(Drawing by Minty Sainsbury)

Portugal has a serious problem with the mistreatment of dogs. All across the nation, there are dogs in cages, living in tiny, cramped conditions.

Bella and I just wrote this anonymous letter to one owner whose dog barks as if it’s crying, every time any dog passes by (it doesn’t respond to humans — it clearly has no connection to them at all — it’s clearly been ignored all of its life):


I have a question for you.

Why is your dog in prison?

I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. And I’m not very special, so not really worth knowing anyway.

What I do know is that you and I have emotions and feelings, and so does your dog.

Some people think that dogs are unintelligent, or like a machine, but they have the intelligence and emotions of a small child.

I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if I’d spent my childhood alone in a tiny cage, locked up, without friends, nor company, nor love… as if I had no soul, no life, or didn’t even exist.

As if I was nothing.

And you? Can you imagine a life like that?

If you were your dog, would you want that life?

I’m generally not one for tackling the leaves of problems when the root causes run much deeper, but sometimes, seeing such a sorry situation, it’s impossible not to try to do something.

It can be very hard to find the root causes of things, but with thought, we can track a lot of them down.

A few days ago, a friend of mine at WaterBear sent me a message about the need for creating a respected, central point of truth online, that’s beholden to no government or corrupt financing body, and is entirely non-partisan. She, like many of us, is starting to become quite terrified of the tidal wave of conspiracy theories engulfing even seemingly sane citizens and eroding the fabric of our societies.

Personally, I think that, in spite of its many faults, the Wikipedia Project is the closest thing we have to this source of truth. It’s the closest things we have on the internet to being what Tim Berners-Lee envisaged the internet would be — editable and checkable by anyone.

Of course, much of Wikipedia is written from a very white perspective, be it that it began in North America, and people are a product of their upbringing and unconscious biases. It’s also extremely difficult to agree upon absolute truths outside of the realms of maths and physical science, and even sometimes within them, be it that science is about discovery, and so is often at the fringes of it.

[It’s a big problem that science is seen by so many as being either “right” or “wrong” and that as what was previously thought to be “right” is later proven to be “wrong” people then “stop believing in science”. This is a product of our broken education system, teaching science as a tick list of “correct facts” to remember and regurgitate, rather than what it actually is: a glorious interconnected system of understanding, ideas, big questions, and an attitude of adventure, scepticism and discovery. Turning this around is of course a major reason for establishing AimHi. Anyway, I digress…]

Returning to my friend at WaterBear, she’s right that we need better access to truth online, but my view is that the reason we don’t have it is not because it isn’t there. The root cause (or one of them) is the business model of all of our social media giants.

Their models all depend entirely upon holding the attention of their users for the maximum period of time possible, to gather as much data from them as possible, and expose them to as many adverts as possible. And that is it. There’s no need for the way they hold our attention to be sophisticated, challenging, expansive. If anything, adding those elements risks making us want to detach from the social media platform and take time to think.

Almost all of us have experienced the infinite scroll of TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc., unable to escape.

It’s not that the platforms are purposefully sinister by design, and nor are the people who made them inherently evil by any means. If anything, they had a great dream; to interconnect people all over the world, and that has been a positive outcome.

But when we give relatively simple (in the grand scheme of things) algorithms complete control over what we are all shown, with the primary optimisation function being “hold attention”, it is completely inevitable that exciting but ultimately fake news, incendiary conspiracy theories, beautiful but vacuous people and endless pictures of cats and dogs will dominate.

This is why, if we want to support truth online, supporting organisations like the Center For Humane Technology is one of the most important things we can do.

Returning to dogs, Portugal has a lot of strange limitations on dogs:

  • no dogs in cafes, restaurants, shops ever, on the basis that they’re dirty/diseased — this is not a very scientific decision to have made, for various reasons.
  • no dogs in most public parks and gardens

My belief is that, as a consequence of these seemingly quite innocuous rules, dogs become much more of a burden on their owners, who are barely able to take them anywhere, and given that there are also so few public footpaths in Portugal as well, it becomes a lot more repetitive and tiresome to own a dog.

Combine this with deeply conservative, religious views that tend to compound the problem by teaching their believers that humans are distinct from and better than other animals, and you have an entire nation filled with very mistreated dogs.

It may not be the only root cause, but it could be a very simple partial solution to the problem to relax laws limiting dogs from public places, cafes etc.

One final point…

I have always believed that one of the single most important projects happening in the world at the moment is the work on translating dolphin.

Not enough scientists are working on this. Diana Reiss is, and she is brilliant, but many more of us should be working on it as if the future viability of life depends on it, because it does.

In a world that depends on a great biodiversity of species to function, the traditional idea that only one species (our species) should ever be considered in decision making isn’t going to work much longer.

Translating dolphin wouldn’t just directly relieve cruelty to dolphins — it’s my belief that it would help the human race as a whole to empathise with the other enormously intelligent living things that we share this planet with.

It was very easy for colonialists and imperialists to justify their actions by thinking of their victims as being thoughtless, emotionless and unintelligent, especially when language barriers were greater.

We can start to turn this around with other animals by starting with dolphins.

Science Storyteller, Environmentalist, Teacher, Normal Guy // MChem (Oxon) // co-founder of AimHi

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