July 28, 2022
Are all animals equally intelligent but in different ways? Do some animals perceive the passage of time differently from humans? Are our definitions of intelligence biased towards our own human strengths and therefore not fairly applicable to other animals? Is a baby human's pre-linguistic communication (like crying) analogous to the ways other animals communicate? Is civil litigation the best strategy for defending animal rights? Human lawyers represent their clients, but can other animals be clients? Can other animals be plaintiffs or defendants in human courts?
Alene Anello is the founder of Legal Impact for Chickens, a litigation nonprofit that seeks to make animal cruelty a liability. Before founding Legal Impact for Chickens, Alene graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for a federal judge, and then started litigating for animals. She has worked at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and The Good Food Institute. Her undergraduate degree is also from Harvard. Alene is committed to helping chickens to honor the memories of her two beloved avian family members, Conrad and Zeke. Find out more about her and her work at legalimpactforchickens.org.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Alene Anello about the definition and evaluation of animal intelligence, communicating and bonding with animals, and improving the lives of animals through litigation.
SPENCER: Alene, welcome.
ALENE: Hi, Spencer, thank you so much for inviting me to be on Clearer Thinking.
SPENCER: Yeah, I'm so glad to have you here. You and I have been exchanging a number of very long emails about animal intelligence. So I wanted to start there. And I think we have some interesting points of disagreement, but also some interesting points of agreement. So why don't we start by just telling me and our audience a little bit about your kind of history and how you came to form your views on animal intelligence?
ALENE: Okay, awesome. Yeah, so I have this really extreme (I think), unique view about intelligence that I don't actually think I know anyone else who thinks this way. Although I would love if maybe for this podcast, I can find out other people that perhaps have a similar view. But I have this idea that all animals with brains are equally intelligent, at least, basically, that they're all equally intelligent, just in different ways. And I think that this view really came about from my life story. So okay, I think that there's like three main parts. One is that I've always been a really weird person. And I'm still really weird. And when I was a kid, I guess that was really magnified because kids will always point out how you're different from them. So I knew that like, ever since I've been young, there were certain things I was really bad at that everyone else around me seemed to be good at. And then there were things that I was really good at, that most people around me seemed to be bad at. And that, I guess, has always made it hard for me to really understand or believe in the concept that some people are more intelligent than others.
SPENCER: What are some of the things that you were really good and bad at? If you're comfortable talking about that?
ALENE: Okay, so for good, I would always get really good grades, like I was usually the top in each of my classes. I ended up being valedictorian of my high school, school, like tests, that kind of stuff was always like, very easy for me. But the things I was bad at were like, certain social things like I love people. So I don't think I have autism. That's something that multiple people have asked me, and I'm pretty sure I don't, but there's certain things where other people notice social cues that I don't notice, or they like, like, I would be in a room and I realized everybody else has stood up, and I'm still sitting down or like everybody else, like answered a question one way. And I gave an answer that was like, technically following the instructions, but not what was like intended from the question. So a lot of social things. I'll notice even now, as an adult like that, it seems like everyone else is really good at like getting these unwritten rules about how you're supposed to behave. And I don't know where they get it from. And I often feel like I missed the memo. So like, one example was, I just remember somebody once said, like, Alene, you are book smart, but you're not street smart. And I was like, I guess I can see that. Like, I just don't pick up on what I'm supposed to be doing in a social situation, as well as other people, I think. And then I also really struggle and have struggled my whole life with being on time to things. Like recently, somebody said, maybe I have time blindness. So I don't really have a sense of how long things are taking. I'm really bad with scheduling. Like, I usually rely on another person to tell me, you have to go here at this time, or now as an adult, I've been trying to use my iPhone to alert me a lot to different things that are coming up. But being on time to class, or to a party or anything was always really hard. And I also have really bad spatial skills. So I get lost very, very easily. Yeah, so all that makes me think like, "Wow, something's wrong with me, I'm an idiot." But then, in school, I'm getting the best grades. So I'm like, "Oh, I can't be an idiot." There's just really made me feel like you can be good at something. And that's something else, I guess?
SPENCER: Well, you know, I've heard that people with autism actually can test in different ways and different parts of an IQ test. So for example, I think according to one paper, people with autism tend to do really well on the Raven's matrices progressions, which is like where you have a bunch of symbols, and you have to try to guess what symbol comes next, but tend to do worse than average on other parts of IQ tests. And it's just, I'm not saying that you're autistic, it just kind of reminds me of that, that there can be certain kind of structures of minds that tend to be really good at like certain kinds of processing and less good others.
ALENE: I think that's really similar to my mind, and I feel like I often think about autism as an example, when I'm thinking about this concept of not believing that intelligence can be objectively ranked or thinking that we should just think of us all as equally intelligent because I've just noticed that people who do have autism, sometimes excel so much in certain fields, and they have so much struggles in other fields. So to say that they're a genius, or to say that they're stupid, neither one really seems right. It's like they're just different. And I think I'm, I don't know, as I'm getting older, I'm starting to embrace the concept that I'm neuro-atypical, but probably in some other way that I don't know what it's called. But yeah, I think I have something in common with somebody who has autism in that I'm good at certain things, and bad and other things in a way that's kind of like, shockingly extreme, I think.
SPENCER: You want to talk a bit about your experience with getting into the minds of animals?
ALENE: Yeah. So I think part of my reason for having this weird view on intelligence, of thinking that it's something that can't be ranked objectively, is because of me being a weird person. And then I think a lot of it is because of my close relationships with animals growing up, and interacting with them more intimately maybe than people typically do. So. I've always I grew up having dogs. When I was really little, I had one dog named Fido. And then she died. And we had another dog named Rover. And then Rover had a baby named Nathan. So there were three dogs that I was close with as I was growing up. And for Fido, I was a really, really little kid when we had her. And I remember spending a lot of time with her, and not really thinking of her the way that I now hear people talk about dogs, which is like, they're your pet. They're almost like your child and you're the adult. It was like I was a child and she was an adult. So being around her, it felt more like she was somebody that comforted me and cared for me like another...I mean, I had an amazing parent and amazing older siblings that were—I'm sorry, two amazing parents and two amazing older siblings that cared for me a lot. And it felt like Fido was one of them, like the siblings, and the dog and my parents were all working together to care for me, that was kind of my impression. And so I think I kind of took her more seriously than most people might take a dog because she was like an adult and I wasn't. And then there's this one story that I like to give as an anecdote to kind of show how it felt like she perceived things that people couldn't always perceive, which is that one time when I was little, I was misbehaving or something and my mom sent me to my room as punishment. And then like, half an hour later, she hadn't heard any noises coming from my room. So she started to worry about me. So she went upstairs to check on me. And she didn't see me in my room. And she started panicking. She looked all over the house, and she looked in the yard and she didn't see me anywhere. So she was about to call the police. But right before calling the police, she was like, she remembered the TV show Lassie and she was like, "I wonder if Fido can help." So she called Fido and was kind of panicked, talking to Fido, trying to say like, "Find Alene," hoping Fido would get it. Fido ended up going upstairs with her to my room and sniffing all around my room until Fido got to my toy box. And she started wagging her tail and buried her head in my toy box. And it turned out I had fallen asleep under a bunch of stuffed animals. And so my mom always tells a story about how Fido saved me. I mean, I wasn't actually in danger, I was just sleeping. But Fido was the only one that had the mental capacity to distinguish a difference in scent of where Alene is currently from where Alene has been in the past, which nobody else in my house would have been able to do. So this is just one example. I think, as a little kid, it was more just like the feeling I got being around Fido that it seemed like she had a youthful and an intelligent mind, even though it was so different from mine and my family's. And then when I was 11 years old, my parents bought me a bird as a present. His name was Conrad and he was a cockatiel. And I ended up getting really, really close with Conrad. Birds are so different from dogs. And they're kind of similar to people in some ways, but different in other ways. You can talk to them, you can make noises, and then they make noises back, you can have a conversation with them, which you can't do with dogs. And so I think that also contributed to me feeling like animals are smart beings with minds that should be respected more than they are.
