Animal seminar at Tel Aviv University

On Monday 16th of June 2014 the seminar Animal behaviour, cognition & welfare will be held in Tel Aviv, Israel. The 1-day seminar is organised by AnimalConcepts in collaboration with the Institute for Animals in Philosophy and Science and is hosted by Tel Aviv University.

How much do we really know about animal minds? How can we use the tools of science to investigate what is happening in the minds of beings that, with just a handful of exceptions, are incapable of telling us? And perhaps most importantly, how can we use our knowledge of what animals are thinking and feeling in order to improve their lives? Join us for this one day seminar where we explore the modern science of animal behaviour and cognition, and discuss how it is being used to inform policy and practices to improve the welfare of the animals in our care, as well as in the wild.

Israel flyer 2014

Psychologist and philosopher dr. Esteban Rivas will give three lectures about the following subjects: animal cognition, animal language and communication, and animal ethics. Psychologist Sabrina Brando, owner of AnimalConcepts, will talk about captive wildlife research as an enrichment tool. Primatologist and animal behavior and welfare specialist dr. Ori Pomerantz will give a lecture entitled: “Employing cognitive-bias paradigms for the assessment of the animals’ welfare state. For the provisional program click here.

The seminar will be held in English and will take place at the Department of Zoology of Tel Aviv University, Israel. The registration fee is 45 euro and the student fee is 35 euro. For more information and how to register go to the website of AnimalConcepts.

Looking forward to meeting you in Tel Aviv!

Animal Lectures in Amsterdam

After getting multiple requests for lectures in English, dr. Rivas has decided to organize four English lectures about animals. They will be given on a Saturday afternoon, from 12.30 to 16.30 hours and will be held at the Free University in Amsterdam.

Saturday 11 January:

Animal Lecture 1: Consciousness and emotions in animals.


Do animals dream?

Do animals dream?

During this lecture dr. Rivas will address the question whether other animals have the ability to experience things like pain and pleasure. Are animals robots without subjective experiences or do animals experience sensations and other things in a phenomenally conscious way? The French philosopher René Descartes claimed that nonhuman animals could not be conscious. Behaviorism in psychology also led to a taboo on the subject of consciousness in general. Even today there are still scholars who do not ascribe consciousness to animals, often based on the absence of ‘higher’ cognitive abilities and language. In contrast are positions that argue for the presence of consciousness in animals by argueing from analogy, using systematic analyses of the nervous systems and behaviours of animals. Rivas will present the work of Jaak Panksepp on affective neuroscience, which shows that at least all mammals, and birds too, share a number of brain centers for the same emotional systems. I will also discuss the various emotions of animals. Which particular emotions do they have? Pleasure, pain, jealousy, guilt, gratitude? Which animals seem to mourn deceased conspecifics? And what similarities exist between humans and other animals with regard to altered states of consciousness, such as dreaming and being under the influence of psychoactive medication and drugs?

Saturday 29 March:

Animal Lecture 2: Communication and language research with animals.AL2CommunicationLanguageResearchAnimals

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

Animal communication takes places in many different ways. At a certain moment in evolution animal communication developed into human language. The question that scientists and philosophers have had for a long time, is whether humans are the only animals with language. In this lecture dr. Rivas will present recent developments in the scientific study of animal communication and he will discuss the results of language research with nonhuman animals. The following subjects will be presented: The characteristics of human language and animal communication. The relationship between language and brain and language development in human children. What referential information about predators is transmitted in the alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs? What are the similarities between birdsong and human language? The natural communication of great apes: facial expressions, vocalisations and gestures. Language research with great apes has been taking place for more than a century. First there were attempts to teach them words, after which several projects were successful in teaching signs to great apes. The famous chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko learned to use more than hundred signs to communicate with humans. The bonobo Kanzi and other apes learned to communicate by means of geometric symbols or lexigrams. But there is also an ape language controversy, because in what way does this use of symbols compare to human language? Dr. Rivas will also present his own study of the language apes. Finally, the results of language research with dolphins, sealions, parrots (the famous parrot Alex), and dogs will be presented.

Saturday 5 April:

Animal Lecture 3: Recent research on the intelligence of dogs.


How smart are dogs?

How smart are dogs?

