Maiglin MacLeod

January-June 2015
University University of Groningen
Project at the WSC Cooperative string pulling in dogs and wolves
With us since January 1 2015
Favourite wolf book White Fang
Favourite animal at the WSC All of them
Companion My dachshund, Dion the Wonder Puppy

Growing up amidst the beautiful woods, lakes, mountains, and rocky coasts of Maine (USA), I’ve always had a deep appreciation for natural beauty and animal life in particular. It wasn’t until the end of my undergraduate degrees in psychology and philosophy that I realized what was too obvious to notice before: I need to improve the lives of animals. Since then I’ve devoted many joyful hours to animal care, cultivating experience, and studying animal behavior. Among other things, I’ve helped rehabilitate seals and sea turtles, studied operant conditioning in African elephants and white rhinos, and participated in all aspects of caring for wolves, dogs, and hybrids back home.

I’m now in the final stretch of a Master’s degree in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience research at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. While neuroscience and animal welfare are often at odds, I hope to use my scientific training to further animal welfare and conservation efforts.

When trying to nail down a research project to fulfill my Master’s program, I was disappointed to hear the WSC had already initiated a “loose string task” study. This is the best established paradigm for the study of cooperation in animals. Though a bit off course from my cause, it was exactly the project I’d hoped to carry out. The more we learn about the softer, prosocial side of animals, the more humans tend to care about them; and we all know wolves could benefit from a better, more truthful reputation. As luck would have it, the girl who initiated the study was moving on and I was asked to take over. I was elated!

So what is this loose string task exactly? Subjects have to simultaneously pull both ends of a rope in order to gain access to a food reward. The rope is threaded through an apparatus that holds the food out of reach of the subjects. When subjects pull together, the apparatus moves closer, and the food can be reached. When only one end is pulled, the rope comes unthreaded from the apparatus, and the reward is no longer attainable. Brilliant, isn’t it? The animals must be tolerant enough to allow each other access to the apparatus that holds the precious food and attentive enough to only really pull when their partner pulls. In its basic form, it can be debated whether this set up actually demonstrates cooperation. Are the partners paying attention to each other or just pulling coincidentally? Once you start playing around with the set up—adding delays, another apparatus—then you really get to see the interesting stuff. Or do you? I’d say more, but I can’t just yet…

It’s fascinating to watch the animals test, and I feel very fortunate to participate in this project. Amongst other things, I’ve learned a few very important lessons:

1)     Daily and seasonal rhythms do not bend to your will. Come breeding season, throw your timetable out the window.

2)     A wolf-proof apparatus is something dreams are made of. In reality, you best keep on your toes and your reflexes in quick, working order.

3)     Cooperation tests require cooperation from humans. And lots and lots of chocolate.