SPENCER: Can you talk about some of the ways that you felt your bird was intelligent?
ALENE: I feel like when I think about it, I think I have to think about it more. Because when I actually think about it, the things that come to mind are things where the bird understood something a person would understand. So I'm like, impressed that he understood what we understand. But I feel like my, the thing that really impresses me is just the sense that they have a lot going on in their brain that we don't understand. So I feel like the examples that come to mind are kind of not the really important examples.
SPENCER: So it's like birds doing bird-like things that maybe we don't even have an easy way to understand. Is that the idea?
ALENE: Yeah, exactly because the things that come to mind immediately when I think of, "Okay, what are impressive things that birds do?" One thing that comes to mind is I actually ended up adopting another bird. So as an adult until recently, I had two birds, the one, Conrad, that I got as a child and Zeke, the other one. Like, whenever I'd be...my boyfriend and I would be ready to go on a vacation, we'd start packing the night before, and the birds would start kind of freaking out. And so that seemed impressive to me, because I was like, "Oh, they know, we're packing, and that that's bad news." But I feel like that's also something a human would definitely recognize. So it's not like, "Oh, they have this unique ability to tell that we're leaving," it's more like me being impressed that they can do something that we do, which I feel like is less exciting than things that they can do that we can't do. So I'm trying to think, "When did I notice he was doing something that we couldn't have done?"
SPENCER: Well, you know, it's interesting, because it seems obvious if we think about evolution, that every animal that has been around for a really, really long time, is extremely well adapted to the environment that it typically lived in during that time. And so it's like, in order to see an animal's full intelligence, you kind of need to see it in its habitat and see it doing the sort of things that it had to do. Funny example is my friend raised chickens, and she named one of her chickens after me. So there's a chicken named Spencer, and one time the chicken got away; he was running around. And anyway, so I was tasked with catching Spencer-Chicken, or Chicken-Spencer. And it really shocked me how good at evading me Chicken-Spencer was, which, you know, it makes sense because evasion of predators is, you know, is one of the things that chickens had to do for a really long time, in terms of just dodging me, but also just hiding. It was shocking to me, the chicken would approach some tall grass and then would just disappear. And I was like, "Where'd he go?" And I just couldn't see him.
ALENE: That's amazing.
SPENCER: Yeah. So yeah, so that gave me a lot more respect for chickens.
ALENE: That definitely gives me an example of what the birds could do that we couldn't do, which is that birds are way faster than people, at least cockatiels. Like, anytime we would try to catch them...It's like you think about catching them, and they've already flown away, or ran away, which was like...it felt like you could tell that somehow, it felt like they worked on a different time scale than us. It felt like we were...they must see us as moving in slow motion because it was like, "I didn't even know that I had moved my hand towards you at all, I must have made like a micro-movement towards you, and that was enough for you to see me moving towards you and fly away somehow." So I think that is one example that it feels like. I also think bugs are that way. Like, whenever you try to catch a bug, they get away so quickly that it feels like...do they operate...do they feel like a whole week passed when to us it was just a day? And if they do that seems kind of cool.
SPENCER: I wonder that as well because, you know, time passes at one second, per second. But perception of how long a second passes, there's nothing objective about that, right? That has to do with the property of a mind. And you could imagine a mind that's sped up 1000 times so that they may experience 1000 thoughts in the time we take to have one thought. There doesn’t seem to be anything incoherent about that. There's also an issue of latency of you know, we think of it as though we're seeing what's happening in real-time, but there's actually a really slight delay between something happening and the moment we perceive it. You know, it's, I don't know how fast it is, maybe on the order of 10 milliseconds or 20 milliseconds, I'm not really sure, but there is that little delay. So in addition to kind of being able to perceive things occurring more slowly, an animal might also just actually be closer to the ground truth of reality, like there's less delay between something happening and them becoming aware of it.
ALENE: That is such a weird thought that I see things after they happened. I've never thought about that before.
SPENCER: We're living slightly very slightly in the past in our perceptions, right?
ALENE: It's like looking at stars.
SPENCER: Oh, you're saying because the light they might have like burned out long ago and we're seeing the light?
ALENE: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Except this is like a much smaller time delay, like when you're seeing things that are close to you. But it's still weird that there's a time delay at all.
SPENCER: I've wondered this about cats as well because I can dodge my cat sometimes when he swipes at me, but I've seen videos of cats like, fight—tussling with snakes. And it's really remarkable how unperturbed they see him a lot of times like a cat is like standing right next to a scary snake and just kind of chilling there and looking around and then the snake goes to bite it and the cat just somehow magically doesn't get bitten. It's just like somehow it's out of the way before the bite. And it just looks like something that would be incredibly hard for a human to do, like maybe a human could train to do it, but a normal human would just get bitten immediately.
ALENE: So this reminds me of something you said earlier that I wanted to touch on, which is you said that animals evolved to be in their natural environment and so to see how smart they are, you need to see them in their natural environment. And that's basically a big part of where I originally got this idea that intelligence can't be ranked is I was actually speaking of intelligence taking some kind of practice test, I think it was some kind of either standardized test or a practice test for a standardized test. And you had to do—which I love, I love taking tests—and you had to do reading comprehension. And there were these two essays, side-by-side, you had to read and answer questions about. And usually, I think you just answer the questions and then completely forget about it. But for me, one of these essays changed my whole life because the first essay was saying chimpanzees are the second smartest animal after humans. And it was listing certain things that we thought only humans could do, but also chimpanzees can do them. And the other essay was like, you can't figure out what is the smartest animal after humans because they're all perfectly evolved; they all survived evolution. And in each case, their brains helped them survive evolution. So they're all in a sense, perfectly intelligent because they made it here. And there's no way to tell which is more intelligent. Like, the elephant evolved to do what it needs to do, or what he or she needs to do. And the chimpanzee evolved to do what she needs to do. And the fish evolves to do what he needs to do. So how can you say one is better than the other when they're each doing what needs to be done in their situation? Reading that article is where I started this whole going off on this whole crazy idea of like, "Well, then how do we even know humans are the first most intelligent? Maybe all animal species are equally intelligent." And then I started saying, "Well, how do we even know that certain humans are more intelligent than other humans? Like, maybe I can do some things, and I can't do others, and someone else can do things I can't do, but they can't do what I can do. So maybe all humans are equally intelligent, but in different ways.