In the past 19 years many new and exciting studies have been carried out on the intelligence or cognition of dogs. Special institutes for intelligence research with dogs have been set up at universities all over the world: the Family Dog Project at the University of Budapest (Adam Miklosi), the department of Comparative and Developmental Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthroplogy at the University of Leipzig (Juliane Kaminski and Michael Tomasello), the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna (Ludwig Huber), and the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University in the USA (Brian Hare). During this lecture dr. Rivas will present and discuss the results of all these recent studies with dogs. Central themes are the social and physical intelligence of dogs. Subjects that will be presented are, amongst others: Do dogs understand what humans see, hear or know? What do dogs learn by social observation, is there evidence for imitation in dogs? Do dogs understand human communicative signals, such as pointing and gaze direction? How much evidence exists regarding empathy in dogs? What are the results of language research with dogs? Are dogs able to understand human words? What does dogs’ physical intelligence consists of, what do they know about their physical environment? Are dogs aware that objects keep existing (object permanence), can dogs count? How do they behave in exciting studies such as the magic cup? This lecture will give you a good review of the current state of affairs of our scientific knowledge about the intelligence of dogs. This will probably change your own view of what dogs are capable of in terms of intelligence.

Saturday  12 April:

Animal Lecture 4: Introduction to animal ethics.


How can we best relate to other animals?

How can we best relate to other animals?

During this lecture dr. Rivas will give a review of the most important schools of thought in animal ethics. After a short introduction to philosophy and ethics and the history of moral thought about nonhuman animals, the most important current philosophers will be presented: Peter Singer and his utilitarian ethics of animal liberation. Tom Regan, who argues for animal rights from a deontological perspective. Philosophers who argue that the presence of sentience or consciousness is sufficient condition for moral consideration, such as Gary Francione. Philosophers who make a moral distinction between humans and other animals based on the capacity for language (Frey, Carruthers). Feminist animal ethics which looks at animals with the concepts of care and dialogue. And finally, deep ecology, in which humans and other animals are part of the biosphere. Questions that will be discussed are, a.o.: Is having self-consciousness of importance for the way in which an animal should be treated? Are some animals replaceable? When is a position speciesism, discrimination based on species? What are the arguments for equality among all animals? Do all living beings have an inherent value? What should one do if one were in a lifeboat with 3 other humans and 1 dog, and one individual should be thrown overboard in order for the lifeboat not to sink?

Practical information. The Animal Lectures are organized for people who work with animals professionally, for students, and for anyone interested in animals and eager to broaden their knowledge about them. A specific former education is not required. The lectures start at 12.30 and end at 16.30 hours. Registration for the Animal Lectures costs 35 euro for each lecture. Students with a student ID card pay 25 euro for each lecture.

Location: Main Building of the Free University, De Boelelaan 1105, Amsterdam. This location is well accessible both by car and public transport. Free parking is possible at the Gustav Mahlerlaan and the A.J. Ernstlaan.

Registration: You can register by simply sending an email message to You can register for all or several of the lectures. You will then receive an email message with all practical details, such as payment etc.

Do Asian elephant calls have grammar-like elements? Help crowd funding this study!

Asian elephant mother and calf

Asian elephant mother and calf

Mickey Pardo is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He has a great interest in animal communication and has set up a fascinating study in which he is going to analyze the calls of wild Asian elephants in the Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka. He is especially interested in the combinations of calls that Asian elephants make, like the longroar-rumble, and by using playback experiments he is hoping to determine the meaning of these particular calls. Maybe these call combinations have a syntax-like quality, like has been found in the combinations of calls of Campbell monkeys in Tai National Park in Ivory Coast. Klaus Zuberbühler and his colleagues at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland studied the Campbell monkeys calls and discovered that when they for example add the sound “oo” to their alarmcalls (Krak for leopards, and Hok for eagles) the combined calls Krak-oo and Hok-oo change the meaning of the message that is transmitted. Krak-oo and Hok-oo then mean that the danger is less directly threatening or less specific. Mickey Pardo now wants to analyze the calls of the Asian elephants, but he will need all of you to help funding his research. He has set up a call for crowd funding at Through his research Pardo hopes to contribute to the conservation of Asian elephants, which are endangered and their numbers keep decreasing. Below Mickey will explain his study. Be sure to check out the project at and help funding this intriguing study!

