Empathy and Laki the Sugar Glider

We are the wildlife generation. Or at least we were.

From National Geographic heroes, like Steven Irwin, to amazing programs on the television, like Blue Planet 2, we grew up surrounded by the beauty of the wild. Whether it was an octopus darting through coral, a hippopotamus submerging underneath water, or a Nile crocodile snapping down on unsuspecting prey — there was absolutely nothing more fascinating on the television.

However, at some point along the way, we stopped watching the shows we once loved. We stopped being as fanatical in our love for nature. We focused instead on our formal education, sports, college acceptance letters, and jobs. As our generation grew up, discussions shifted away from who wanted to be a reporter for National Geographic to who wanted to work as a software engineer at Facebook.

The fact that people have different interests is a good thing. This is how our a market-based economy must function. We must acknowledge that, in our society, people are lucky enough to have the liberty to express self-determination. However, the necessity to be connected to nature and the environment is not conditional. That is, our ecosystem must shift away from being a fringe issue. All life and all things on this planet are merely derivatives of the natural world. Therefore, we must protect universal common goods by realigning our consumption in a consumer-based economy with the natural limitations of our ecosystem. Clearly, everyone is a shareholder in the success and liable for the failures when we think in the context of environmental stewardship.

The Erosion of Empathy

In a consumer-based society, it is easy to become fascinated by material goods and advancements in technology. This type of thinking is not prohibitively bad for the environment, but actually sustainable if business is conducted in an environmentally conscientious manner. Incentives must align with ecological measures of protection. Too often, this does not happen. Unchecked greed has a tendency to circumvent legislative controls and capital incentives to allow for the destruction of our habitable planet. For example, the common talking point by environmentalists is any failure of fracking.

For the very same reasons that make this world so amazing, these are the very same reasons that make this world so terrible. Perhaps the failures we witness are sparked from those of who do not practice empathy. There is a fantastic TED talk titled the “Erosion of Empathy” and the topic was presented by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen who serves as a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. As a cognitive neuroscientist, he breaks down empathy into two categories: cognitive and affective. Cognitive is the recognition of another person’s emotions and the ability to place oneself in another person’s shoes. Affective empathy, Baron-Cohen argues, is the ability to be affected by the recognized emotional experience another human being is experiencing. Or, in other words, it is the necessary factor in explaining human cruelty towards anything.

“Empathy is our most valuable natural resource for conflict resolution.” —Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen

In the video, Baron-Cohen acknowledges that there are three social factors that primarily affect empathy. The factors are the influence of authority, political or religious ideology, and tribalism. Tribalism, in particular, relates to both in-group and out-group relations that perpetuate propaganda for the explicit purpose of dehumanizing the opposition. Later in his talk, Baron-Cohen notes that those who are autistic and those who are psychopathic are mirror opposites. Essentially, those with autism tend to have affective, but not cognitive empathy and the converse is true for psychopaths. This understanding has a caveat, that is, people have varying shades of either or both types of empathy. To support his claims, Baron-Cohen referenced James Blair’s experiment at the Broadmoor hospital, discussed the MOA-A gene, and the impact of fetal testosterone.

How Do We Get It Back?

Naturally, if we assume Baron-Cohen is correct, the best way we can become more skilled practitioners at affective empathy is through targeting the three social factors he mentioned. As people, we have no control over the varying degree of the MOA-A gene we were predisposed to or the fetal testosterone we experienced during embryonic development. Despite the multiple ways to successfully break down social barriers, our team at Counter Current would like to feature a friend who owns a sugar glider. This example of atypical pet ownership is meant to be informative and not persuasive — this is not an analysis on the ethics behind the global wildlife trade rather insight on the marsupial.

Angela Karamanos is the proud mama of a semi-famous, female, sugar glider named Skatoulaki or, Laki, for short. For those who are not versed in Greek, we suggest you ‘Google it’. Angela, better known as Ang, is a 2018 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and played Division 1 Women’s soccer. Following graduation, she became a combat systems officer in the military and considers herself “wild, adventurous, and energetic.”

Q: “What do most people think when you tell/show them Laki?” —Ryan

A: “They say “only you would have a flying squirrel” and then proceed to ask me if she flies. After a minute or 2 they think she’s so cool because she’ll just hang out and jump between people like a little ninja. Then she’ll curl up and they all think she’s so cute.” —Angela

laki.jpeg

While living in Florida, she decided to purchase a sugar glider because they seemed like a lot of fun. According to her, “[they’re] tiny so you can take them anywhere without people knowing and they’re easy to take care of.” For her, compared to a dog or a cat, Laki is a way better fit. During the bonding process, she noticed how skittish sugar gliders can be, so it was awesome when she would “walk up to her cage and [Laki] would realize it’s me” as she “crawls right up my arm into my pocket.” From the description, it’s hard to imagine anything so cute.

However, sugar gliders are nocturnal creatures. In particular, it can be challenging to hear Laki barking at 4:30 AM because she wants to play, but it’s totally worth it because Laki is super loyal. Despite the patience required at the beginning, once Laki became familiar with Angela the nibbling or "crabbing” stopped. She recalled in the interview that there was this “one time I fell asleep with [Laki] in my pocket and when I woke up she wasn’t in my pocket anymore. I had no idea where she went and then I found her in my closet going crazy climbing up and through all my clothes!” Marsupials will climb on anything — or at the very least, try. Angela also mentioned another time she was lying down and Laki pounced right into her face with absolutely no regret. Without a doubt “it was pretty funny.”

An average day with Laki is built around routines. Angela loves to hang out with Laki and tries to as much as possible. In the morning, Laki is let out of her cage and fits snugly into Angela’s pocket. Later in the day, when Angela revisits the cage, she places Laki in to get some uninterrupted sleep. Around 8 or 9 PM, Angela will cut Laki some fresh fruits and veggies, so Laki can eat when she wakes up around 10 PM. From 10 to 11 or 12 PM, there is a strictly enforced playtime before Angela goes to bed. However, every day is different because Laki can be carried anywhere with Angela! Oh, and let’s not forget, that owning a pet has been show, scientifically, to make a person more empathetic.

Parting Thoughts

A huge thanks to Angela Karamanos for the interview! She was such a help and we wish her and Laki all the best. Stay tuned for an article about Laki, Zoboomafoo, and other marsupials that have made a splash in the lives of so many.

Disclaimer: This article is not a critique or an endorsement of the global wildlife trade for exotic animals. To our readers, expect a follow up article to discuss the potential benefits and negative implications of the global wildlife trade.