SPENCER: Right. And, you know, when we were debating about this via email, I brought up an example, which actually comes from my friend Sam Rosen, which is this idea of equating intelligence and strength. And it seems pretty clear that if you look at, let's say, someone who's excellent at CrossFit. You know, they do CrossFit five days a week, they win CrossFit tournaments. That person is going to be stronger than me. And then, you know, by almost any reasonable definition, they're stronger than me. However, because I do bouldering, and bouldering involves a lot of finger strength, it's possible that, you know, my finger is stronger than their finger or something like this, right? And so it's like, on the one hand, I think it's very reasonable to say that this person is stronger than me. And by almost any way you cook up a test of strength, they're gonna beat me. And yet, there's some way in which I could beat them probably, you know, on finger strength or something like this, because that just happens to come up a lot more in the things that I do than what they do. And yet, I don't feel like that undermines the idea that one person can be kind of, quote-unquote, "stronger than another." However, when we say stronger, we're just sort of taking this sort of set of attributes, like how strong their, you know, arm is, how strong their leg is, how strong their back is, et cetera. And we're applying some kind of weighted average to all those different attributes. And you know, the weightings you would apply when you're talking about how strong someone is might be different than the weightings I’m gonna apply, but most of the time, we're gonna get the same answer. So, there's gonna be at least a pretty decent correlation between the way you come up with strength and the way I come up with it so that we're not gonna have such different answers.
ALENE: Yeah, I think that's a really, really, really good point. And a really good counterargument to what I'm saying. Also, when you emailed it to me, I thought it was just a hypothetical. I didn't realize you actually have like, super strong fingers. That's really cool.
SPENCER: Well, I mean, you know, they're not that strong. But like, you know, not that many people have to use their finger strength all the time. And when you first start bouldering, you're like, "God, my fingers, what the hell's wrong with them? I can't hold on to this thing." You know.
ALENE: The strength analogy you gave me really stuck with me. And I don't have a response to that, for, scientifically, why it's an incorrect analogy. I more have what, in law, you would refer to as a policy argument, but there must be a term for that outside of the law, kind of practical. So in law, you can make an argument that we should interpret the law one way because a court said it; a previous court said it and that's an argument based on case law. Or you can say we should interpret the law a certain way because of how a statute looks, which is an argument based on textualism. Or you can say we should interpret the law this way because that will have the better outcome, like, it'll be better for the world to interpret it that way. And that's called a policy argument. So it's basically when you're making an argument that's like, "This would be the better policy, not because there's some objective reason that this is more true," I feel like there could be something like that, that translates to regular English, but I'm not sure what you would call it. Does that make sense?
SPENCER: Yeah, that absolutely makes sense.
ALENE: So is there a word for that?
SPENCER: I don't know if there's a word for that. But I think basically, it's sort of like how are you justifying something? Is it based on the ends that are gonna occur, right? Like, "Oh, well, if we interpret it this way..."
ALENE: That's what it is. It's like an ends-based argument. Yeah. So I think what I would say is, what you're saying about strength is logical, and there's nothing wrong with it. And I guess I don't think I could totally refute somebody who says, "I think we should apply that way of thinking to intelligence," but I guess I just don't think we should apply that way of thinking to intelligence because I think it's less useful than my crazy way of thinking that, you know, intelligence is like a beautiful piece of artwork, and we're all unique and different, like a snowflake, and nobody can be ranked. I guess, the reason that I would think it's different is, number one might be just that I think about and care about intelligence more than I think and care about strength. So when I think about strength, it seems like a pretty simple thing, like different parts of your body can pull or push to different degrees, it just seems like it's not that complicated, which might be me oversimplifying it because I just don't know as much about strength. This is the kind of thing where like, if I were a physical trainer, maybe I would be inclined to have an argument that you can't rank strength and that we're all just strong in different ways. It's like whenever you delve into any issue, you see all these tiny little details in it. And when you kind of don't delve into it as much, it seems more okay to generalize.
SPENCER: Well, even in this case, right? You could argue, "Well, there's bone strength, there's ligament strength, there's muscle strength." There might even be joint strength, I don't quite know how that works.
ALENE: I think so, I think it's definitely possible that if I were more thoughtful and knowledgeable on the topic of strength, I would be like, "No, yeah, you shouldn't be ranking somebody and saying they're more or less strength—more or less strong." You know, a snake can move in all these ways a person can't move. And so even if their muscles are smaller than a person, we can't conclude that they're less strong than a person. But I think it's more a matter of just that I've thought a lot about intelligence, and that it feels so important that we don't oversimplify when it comes to intelligence, I guess. So I think maybe I'm more making a consequences-based argument of, when it comes to intelligence, I think it's better not to simplify and to let ourselves get overwhelmed by all the differences and all the details.
SPENCER: Right. Well, I think this brings up an important point, which is distinguishing between what we believe is true and distinguishing between what we think is a good way to behave and a bad way to behave, right? So on the one hand, we might say we disagree on the facts about intelligence. On the other hand, we might say, you know, we disagree on what's harmful to say about intelligence. And I prefer to keep those debates separate because I think that mixing them actually makes it hard to think clearly about them.
ALENE: From what I understand about what you're saying, I think we mostly agree on the facts. For me, there's a lot of facts that I don't know, so it's hard for me to even agree or disagree. Like you were saying that studies show that whenever you come up with a test for intelligence, and then give the test to other people, there's a lot of correlation. And people who do well on one test for intelligence tend to do well on another test. I think I heard something like that before you told me but I don't know it as well as you know it. And I don't empirically disagree with that, that sounds believable to me.
SPENCER: Right. So it could turn out, we live in a world where if you were to just come up with a bunch of ideas for intelligence tests, you're like, “Okay, for this intelligence test, I'm gonna give people puzzles. And for this one, I'm gonna give them a vocabulary test. And for this one, I'm gonna have them do math problems,” and so on and so forth, right? It could turn out that if you make a whole bunch of tests up, and you give them to people, that there's just not that much correlation between them. You know, one person is really good at one, one person is really good at another, and they’re sort of unrelated. As I understand the literature on intelligence, you know, this has been done many times and what they find, in almost every case, almost every intelligence test they cook up, they're positively correlated, usually somewhere between like, moderately and substantially positively correlated, you know, some less correlated than others. And they call this (I think, sometimes) the positive manifold. And it's from this idea that the idea of IQ emerges. Because if it turned out that they all had nothing to do with each other, it would be sort of nonsensical to come up with one number to try to construct someone’s intelligence. But if they're all positively correlated, then you can start to say, "Well, okay, maybe then there's some underlying factor that they all share." And then, you know, we can call that the general factor. And we can try to measure that and, you know, hence, IQ tests are born. You know, I think that's the general approach that a lot of people in the kind of intelligence research community take.
ALENE: Yeah, so I think I don't have any empirical disagreement with what you're saying about that. So I think that that makes me feel like our disagreement comes down more to like, what is helpful? And what is a better way to think about the world? Okay, so in my mind, there's two main caveats (I think) to what you're saying, that make me not want to just say, "Well, because intelligence tests show these correlations, we should treat intelligence as an objective, measurable thing that we're all ranked on." So one of my things is that all the tests you're talking about were invented by people. And I don't think we've ever had an intelligence test that was invented by any other species of animal. And so it seems like we can't really, at least when we're thinking about other animal species. I've noticed that most people seem to assume that humans are the most intelligent species and I don't think that there can be good evidence for that because any way that somebody tries to measure intelligence, it's always (in my experience) been a human trying to do the measuring. I don't think there ever is...I mean, maybe one day, there'll be some other species that tries to do this...but I've never heard of another species trying to measure intelligence, it doesn't seem like—from what I know about most other species—it doesn't seem like something they would want or be able to do. And so even if we can come up with four different tests, and they all...how well we do on them all seems correlated, or 100 different tests, I still feel like they're probably a bunch of tests we don't even think to come up with because it's testing a skill that we don't have and never even heard of, and never even conceived of. So, even when I'm coming up with examples, it's like I'm struggling because I'm also a person. So I can only come up with things that I can conceive of. And my whole point is that I think there's a lot of stuff I can't conceive of. But one example is echolocation. I think people are usually very bad at echolocation. Although I know some people can do it.