Mickey Pardo: The first time I saw wild Asian elephants was last December, in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka.  As a first year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, I was trying to come up with a project, and was considering this park as a potential field site.  I was struck by the sheer variety of sounds that the elephants made.  Yes, they gave the well-known trumpets, but they also produced roars that carried for miles, rumbles so low-pitched that my human ears could barely detect them, and squeaks that sounded more like a dog’s chew toy than an elephant.  Why do these animals have so many different calls?  What do these calls mean?  The truth is, no one knows.  In fact, we know surprisingly little about how Asian elephants behave in the wild—even less than we know about their African cousins.  I’ve made it my business to uncover some of the secrets of Asian elephant communication—and hopefully get my Ph.D. in the process!

Spectogram of the longroar

Spectogram of the longroar

We share a startling amount in common with elephants.  Both of us are long-lived and have very large brains relative to our body size.  We both have vast social networks, and can remember individuals for decades.  And we both exhibit a large degree of cooperation within our social groups.  This is significant because one hypothesis for the reason that human language evolved to be so complex is that we needed a complex language to deal with our intricate social relationships, and to help us cooperate more effectively.  Given the striking parallels between the social behavior of humans and elephants, it’s very easy to imagine that elephant communication has a lot going on beneath the surface.

Spectogram of the rumble

Spectogram of the rumble

Asian elephants sometimes combine calls into sequences.  You can see an example of this in these spectrograms, which are visual representations of sound.  The first call is a longroar, a loud, noisy vocalization. The second is a rumble, a low-pitched, rolling sound.  The third call looks a lot like a combination of the first two, and is called (aptly enough), a longroar-rumble.  To me, this begs the question:  are these call combinations analogous to the way that we combine words into sentences?  If they are, this could be the first case of grammar-like communication in a non-primate.  However, it’s possible that the call combinations are just two separate signals that happen to be produced close together.  The only way to know for sure is to digitally manipulate recordings to create different sequences, play them back to the elephants, and observe their responses.  This type of experiment, called a “playback” experiment, is the gold standard in the field of animal communication.  It allows us to gain a window into how the animals perceive different calls, the closest we can come to actually asking them.

Spectogram of the combined longroar-rumble call

Spectogram of the combined longroar-rumble call

This January, I’ll be returning to Sri Lanka for six months to do the first ever playback experiments with Asian elephants.  It is perhaps understandable that no one has attempted these experiments with Asian elephants before, because it’s a logistical nightmare!  For one thing, many elephant calls have components below the range of human hearing.  The laws of physics dictate that in order to reproduce such low pitches, you need a truly massive loudspeaker.  Transporting a one hundred pound speaker to a remote location in a developing country is not cheap.  On top of that, I need to hire two jeeps: one to carry the loudspeaker out of sight of the elephants, and the other to drive closer to the herd so I can observe their behavior.

Because my thesis is completely independent from my advisor’s research, I am responsible for funding my project on my own.  I am trying to raise some of the money for my research through the crowdfunding platform Microryza.  In case you’re not familiar with crowdfunding, the idea is to get many people to donate to your project.  You have a limited amount of time to reach your goal, so the more exposure the project gets, the better.  If you’re able, I would appreciate it so much if you could contribute a small amount to my project.  Even if you’re not able to donate, if you could share this link to my project on Facebook or Twitter, that would be amazing.  I’ll be sure to keep you updated with the latest news about the research, and I’ll post plenty of photos and videos from the field!

In this video on YouTube Mickey Pardo is explaining his study with Asian elephants: 

Mickey's study


“Communication and language in animals” course for everyone

In the past few years I have given with great success the course “Communication and language in animals. Recent developments in scientific research” at various universities in The Netherlands for the Higher Education for Older People (HOVO), in which I discuss the current scientific state of affairs with regard to the natural communication of all kinds of animals and the results from language research with various animals. At the HOVOs this course was only available for people of 50 years and older. I repeatedly got requests to organize this course also for people younger than 50 and now it’s time to do so. The Institute for Animals in Philosophy and Science is organizing this November a 3-day course “Communication and language in animals” for people of all ages.


The horse Clever Hans, early 20th century Berlin. Hans purportedly could answer many human questions...

