Why dolphins don’t like to cuddle with humans and humpback whales are the troubadours of the sea: an interview with marine biologist Dr. Karsten Brensing
Dr. Karsten Brensing is a German marine biologist, behavioural scientist and author who advocates for a better understanding of animals as a scientific expert and author of popular science books. Katharina Bieling interviewed him in the spirit of one of his book titles: What do Animals Think and Feel?
In your research as a marine biologist, you are particularly concerned with the feelings of “sea creatures”. On your website you write, for example, that after extensive study of the feelings of dolphins, it’s irresponsible to use them as therapy animals. Why?
In my doctoral thesis, I intensively studied the interaction between humans and dolphins in so-called swim programmes. I studied in Florida and Israel how the animals behave under the different conditions, and whether they seek proximity to the swimmers or if they try to avoid them. My results showed exactly the opposite of what the operators of the swim programmes proclaimed. In fact, the animals in Florida tried to avoid the swimmers as much as possible. In Israel, the situation was different, as the dolphins followed their favourite trainer but had no interest in the tourists, just as in Florida.
Dolphin therapy is a special type of these swim programmes. I couldn’t find an indication of any kind that the animals are helpful for the therapy. Strictly speaking, everything is a perfectly staged show. Animal-assisted therapy normally works by the children slowly building up trust towards an animal. It is therefore extremely important that the children immediately perceive the true reactions of the animal. With dolphins, this mechanism cannot take place because the dolphin’s actual interaction partner is the trainer, who rewards each of the dolphin’s tricks with food. Thus, the dolphin is “remote-controlled” by the trainer and is not an interaction partner for the young patients at all. When one then learns that for the same price ten families could be provided with equine therapy for an entire year, I can’t help but think that dolphin therapy is pure fraud. Furthermore, it’s absolutely impossible to keep the animals in a species-appropriate manner, but that’s another topic.
In our exhibition A I S T I T / coming to our senses there are also encounters with sea creatures; the artist Kati Roover’s video work, for example, is centered around whale songs. What do you think the significance is of feelings and senses in the lives of whales, dolphins and other animals that you deal with in your research?
The acoustic sense in particular is immensely important for whales and dolphins. For them, acoustics is not only a way of communication, but also part of their orientation and hunting. Without the acoustic sense, their perception doesn’t work.
Whales and dolphins are among the most interesting creatures to study when it comes to animal communication. Dolphins, for example, have an extensive vocabulary and we know that they are able to understand grammar.
Whale songs, such as those of humpback whales, are particularly fascinating for another reason. They’re almost akin to fashion. Just as we change the shape of a collar or the colour of a garment over time, showing that we’re following the current fashion trends, humpback whales change their songs every year. Whoever manages to do this fastest and best has the best chances of finding a mate. Humpback whales are, so to speak, the troubadours of the seas.
There is also a funny anecdote in which a beluga whale shouted to a diver to surface. The whale had heard the communication between marine divers and imitated the command to surface.
What have you been researching so far, and has anything particularly surprised you in your research?
Two instances were extremely surprising and really changed my perspective on things. Firstly, in the preliminary study for my doctoral thesis, I had made the observation that the dolphins in the swim programmes actually did like to swim towards humans. My data showed just the opposite and I realised that I had fallen for a simple sensory illusion. In a tank with eight humans and five dolphins, at virtually any given time, one of the dolphins is somewhere near a human. Our eyes constantly jump from one to another, so after half an hour we have the impression that the dolphins are constantly around the humans. The reality was quite different! That was sobering for me and a good example of how little we should trust our senses when we want to look at things objectively.
The second moment occurred in my study while researching a book. In summer I like to leave the doors to the garden open, and sometimes a mouse comes into my study. I then catch it with a live trap and release it outside. One day the trap was snapped shut and the bait was missing. I also noticed many small objects around the trap, such as stones, feathers and sticks, which I hadn’t put there. On looking closely, I realised that a small stone was stuck in the mechanism, leaving a gap exposed. There was no explanation for the observation other than that another mouse must have released the trapped one. I couldn’t believe it, so I did some research and actually found a publication where this phenomenon was scientifically studied. If I used to believe that only highly evolved animals like apes, elephants and dolphins must be similar to us humans, I am now convinced that probably most birds and mammals have very similar perceptions and sensations to ours. Ultimately, all of our cognitive abilities and feelings have developed in the course of evolution, and this was long before humanity was even thought of in this form.
On your website you also talk about your personal career as a marine biologist. What role did the fall of the Wall and the end of the GDR play in your career?
I couldn’t become a marine biologist in the former GDR because I didn’t have clearance for international travel. For me, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was one of the first few hundred who fled the GDR illegally in the summer of ‘89.
As a scientist, you popularise your research and also write children’s literature. The title of one of your books is: What do Animals Think and Feel? What kind of response have you received to it?
To be honest, I never wanted to write a children’s book. I told both my agency and the publisher that my topics were actually too complicated for a children’s book. Nevertheless, they requested a sample chapter and were thrilled.
So, in a short time, a children’s book was created, which was even chosen as the Wissensbuch des Jahres (‘Science Book of the Year’) in 2019. Today, I really enjoy writing non-fiction books for children.
Since I taught microbiology for some time, I recently published a book together with my wife, Katrin Linke, called The Fascinating World of Viruses and Bacteria. In this book we learn that viruses and bacteria are not only our enemies, but that, for example, there would be no mammals without viruses and that without bacteria we would suffocate in our filth. What few people know: even our genes are largely made up of genes from viruses and we have more bacteria in and on us than we have body cells.
Translation: Ramona Tyler
2.6.2021, 7.00 pm | Empathy and Feelings in Animals. Online discussion with Kati Roover and Karsten Brensing as part of the exhibition A I S T I T / coming to our senses.