SPENCER: Yeah, I've heard of some blind people that can learn to do it, which is pretty amazing. But I'm sure that they’re worse than bats at it, which are...sort of have minds are meant to do it, right?
ALENE: I would assume, yeah. And at a minimum, a person who can see is probably worse than a bat at it. So, I'm probably worse at echolocation, I'm definitely worse at echolocation than a bat would be. So yeah, that's one example of just a skill that I doubt any human coming up with an intelligence test would ever be like, "Oh, wait, we should include echolocation on the test." I feel like it wouldn't even occur to them because they just don't think about it because it's so outside of their realm. And then even that is at least within our realm enough that you and I know the word. And I'm just assuming there's probably processes happening in the brains of shrimp that helped them survive that I just can't even conceive of and don't know anything about. And at least shrimp is a word I know. Like, there's so many species that I've never heard the names of. I'm pretty sure there's a lot of species that humans have never—that no human has ever even invented a name for. So how can we know that we're including the skills that those species have when we're doing a test? And if we can't, then I just don't think we should be trying to like claim that we've figured out what intelligence is and that we have more of it than everyone else. So I guess that's my first thought about this intelligence test thing, that even though I think you know more about the facts than I do, and I believe you when you talk about the facts, I just think that there's got to be so much unknown unknown. And it seems like hubris for us to assume that we won a competition when there's that much unknown unknown.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I think the echolocation example is really interesting. And it brings up this question about, what's a skill? And what's intelligence? Right? Like, I think most people would say that, if someone's playing chess, they include an intelligence, like the ability to decide what strategy to use, but they're not really referring to the strength to pick up a chess piece. You know, they're not including that as part of intelligence, that's something else. And you know, I think where to draw that line between a skill and intelligence is, it's pretty tough to draw. But I like echolocation because it does seem like it involves information processing. So it feels more intelligence-like than maybe some other things, like having pincers that you can pinch something with, right? I just wanted to give a couple of fun examples of animals that do cool stuff. Like the mantis shrimp, (you mentioned shrimp) apparently, they have 16 color receptors, and they can actually see the polarization of light, which is something we just can't even perceive. So I think that's kind of cool. And then another fun example is I've heard about this kind of fish that actually can detect…I think it actually puts electrical currents into the water. And then it can use those electrical currents to actually sense the three-dimensional environment around it, which is just something that we have no analog to.
ALENE: Again, I just really think this comes down to a value judgment that I'm making, and that I'm kind of trying to persuade the listener to take my view on. Although, like I said, I don't actually think I've ever successfully convinced anyone of this view, so I don't expect to succeed, but maybe I will succeed with at least one person that I guess I feel like…maybe I'm probably…In a sense, I'm biased, but in another sense, I just have a glimpse into how there are probably a lot of people that are just not—it's just not helpful to describe them based on some kind of average of how well they do on various things. Because I feel like for me, I would assume, if I were to take every intelligence test in the world, the answer would be like, I'm just average, but I don't think that is useful.
SPENCER: I want to bring a sort of mathematical perspective into this because when you think about compressing information, you can always choose, sort of, the level of compression up till you kind of hit the entropy limit of the phenomenon. And so what I mean by that is, let's say you're like trying to categorize people into groups or something like this, right? Well, you know, you could categorize them by height, you can categorize them by weight, you can categorize them by like, what country they're in, etc, etc. There's sort of no right answer to how many categories you use; the more categories you use, and the more dimensions you take into account, you can kind of capture more and more information about a person, right? If you're allowed to use a million categories, you can capture more than if you can only put people into three categories, or whatever. And if you can use more dimensions to categorize people, you can get also more precise than if you can only use a few dimensions, right? So I think of the same thing when it comes to intelligence. It seems to me just incredibly obvious that there are multiple types of intelligence in some real sense, right? Like, you're a great example of this. There's some things that you're very intelligent at, others you're less intelligent at. And you know, it just is simply not the case that knowing someone's IQ score, you can accurately predict how they're going to perform on every intelligence test. That being said, let's say you are forced to use just one number...like you just had...you were only allowed one number of information about a person's intelligence. I think of that as that's what IQ is trying to do. It's saying, “Given the constraint that we're just going to use one number, this is sort of the best we can do.” That's the claim. And then I think often there's this additional claim, which is that that number performs surprisingly well (better than you would think, right) due to some, you know, empirical things about the way humans are, about the world, or whatever, you can predict a lot more with that one number than you might expect.
ALENE: I think that makes a lot of sense. Basically, it's just kind of, like with anything, with strength you could come up with one number for how strong someone is, or you could have one number for how strong their legs are, and one number for how strong their arms are. Or you could have a number for how strong the ligaments in their legs are. And you could break it down to different levels.
SPENCER: And it's gonna get more and more accurate, the more you break it down. However, sometimes it might just be useful to say, "Oh, that person is really strong, that person is not as strong," right? And you're taking some kind of weighted average over the different traits. And that wouldn't make sense to do if we lived in a world where there were tons of people that would have like, extremely buff arms, but really weak legs. So those people do exist; people can be paralyzed from the waist down, and then they don't use their legs and their legs are very weak, right? But they could get really buff arms. So those people exist, but more often when someone's strong in one way they're more likely to be strong in another way because of a whole bunch of things—because of genetics, because of athleticism, because of lifestyle, and so on.
ALENE: Yeah, I think my reasoning for not liking intelligence ranking is based on I guess, two harms. One is I feel like it makes us learn less about the world because there are certain people we assume are wrong about everything and don't listen to at all. And then there's certain people we assume are right about everything and listen to even when they're talking about something they don't know anything about. And then it also (I think) is harmful to people when we assume that they're dumb and kind of dismiss them, and harmful to animals when we assume that they're dumb and dismiss them. So you're now making me think maybe if I were somebody who had really buff arms and was paralyzed from the waist down, maybe it would really annoy me when I hear people talking about strength as an objective, measurable thing because maybe I would feel very left out like I'm not seen by this ranking system.
SPENCER: Well, I think that also leads to a kind of interesting consideration, which is that there are some people where...let's say you had to use one number to measure someone's strength, right? You just had that constraint, there are some people where that one number will capture them very well because they're very uniformly strong. You know…their relative…if you calculate their strength percentile in their arms, it would be about the same as the strength percentile in their legs, and so on. There are other people where that's going to be a really terrible metric to use because it's going to kind of be very inaccurate, like, maybe their arms are 99th percentile strong, but their legs are only 5th percentile strong. And then if you just summarize them by the one number, you're actually not going to have a very good sense of what they're like. And you can imagine the same thing for IQ. You're someone who is probably especially badly predicted by IQ tests. I'm not actually sure that's true because I'm not sure that most IQ tests would actually have on them tests for the things you're weak at, which is interesting, like the social stuff that maybe they just leave that out on a lot of IQ tests. But let's suppose we had a more broad intelligence test that included that, your one score on that may just not represent you very well because, in fact, you're going to deviate a lot on some tests, whereas some other people, they might be just more uniform. And that number is actually going to do a pretty good job of describing their skills.