The horse Clever Hans, early 20th century Berlin. Hans purportedly could answer many human questions…

Birds sing, dogs bark, and humans talk: everywhere animals are communicating. In the animal kingdom communication takes place in all kinds of ways. At a certain moment in evolution animal communication developed into human language. The question that scientists and philosophers have been asking for generations, is whether humans have a lonely position as the only animals with language. From the beginning of the 20th century many studies have been carried out in which scientists tried to teach all kinds of nonhuman animals (parts of) the human language. Science has also made a lot of progress in the study of the natural communicaton of animals. In this course we will discuss the current state of affairs with regard to research on communication and language in animals. The course will give you a broad overview, in which the communication and language research with nonhuman animals is presented in a critical manner.

Day 1. Saturday 2 November: Communication and human language: Characteristics and definitions. Language development in human children. The alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs. The communication and dances of honeybees. The communication of whales and dolphins.

What information about predators do these prairie dogs communicate to each other?

What information about predators do these prairie dogs communicate to each other?

On the first day we will discuss the various kinds of communication that exist. In order to make a proper distinction between animal communication and human language, the characteristics of human language are presented. We discuss the relationship between language and brain and we will look at language acquisition in human children. We will also look at the interpretation of animal communication: only an expression of passions and emotions, or can animals also refer to various things in the outside world? What meaning can be found in the alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs? We will also discuss the dances of honeybees, with which bees can transmit information about food locations. Finally, the natural communication of whales and dolphins is presented, including whale song.

Day 2. Saturday 9 November: The natural communication of, and language research with, the great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

How do our closest relatives communicate? In the past few decades our knowledge has increased about the various forms of communication of the great apes. We will discuss the communicative nature of the facial expressions of great apes, their particular vocalizations, and the communicative gestures that great apes naturally use. Next, the language research with great apes is presented. For more than a century, scientists have attempted to teach a human language to great apes in all kinds of, often controversial, studies. Chimpanzees and other apes were used in experiments in order to make them pronounce human spoken words. Later, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans were taught signs with which to communicate with humans. Famous apes like the chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko learned over a hundred signs. Nevertheless, soon the ape language controversy started, because in what way can we talk about actual language in these apes? We will discuss the methodological pitfalls and mistakes in interpretations and conclusions. I will also present my own study of the apes in language research. Finally, we will also discuss the research with Kanzi and other bonobos who learned to communicate by using geometric symbols (lexigrams).

Day 3. Saturday 16 November: Bird song and bird calls. Language research with dolphins, sealions and parrots. Understanding of human communicative signals by dogs and other domesticated animals. Language research with dogs. Evolution of human language.

Songbirds sing songs, but also have all kinds of calls with which they communicate.

Songbirds sing songs, but also have all kinds of calls with which they communicate.

All bird species have various kinds of calls: to remain in contact with each other, to express emotions, to warn for predators. How do you recognize these calls when you hear them in your garden or outside? Besides using calls, songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds also sing songs with a specific structure and function, which they learn from their parents. What are the similarities between birdsong and human language? Next, we will discuss language research with other animals than apes: Can dolphins and sealions carry out commands that are given by humans in the form of signs? Can parrots communicate with humans by speaking human words? And what do dogs and other domesticated animals understand of our communication, like pointing and gaze direction? Recent studies have shown that some dogs can understand hundreds of human words for all kinds of objects. Finally, we will discuss several theories about the evolution of human language.

After this course you will have a fresh, new look on the ways in which animals communicate and you will have knowledge regarding the question in what way we can talk about language in other animals. Besides surprising information about the animals around us you will also get an impression of the controversies in this field of study.

For whom? The course is meant for people who work with animals professionally, for students, and for anyone interested in animals and eager to broaden their knowledge about them. A specific former education is not required. The course will be given in the Dutch language, but a passive knowledge of English is convenient, given that some of the films that I will show are not subtitled.

Practical information. The course will be given on three Saturdays in November: November 2, 9 and 16. Each day will start at 11 o’clock in the morning and will end at half past 5 in the afternoon. It is recommended that one takes the whole course of three days, but one can also register for 1 or 2 days of the course. The registration fee is 160 euros for the whole course (students with student ID card 100 euros), or 60 euros (40 euros for students) for each separate day. The price includes a (vegan) lunch and coffee and tea.

Location: Madame de Pompadour, Langsom 28 in Amsterdam. This location is very well accessible both by car (there is even free parking!) and by public transport.

You can register by sending a message to or by filling out the form below: