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Good Reads: ugly oil harvests; dueling environmentalists; and morality in animals

This week's long-form good reads look at 'out of sight, out of mind' environmental costs of energy extraction, animals' 'moral' behavior, and the hard work of a luxury repo man.

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Kindness found in creatures
Animal lovers have no trouble attributing acts of kindness, selflessness, or compassion to nonhumans. But scientists and philosophers have been skeptical, worrying that these attitudes are one example of “anthropomorphism,” attributing human characteristics to animals or inanimate things.

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In an essay titled “The kindness of beasts” in Aeon, a digital magazine of ideas and culture, Mark Rowlands, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami says, “A growing number of animal scientists, however, are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally.”

Among the cases he cites is that of Binti Jua, a gorilla who lived at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. In 1996 she “came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five meters [15 feet] onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.”

Even lab rats won’t push a lever that delivers food to them if it causes a painful electrical shock to other rats, Mr. Rowlands says.
“When a chimpanzee gives what appears to be a consoling hug to its fellow ... then, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the working hypothesis should be that the chimpanzee is motivated by the same sorts of emotions as a human would be in the same sort of situation,” he says.

We can relieve you of that
Ken Cage had quickly grown tired of being an ordinary “repo man,” taking back cars and TVs from blue-collar folks hit hard by the economic downturn. So he went upscale and decided to take on deadbeat rich folks who had made a killing in finance and real estate but could no longer pay for their expensive toys.

“The Luxury Repo Men,” by Matthew Teague, in Bloomberg Businessweek tells how Mr. Cage and his team have taken back everything from yachts to a $20 million personal jet to a racehorse from the once nouveau riche. The work can be hazardous: Cage and his crew took back a jet from a former pro football player who body-slammed Cage’s pilot when he tried to enter the cockpit.

Cage’s high-end repo company, the International Recovery & Remarketing Group, expects to recover items worth a total of $100 million in 2012. Perhaps his strangest case? Finding a missing 1953 Tri-Pacer airplane. He tracked it down to a steakhouse in Cleveland – where it was hanging from the ceiling.


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Editors' picks

Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

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