ALENE: Yeah, I agree. One thing that gets lost when I'm talking to somebody like you about intelligence, because you're so thoughtful and educated on this topic, is that I think my biggest reason for not liking intelligence…not liking people to think of each other as more or less intelligent, it actually doesn't come from testing and IQ and all that stuff. It comes more from the general way that the general public behaves around the concept of intelligence. So I think actually talking about this with you is...sort of ends up...it's like more fun because you're more interested in talking about it, but it also distracts from what really bugs me about it. I think the thing that really bugs me is that most people don't go around giving each other IQ tests; they just meet somebody, and then have an impression that the person is smart or stupid, and then treat them accordingly. And their impression could be…it's possible that the impression they have wouldn't even correlate with how somebody would do an IQ test. So, somebody like me, if I were to meet somebody, and make some faux pas, they might come away with the impression that I'm stupid, and completely write me off. They're not gonna say, “Okay, why don't you sit down and take an IQ test, then based on the results, I'll figure out how to treat you.” They'll kind of go off of one thing you did. And sometimes people even go off of something…people don't even pay attention to what you did, they just think about what group you're in. So like, I think people tend to assume that men are smarter than women, or they assume that people with like, British accents are smarter than people with any other accent in the world. And they assume that animal species that they've never heard about, or that science hasn't even discovered, are stupider when there couldn't possibly be any test that was ever done on that species that supports that. I think that my biggest concern is that, in reality, people aren't going to do tests to figure out who's smart, they're just going to come up with some kind of shorthand, and then they're going to dismiss somebody that they assume is stupid. So I'd rather people try to have the mindset that everyone is a beautiful-amazing-individual-snowflake-masterpiece, and that there is something in them valuable that you want to get out. I think that when the public talks about intelligence, I don't think it's based on just how well you would do on tests, I feel like it usually also includes what you know, like, somebody who knows a lot is thought of as smarter than somebody who doesn't know a lot. And when it comes to what you know, I think you probably would agree that it's probably not correlated that people who know more about how to speak Spanish know more about how to speak French, or something like that. So I think maybe what really bugs me is not the way scientists would think of intelligence, but the way that people in everyday language would think about intelligence. Does that make sense?
SPENCER: Yeah, like putting…basically, I think you're opposed to putting people on a single axis; you think that it's reductive and causes people to write people off rather than saying, “Well, what is this person really good at? And what are this animal’s unique skills?” That makes sense to me, and I think when we're dealing with individuals, that probably is the right way to go most of the time is to really think of them as unique, and not try to rank them on some simple scale. Although that being said, you know, if you think about something like IQ, my personal view is that there's more to intelligence than just IQ. It seems pretty obvious to me that that's the case. And so even on intelligence, insofar as I'm evaluating someone's intelligence, I'm going to be thinking about different aspects of that. For example, some people seem to be more analytically intelligent (this is just an anecdotal observation). Some people, you know, you give them a math problem, or you give them something to pull apart, and they're really good at it. Other people seem to just be really good verbally; they can come up with really great ways of describing things in an eloquent turn of phrase, and so on. And these might be positively correlated if you give people IQ tests, but I know people can be really great at one and not the other. So you know, I think you can still break these down into micro-skills, and then you get kind of a full picture of a person. I'm not resistant to assessing people on micro-skills, you know, I mean, like little sub aspects insofar as they're relevant to the things I care about. You know, if I'm trying to assess someone, would this person be good at this job, let's say in a work context, I'm trying to think about you know, “What are their skills? What are the aspects they're better at? What are they what are they worse at?”
ALENE: Okay, I feel like we actually have very similar views and you're so much better at explaining it in a way that is more convincing than my way. I feel like I want to have you introduce this concept to people next time I'm trying to tell them about it.
SPENCER: Well, you're better at flattery.
ALENE: Okay, everything you just said, I like that. I like thinking about micro-skills and trying to think, what skill am I looking for, and let me evaluate them on that skill, and just not write them off until you've actually done that evaluation.
SPENCER: Your email exchange actually got me thinking about, like, how do I define intelligence? And I think I included this in one of my emails, I tried to come up with a definition I was happy with. I'm not fully happy with this one, but the definition that I've come up with is: Intelligence is the ability to effectively achieve goals in novel environments of a particular type (and I'll come back to that in a moment, that “of a particular type”) by using the mind or using information processing. So I'll say that again. The ability to effectively achieve goals in novel environments of a particular type by using the mind or using information processing. And so I think the “of a particular type”, environment specific is a more nuanced way to think about intelligence, like, there are environments in which my cat will absolutely outperform me at achieving the goals it's trying to achieve. If I had its goals, I would just fail. For example, he's probably way better at catching mice than I am. Whereas in other environments, like taking a math test, I'm gonna way outperform him. And actually, you know, there are times he's outperformed me. For example, he invented this sort of intelligence task of sorts where he figured out that if he jams himself into this cabinet we have before bedtime, it's nearly impossible to remove him without hurting him. So we basically are at his mercy. And so the only way we figured out how to get him out is to give him treats. And so we basically have this nightly blackmail exchange where he blackmails us into giving him treats before bed. And now it’s just become a family tradition.
ALENE: Spencer, that is so cool.
SPENCER: So, yeah.
ALENE: That's awesome. I love your cat. Well, I don't love that your cat wants to hurt mice, but I love that your cat likes to come up with ways to get treats.
SPENCER: Well, to be fair, he hasn't caught any mice. So switching topics a little bit, but not too far afield. Can you tell us about how you became really interested in trying to improve the lives of chickens? And then the work you're doing now at your organization, Legal Impact for Chickens?
