Zoo dilemmas

In cooperation with zookeepers, Martens is also keen to map the happiness of animals in zoos. He and his colleagues have already investigated the role and perceptions of sustainability among visitors and staff at the zoo in Kerkrade. He hopes to be able to spar with staff in the future on how the zoo could be made more sustainable. “Zoos, including those in Antwerp that we’re in discussions with, are searching for their role for the future. I believe in their sincere good intentions in terms of animal welfare, but they face real dilemmas. One young lion attracts a greater crowd than five toothless old ones. But to avoid inbreeding dubious choices are often made, as in a Danish zoo in March, where several young and older lions were put down to make room for a new, adult male. Zoos claim to play a role in education, but when it comes to education on sustainability there’s a lot of room for improvement, as our analysis at the Gaiapark in Kerkrade showed.”

He realises that this is a fundamentally ethical debate: do you want to keep animals in captivity for your own pleasure or not? “I don’t know if it’s feasible, but in my ideal world zoos are places where you nurture endangered species with a view to releasing them into the wild. But that wouldn’t be a park you could let people into. How do you unite the interests of humans and animals? That’s a prime sustainability issue that fits well in an inter- and trans-disciplinary institute like ICIS.”

Thought provoking

Martens’s goal is to keep the sustainability debate alive. “I hope to provoke people to think about things. What is and isn’t sustainable is not a black and white question. Instead you should be aware of certain choices and what they mean for the world. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, even though Europe and the US are leading the charge when it comes to issues like animal welfare. Even here the situation is often far from ideal.”

The animal sustainability research is still in its infancy, and Martens by no means has all the answers. Yet he is happy to wade into public debates on these sorts of issues. In April the Dutch national newspaper Trouw published his opinion piece ‘The zoo has had its day’. “I realise that zoos will continue to exist, not least because they’re commercial enterprises. And I don’t know how you could actually put into practice the idea of breeding and raising animals there before releasing them into the wild. But as a scientist, as long as you keep on highlighting the questions and uncertainties involved in a theme like sustainability, you can certainly give your opinion. I think about these issues – that’s what I’m paid for as a researcher – so I don’t think it’s right to communicate my ideas only in academic publications. Some top scientists in the area of animals and emotions don’t want to speak out on topics like animals in the bio-industry, and that’s something I’ve never understood.”


Pim Martens is professor of Sustainable Development at UM’s International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development (ICIS). He is also the founder of AnimalWise, a “think and do tank” integrating scientific knowledge and animal advocacy to bringabout sustainable change in our relationship with animals (www.animalwise.info).

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