ALENE: Yes. So how I got interested in improving the lives of chickens, it does relate back to what I was mentioning earlier about my bird. Like I said, my parents bought a bird for me, Conrad, when he was a baby and I was 11. And he was a cockatiel. And I got really close to him. And I had him for 22 years. He actually died this year, which is one of the worst things that's ever happened to me, and in getting close to him, I would see that he very visibly got scared of things, felt pain, got excited, felt pleasure. You could witness, for example, if he saw a large object, his eyes would widen, and he would go in the other direction away from it. And so he seemed obviously afraid. Or if he got hurt, he would become very still, not active, and just want to hold up—like, if it was one of his feet that was hurt, he would want to hold it up and not move it, and kind of close his eyes. And he would really want to be pet more when he's hurt than when he's not hurt. So it seemed obvious that he was in pain and not feeling well, and probably also feeling anxious and wanting comfort. And then if you gave him a painkiller, he would act more normal, even though he still had the injury. Also, he hated being alone. Every time I would leave, he would scream. And when I came back, he would get so excited, like he wanted to be with me all the time. So I loved him. And I tried really hard to take good care of him. And I tried to make his life good, which was a lot of effort. Like if he was hurt, I’d have to take him to the vet, sometimes in the middle of the night. And I'd, you know, always be trying to worry about if he had enough company, and if he had toys, and if his area was clean, and things like that. And then when I was a freshman in college, I got an email that was sent to my whole dorm building that said, “Did you know that Harvard is using eggs from birds who spent their whole lives in cages so small that they can't even spread their wings?” And I was so upset about that because I love Conrad so much, and I spend so much time worrying about him and trying to make him happy. The idea that somebody would put a bird in a cage so small that they couldn't even spread their wings for their whole lives was, like, that is obviously wrong and terrible. And I'm like, pulling my hair out trying to make his life better. And then they're just intentionally doing this to animals, like, what is going on? And so when I got the email, it said, “If you're against this, you should come to a meeting,” and it gave a location at a time. And I knew they sent it around to the whole freshman class, which is a lot of people. So I expected there was going to be a giant rally of 100 people that are furious about animal abuse. But when I got to the meeting, it was just five people. And I was really confused. Like, where is everybody? Did they get the same email I got? And so that's when I learned that, unfortunately, I guess as an EA would put it, animal cruelty is a very neglected issue. Basically, I just learned the public doesn't really take animal abuse seriously, they don't come out. I assume if the email had been saying Harvard has children in cages and they can't move, that the whole student body would be up in arms. It felt like people clearly are writing this off. Maybe because it's birds, or maybe because it’s animals.
SPENCER: Well, imagine it was dogs, right? Like, they're being kept in tiny cages their whole lives in the laboratory on campus, I imagine that would probably draw a bigger crowd as well.
ALENE: I'm hoping—I mean—well, I don't know if I should say I'm hoping. I think it would. But even with dogs, I mean, people do abuse dogs in labs, so I don't know. But yeah, hopefully, more people would come out, but I don't know. I think that probably chickens would draw the smallest crowd and dogs bigger and then humans, the biggest crowd. But yeah, that's a great question about the dog. Dog abuse is definitely much less neglected than chicken abuse. There's definitely more focus on it, but still not enough, especially when it comes to labs. I think you pointed out the one area in which dogs are the most badly treated because I think if it was someone's pet dog, people would react more strongly than a dog in a lab, maybe. I mean, what do you think?
SPENCER: Oh, I mean, I think that people care way more about abuse to dogs. I think a lot of people view dogs as like part of their family. And they can do that empathy thing to think about other dogs. I mean, there's some cultures that eat dogs, right? There's some provinces in China where you can—I guess there's sort of traditional beliefs around eating dog meat in the winter or something like this. I might be saying that wrong. But it's just not considered a big deal.
ALENE: Yeah, I think China would be different from the U.S. in its treatment of dogs. And I think maybe China started to change a little bit where there's more people there thinking of dogs as pets. But in the U.S., people are pretty kind to dogs, but it still really stinks how they treat dogs that are used in labs, or for the Iditarod. They're still dogs that somehow get categorized as not pets. Right now, there's actually been some news headlines you might have seen about how our federal government commissioned really cruel tests on dogs. So that is an issue right now that's being talked about. And I don't know if it'll still be being talked about when this podcast comes out. But I would encourage listeners to learn about what is happening to dogs that our federal government is involved in and speak up, no matter where you stand politically because this is one of those issues where it really should be horrible—it should be horrifying to people no matter what their political views are. But unfortunately, sometimes it feels like once one party speaks up about an issue, then the other party is afraid to. But yeah, I think no matter what party you're in, there's been accusations against the Biden administration for doing horrible things to dogs in labs, and I hope that the public will do something about it.
SPENCER: So do you want to tell us how you got from there (your experience in college) to where you are now with Legal Impact for Chickens?
ALENE: Yeah. So once I went to that meeting in college, I started being involved in farm animal activism from there. It was just like one thing led to another, I slowly realized the problem was way bigger than I thought. The email had said it was Harvard doing this and it turned out it was the whole egg industry doing it. And they actually made it sound less bad in the email because they didn't want to overwhelm us. So some listeners may or may not know the egg industry has still—most eggs are produced from birds kept in battery cages their whole lives, although some companies are starting to change. And I'm really hoping that that will be a more widespread change and that eventually, battery cages can be a thing of the past. But I got more and more involved in animal activism. I ended up working at PETA after college, and then went to law school, and after clerking I worked at the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Good Food Institute. And this year, both of my birds, Conrad and Zeke, who's another bird that I adopted later, they both died. They both died from…basically from cancer and from attempts to treat the cancer that was terminal. So that was the worst thing that's ever happened to me, is the two birds dying. And it really shook me and made me want to kind of change my life because I felt like I'm already trying to fight for animals by suing companies that abuse animals at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. But I've always dreamed of starting my own nonprofit to focus on what I think is the number one priority, which is the use of animals in agriculture, particularly chickens. And I had also fantasized about taking a more effective altruist approach to litigation because there's a lot of effective altruists and there's a lot of litigators and a growing number of animal protection litigators. But there aren't that many animal protection litigators using an effective altruist lens to think about how can we do the greatest good for the greatest number of animals with our lawsuits, and using things like expected value to calculate what lawsuit you should bring. So I felt like that was what I really wanted to be doing. And with the birds dying, I felt like I have nothing to lose. Like, I've already lost the things that were most important to me in the world, I might as well just go for my dream. And if it doesn't work out, who cares, really? Like, at this point, I felt kind of like…I guess I was ready to take a risk because it felt like the reality was so bad that I wasn't afraid anymore of failing.
SPENCER: It seems to me that the amount that you care about animals is way beyond (I think) what many people will have experienced. Like, your birds were as much people as other people are to each other in some sense. I mean, that just really comes through when you talk about them. Do you want to just comment on that for a second?
ALENE: Yeah, that's definitely true. Like, I'm trying not to cry right now. Yeah, Conrad and Zeke were my life. They were what I thought about all the time…I would be…when I worked at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, I was really lucky because they would actually let me bring the birds to work with me sometimes. But when I was away from them, I would just be thinking about them. And when I was around them, if they were happy, I felt so happy. Like, being in the room with the birds when they're in a good mood and everything's fine was the best feeling in the world. And if they were unhappy, I was focused on trying to fix it. Like, that's all I wanted was to get them to be happy again.
SPENCER: Is that something you have for everyone that you get close to? Is that just—like you have a really ramped-up empathy?
ALENE: No, I definitely was closer to them than I've (I think) been to anyone else. Like, I do love people. I'm very extroverted. I love people. I love my family and my friends and my boyfriend. But the birds were definitely the center of my life in a way that no other person has ever been.
SPENCER: See, I think people will find that really surprising. And I think…okay, I'm trying to simulate what the audience might think about this. You know, maybe what people would say is something like, "Well, but can you really connect with a bird in the way you can connect with a human?" You know, with a human, you share all these things in common. And also you can talk to them. And you can form this relationship through your words that is so much deeper than what you could ever have with a bird. And people can relate to the experience of loving a dog, but I think they would still say it's not the same as loving a human. So what's your response to that?
ALENE: So, well one interesting thing is (I'm like—you can’t—I don't think you can hear it in my voice, but there's like, my face is covered in tears right now, so just so that you know what emotion I'm feeling, even if I don't know if it comes through in my voice). I agree with you it’s different. Like, you can talk to them in the way that you whistle to them, and then they whistle back, or you can tap on something and make a pattern sound, and they'll tap back the same sound.
SPENCER: Do you learn to communicate that way? I mean, is there…you can interpret that?
ALENE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely, you definitely learn to interpret what they're saying. And I think that there's much less content to what they say than what people say, or at a minimum, there's much less content that gets across to me. But you get big-picture things. Like, they can say hello—they don't literally, I mean, other birds can say words, my birds never said the word hello—but they kind of like, in a way when you walk in the room, and you kind of know, “Oh, they're saying hi to me.” And every now and then they'll just randomly chirp, and they want you to chirp back. And if one bird—once we had two birds, it was interesting because one will chirp and then the other one will chirp back. And like I was saying they have such fast instinct. They chirp back before I've even processed that there was a chirp. It used to be whenever Conrad would chirp, I would try to whistle back to him so he knew I was there with him. But then when we got Zeke, Conrad would whistle and Zeke would whistle back immediately before I even processed that Conrad had whistled and I was like, “Damn, Zeke, you beat me to it.” But I think when they do that, I interpret it as I'm just saying, “Hey, I'm here, and I just want to know if you're still here.” Just kind of like…I never understand them to be saying a complex sentence like the kind of sentences were saying to each other. Maybe they are, and they can understand that, but I'm pretty sure they're probably not saying something that specific and complicated. But it's more that they convey basic things like, “I'm here, I'm scared,” or like, if they're scared, they might shriek. If they're upset because you leave, they might caw over and over and over again, kind of repetitively. So yes, you can learn to interpret what they're saying. It's never with the same fidelity that you learn to interpret another person speaking, like another human speaking a language, but you can learn to understand the basic feelings they're having. The only time that they had a word for something was water. Like, when I used to just have Conrad when I was little, he would do this thing, where if he saw water, and he was thirsty, he would go, “fft, fft, fft, fft, fft, fft, fft, fft, fft,” and then I would give him the water and he would drink it. And so I learned “fft, fft, fft, fft, fft, fft, fft” means water, I guess? I think he, like, invented that word. But then I mean, that's not how I say water. But then, when we adopted Zeke, Zeke would do this thing, where after he drank water, he would go, “(high-pitched squeak)”, kind of announcing to the world that he just drank water. And then Conrad started doing the same thing too. So when Conrad would drink water Conrad would also go, “(high-pitched squeak)”. So it felt like they actually had a word for water. But other than that, I don't think they had words for things. I think it was more like they were conveying an emotion sort of, or letting you know they're there and checking in kind of thing.
SPENCER: So do you want to comment on the bond without having the complex language? Because I suspect that's where you'll lose a lot of people. They'll be like, “Yeah, but like…okay, you could communicate basic things, but without complex language, can you really have that level of deep bond?”
ALENE: Yeah, so I think that it might—I'm just guessing—I've never had a child, a human child, or I've never had any child of any species, really—but I think it might be similar to how a person feels when they have a baby because I know that people really bond with their babies, and they get really close to their baby. And if you can't be with your baby anymore, for some reason, it's a horrible, devastating thing. And I know that when someone's baby dies, that's probably the worst thing that could happen to them. But babies can't communicate as well as an adult. They can't say a whole sentence. They can just maybe cry or not cry. Maybe they can smile, but some of them can't even smile. So I think it might be a similar thing, that I've never had that kind of close bond with a baby. I have had babies in my family and I loved them. They weren't like my child, though. They were my nieces and nephews. But I did feel a bond with them. And I think if they had been my child, and I had seen them every single day, I would have felt really, really close with them even though they couldn't carry on a whole conversation with me.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think the example of a child is a really good one because I think that helps people see where you're coming from.
ALENE: Yeah, another thing about the child analogy is (and I've been thinking about this a lot ever since my birds died) that you care for them. And I think that makes you feel more close to somebody. If you take care of somebody, I think it makes you feel closer to them. And I think that if somebody who you were caring for dies, I think it can be more devastating because you still have this urge inside you to take care of them, and you can't take care of them anymore. So I guess it's a different kind of bond. It's not like a bond where I call them up when I'm sad and they cheer me up like I have with my human friends. It's like a bond where I am the caregiver.
SPENCER: Right, I can totally understand that. Could you walk us through the mechanics of how you're trying to improve the lives of chickens through lawsuits? Like what does that actually look like? How do you decide what lawsuits to bring, and against what kind of actions?
ALENE: Yeah, so every state in the U.S. has a criminal law against animal cruelty and neglect. And some of these laws do apply to farms. Some of them don't, or some of them, it's a gray area and people argue about whether they apply, but there are some that do apply to farms. And despite this, factory farms just very frequently violate these laws, and there's no repercussions. Like, it's very, very, very rare, kind of unheard of, for a police officer to investigate a factory farm to see if it's abusing animals in violation of the criminal anti-cruelty or anti-neglect laws. It's very, very, very rare for a prosecutor to prosecute anyone for animal cruelty on a factory farm or in a slaughterhouse. And even when there is involvement by the police or prosecutors, in my experience, it's almost always because an animal protection group put in a huge amount of legwork on the front end and begged the government to get involved. So animal groups will like, do undercover investigations, and then turn over all the footage of cruelty to the police and then say, “Please investigate.” And then if the police don't respond, they'll send it to the prosecutor and say, “Please prosecute,” and occasionally something happens. But even when something happens, it's usually against individual workers. So the prosecutor, in the rare cases where they prosecute, will prosecute a low-level worker on a factory farm, which doesn't really help as much from an Effective Altruism perspective where the real suffering is that there's 10 billion animals killed for food every year in the U.S. that are spending their lives on factory farms and the way their lives are controlled by giant corporations. So what one particular worker does, even if you get rid of a worker, can only change a very small amount of animals’ lives. It can't affect the big picture of the millions of animals that could be owned by a particular company. And so I think what we need to focus on is civil litigation. So basically, civil litigation is like when you sue somebody in court, and a private individual can do it. You don't need the government, and you're not trying to send anyone to prison, you're just trying to say, this person did something wrong, I want a court to say that what they did was wrong. And I want them to either have to pay money or to have an order saying they have to change their behavior.
SPENCER: This is a dumb question, but do they have to do a wrong that affects you? Or can you bring a suit just for them doing a wrong that has nothing to do with yourself?
ALENE: That is so not a dumb question. That's a topic that lawyers and judges spend so long talking about. So the answer is it has to affect the plaintiff in some way. So if you're the one suing it has to affect you. The way that I'm talking about this is a little confusing because I'm a lawyer, so I can be representing a client. And the harm does not need to affect me personally, but it needs to affect my client. So you need some way, like what you're talking about is one of the big issues (probably the big issue) in animal law, is looking for a client who courts recognize who was harmed by the mistreatment of animals. And generally, courts don't…courts haven't usually recognized animals as being allowed to sue on their own. There are…that is something that a lot of lawyers are trying to change. And there are little hints of maybe that being something that could one day change. But Legal Impact for Chickens has a much more pragmatic approach where we are not trying to say that animals should be able to sue, we're just looking for situations in which animal cruelty harmed a person, or a corporation, or somebody who courts do recognize has the rights to sue because courts recognize people, including children, and corporations, and partnerships, and I think even ships can sue.
SPENCER: So what would a good example be? Like, a kind of case that you would want to take on? And it could be a fictitious one if that's better than using a real one.
ALENE: So I want to illustrate with a case that was brought that's really exciting about Cricket Hollow Zoo. And it came from an idea that I think was originally dreamed up by one of my role models, a lawyer named Delcianna Winders back when she was an intern, I think, and the case was pursued by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, they've been really successful. While the case doesn't involve factory farms, I think it's an illustration of the general concept of using civil litigation to hold people accountable for animal cruelty. So they found this roadside zoo in Iowa that was abusing and neglecting animals. It was called Cricket Hollow Zoo, and, for whatever reason, the government wasn't doing anything about the animal cruelty. So there's this concept called nuisance where if your neighbor is doing something that's like, gross, dirty, annoying, smelly, or harmful in some way, you can sue your neighbor and make them stop. And in some cases, you can even sue somebody who's not your neighbor for doing something that is annoying or harmful in some way. And in certain states, including Iowa, there is a doctrine that anything illegal is automatically a nuisance. So for example, if your neighbor was running a hair salon out of their house, and customers were coming in and out, and it annoyed you, it might be hard to prove that that's a nuisance. But if they're running a cocaine dealing operation out of their house, and customers are coming in and out, and it's annoying you it will be very easy to prove that it's a nuisance because you could just say it's illegal to sell cocaine. So, therefore, it's a nuisance. I don't need to talk about how many customers there are, what hours they come or how loud they are. It's just automatically a nuisance because you can't sell cocaine. So there's a doctrine like that in some states, including Iowa. And so many years ago, I believe it was Delci Winders, I hope I'm not giving credit to the wrong person, but I think it was her. She had this idea of what if we were to use that to help animals, like, say that animal cruelty is annoying people and it's a nuisance. And so eventually, Cricket Hollow Zoo became the test case for this idea. And the Animal Legal Defense Fund was successfully able to sue Cricket Hollow Zoo on behalf of these plaintiffs that were these two women that live nearby that hated knowing animals were being abused, they hated seeing them being abused, they hated that they couldn't see them being happy. And so they sued saying, “This is a nuisance because it's illegal,” and they actually won. And they got an injunction saying that this roadside zoo had to give up all its animals. So that was a really exciting, groundbreaking case. And it just kind of illustrates that if you get creative, you can find these ways where there's some doctrine saying illegal things let you sue, and then you can sue in civil court for violation of a criminal anti-cruelty law. And that's just one example to illustrate. There are other doctrines that have been used, and there are other doctrines that have been discussed but haven't been used. And I also think that it's a really good use of lawyers’ time to scour different legal doctrines looking for additional things that fit this category of something that lets you sue for a criminal violation.
SPENCER: So is the basic analysis that you're looking across all these different potential cases, and asking the question, “For a given amount of time, money, effort, how many animals can we positively affect the lives of?
ALENE: Yeah, basically that, and the other big factor is the likelihood of winning. So basically, when you bring a case, unfortunately, animal lawyers often lose their cases. And sometimes they bring cases that everyone knows they're gonna lose, that they have a very small chance of winning. And sometimes they bring a case that they're definitely going to win. And sometimes they bring a case that’s like 50/50. And so my thinking is that we need to be doing a little bit of a simple math problem, where we figure out…we estimate, how likely do we think we are to win this case? Is this one of these cases that’s a shot in the dark? Is this a case that's a slam dunk? Is it a 50/50? Like, what is the chance we think we have of winning? And then we multiply that by (if we were to win) how many animals' lives could we improve? And then from that figure out whether it's a good case. So, if you have a case that is trying to help a single animal, and you have a 5% chance of winning it, in my mind, that's not a good case. No matter what it costs, 5% multiplied by one animal is a very small number. But if you have a case that could help 100 million animals and you think you have a 20% chance of winning it, then you do 20% times 100 million, and you get 20 million, which is still a huge number. So even if you think, “Okay, our likelihood of winning is lower than half,” you can still kind of think about how many animals you could help by winning, and then you should look into what you think it will cost.
SPENCER: I imagine there are also second-order effects, right? Like if you can prove out that a certain kind of case works, others could take the mantle and apply the same methodology. Is that right?
ALENE: Yeah, that's definitely true. And I guess that's one thing that I honestly want to say in favor of animal lawyers that especially I think a lot of animal lawyers, they don’t talk in terms of expected value, and they don't call themselves effective altruists, or rationalists, or anything like that. But I think they often are actually thinking in a way that is in line with what you just said, where they're trying to make case law that will later help many, many more animals. So I do think that even a lot of cases that don't seem like they're about—that they don't seem like they have a high expected value, sometimes they actually do if you think about what the precedent is that they could create. But Legal Impact for Chickens is interested in focusing more on things that have a more immediate potential benefit. So, we want to bring cases where, if we won, we could improve a lot of lives from winning that case, not just cases where we would make precedent to one day improve lives, although that also is another thing that we hope we can do.
SPENCER: So I think I understand the strategy to some extent now, but I'm interested, of all the things you could be doing to try to improve the lives of animals, why target this? What makes you think this is a really high-impact opportunity?
ALENE: Yeah, so the first thing is that there are about 9 billion chickens killed for food in the U.S. every year. So that's the vast majority of farmed animals. And they have really bad lives. There's the meat industry and the egg industry, and they're both really horrible. The bird meat industry involves birds often being bred to be so big that their bones break under their own weight, and then being killed when they're still very young. Egg industry involves, basically, for every hen that is put into the egg industry to lay eggs, there is about one male bird who is killed because he can't lay eggs. I don't know if the number is exactly one-to-one because there might have been some breeding to try to slightly change the ratio, but I think it's still close, unfortunately, to one-to-one. That's hopefully something that eventually egg producers will work on trying to not have so many males to kill, since it's not good for business, and it's not good for animals. But currently, that's what happens in the U.S.. And then the females are still usually kept in these tiny battery cages that I was talking about earlier in the egg industry where they can't spread their wings for their whole lives. So there is a huge, huge, huge amount of suffering on U.S. factory farms. There's also a lot of suffering in other countries, but as a lawyer, it's easiest for me to work on U.S.-related things. And so I want to use my litigation skills to try to decrease the suffering on U.S. factory farms. And I also think this is a neglected issue because of the thing I was talking about earlier where there's a very small number of animal lawyers and the ones that are usually they're often focused more on environmental issues or helping wild animals or helping pets. And there are some that are focused on helping farmed animals, but it's a very small group of people, so I think it's a really important thing. That said, I think there’s a lot of really important things to do to help farmed animals. Like, corporate campaigns (I think) are really impactful, and passing new laws (I think) are really impactful. And the way that I chose Legal Impact for Chickens specifically was just based on my own skill set that I'm a litigator, I love litigating, I think I'm relatively good at it, at least for my age. And I want to make a place where people who love litigating and are good at litigating can use their skills to reduce as much suffering as possible. So yeah, that's Legal Impact for Chickens.
SPENCER: Are you fundraising now?
ALENE: Yes, I am fundraising. If anyone is interested in supporting us, I would be so grateful if you would reach out. My email address is email@example.com. And you can donate on our website, but also you can reach out to me and we can have a conversation, and I can tell you all the details about our budget and answer any questions you have to make sure you feel really good about the decision. So yeah, thanks for asking that Spencer.
SPENCER: Alene thank you so much for coming out. This has been really fun.
ALENE: It was really fun.
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