ASU researcher on rules to guide human interaction with animals

December 8, 2022

Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day. By design, it is also International Animal Rights Day.

Animal welfare is a lifelong concern for Megha Budruk, an Arizona State University natural resource social scientist who studies human relationships with nature. Three adult elephants in a natural habitat. Photo courtesy Pixabay Download Full Image

The associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development said she is interested in what unwritten rules exist when humans interact with nature, and what guidelines people should follow to make sure animals are not adversely affected by that interaction.

“How do perceptions of these rules vary by level of experience, region or socio-demographics such as income, education and gender? These are the kinds of questions that I am interested in,” said Budruk, who is also associate dean for faculty affairs at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

According to the National Today website, on Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many organizations and individuals worldwide began advocating for the declaration to apply to animals, National Today said. Exactly 50 years later, on Dec. 10, 1998, an animal rights organization known as Uncaged launched International Animal Rights Day on the premise that humans must “protest, vote or advocate” for animal protection, as animals themselves are unable to do so, according to National Today.

Read on to learn more about Budruk’s background and perspective on her research as the world marks International Animal Rights Day on Saturday.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: How did you become interested in this topic?

Answer: I have always been interested in animals and nature. I grew up in West Africa with a neighbor that had a menagerie of animals in their backyard. I could look out of my bedroom window and watch lion cubs playing in their enclosure or the peacock dancing away in the garden. Occasionally, our neighbor would have an African python tucked up against the wall in her living room. These early and up-close experiences with animals, along with an upbringing that valued nature for its own sake, taught me to view animals as sentient beings. People like Joy Adamson and Dian Fossey, who dedicated their lives to animals, have always inspired me. A few years ago, I was back in Africa on an ASU project and was touring a national park when I struck up a conversation with a pair of wildlife photographers from India who led wildlife photography tours to East Africa. They were nature photographers, but they were smoking in a national park! That conversation made me aware that wildlife photography is growing in popularity in India, and got me interested in what guides people’s behavior in nature during non-extractive activities like photography.

Q: Please share one of your most interesting findings.

A: I am still in the midst of data collection; however, in the process of background research on my study and in talking with wildlife photographers, I was surprised to learn that India has one of the world’s largest number of wildlife photographers (both amateur and professional) with the result that both Nikon and Canon are holding numerous wildlife photography competitions and heavily marketing their products in India.

So while wildlife photography as a hobby and profession is booming in India, there are very few guidelines regarding appropriate behavior when photographing animals. Oftentimes (and not just in India), nests are destroyed, babies and young are disturbed, or sensitive habitats are trampled on in the quest for that perfect photograph.

As I study human relationships with nature, I know the importance of having people experience nature firsthand if we are to get people to care for nature. Yet, on the flip side, human experiences with nature need to happen in a way that humans view animals, and by extension nature, as having rights. This is especially important since animals (nature) do not have a voice.

Q: What impact has International Animal Rights Day had on animal cruelty since the day was established in 1998?

Megha Budruk, associate professor, associate dean, School of Community Resources and Development, Watts College

Megha Budruk, associate dean, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and associate professor, ASU School of Community Resources and Development

A: Most certainly, the establishment of the day has resulted in a greater awareness and discussion that rights historically considered to be “human rights” might well be extended to animals; for example, the right to be treated with dignity and without unnecessary pain and suffering. This has also led to debates on what exactly those rights are and how they affect humans. These debates have implications for many aspects of our lives, including our food, entertainment, medicine and clothing.

Q: What are some actions people can take to advocate for animals/make the world a better place for animals?

A: There is a lot that we can do at an individual level. In the realm of nature-based tourism experiences, I would highly encourage individuals to research wildlife viewing opportunities to ensure that any interactions with animals are not placing the animals in harm’s way.

For instance, elephant rides, although popular among tourists in Asian countries, often occur at the expense of the well-being of the elephants. Instead, up-close encounters with elephants can be had by volunteering at an elephant preserve. Doing so provides an opportunity to contribute to animal welfare rather than being part of the problem.

Similarly, buying animal products that have been certified as not harming an animal ensures that one is part of the solution. Refusing to buy animal products such as ivory or rhino horn (which has more than likely resulted in the death of an animal) is another way that one can advocate for animals. When photographing animals, or experiencing them in nature, doing so in a way that animals and their habitat are not adversely impacted will help tremendously.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


Hubble detects faint 'ghost light' around our solar system with SKYSURF

ASU researchers join international team to analyze residual background glow in our solar system

December 8, 2022

For centuries, the darkness of the night sky sparkling with stars and the glow of the moon has been an inspiration and wonderment to scientists, artists, philosophers and the casual observer. Gazing up at the night sky — just how dark is it?  

The question was the subject of recent studies by a team of researchers, including Darby Kramer, Tim CarletonRosalia O'BrienDelondrae Carter and Rogier Windhorst at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, with Scott Tompkins at the University of Western Australia, Sarah Caddy at Macquarie University in Australia and the contribution of many other researchers. Artist illustration showing the location and size of a hypothetical cloud of dust surrounding our solar system. This artist's illustration shows the location and size of a hypothetical cloud of dust surrounding our solar system. Astronomers searched through 200,000 images and made tens of thousands of measurements from Hubble Space Telescope to discover a residual background glow in the sky. Because the glow is so smoothly distributed, the likely source is innumerable comets — free-flying dusty snowballs of ice. They fall in toward the sun from all different directions, spewing out an exhaust of dust as the ices sublimate due to heat from the sun. If real, this would be a newly discovered architectural element of the solar system. Photo courtesy NASA, ESA, Andi James (STScI) Download Full Image

The team's trio of research papers have recently been published in The Astronomical Journal and The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

To find out, astronomers decided to sort through more than 200,000 images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and made tens of thousands of measurements on these images to look for any residual background glow in the sky in an ambitious project called SKYSURF. This would be any leftover light after subtracting the glow from planets, stars, galaxies and from dust in the plane of our solar system, called zodiacal light.

When researchers completed this inventory, they found an exceedingly tiny excess of light, equivalent to the steady glow of 10 fireflies spread across the entire sky. That's like turning out all the lights in a shuttered room and still finding an eerie glow coming from the walls, ceiling and floor.

This faint glow — referred to as a “ghost light” — was detected in the SKYSURF analysis, and its source is still uncertain. The researchers say that one possible explanation for this residual glow is that our inner solar system contains a tenuous sphere of dust from comets that are falling into the solar system from all directions, and that the glow is sunlight reflecting off this dust. If real, this dust shell could be a new addition to the known architecture of the solar system.

Kramer, a lead author on one investigation and PhD student studying astrophysics, specifically looked at NASA's Hubble Space Telescope Ultra Deep Field image to see if the team could quantify how galaxies — faint galaxies specifically — could be hiding in that image.

To achieve this, Kramer and her team received the black-and-white deep space images and were able to manipulate the archived layers (the beautiful images the public sees) together to simulate how real galaxies block each other’s light in the real universe. But this requires writing code to handle the images and data; and it can take up to two weeks to get a well-processed image from Hubble. While writing code, Kramer finds it satisfying to overcome the challenge of finding the bug that prevented something from not working.  

"It's very relevant to extragalactic background light studies, which is what SKYSURF is focused on. There's a claim that there could be a significant amount of missing faint galaxies that could be causing this discrepancy that we have in the Extragalactic Background Light (EBL) measurements," Kramer said. "I dug into this investigation for my recent paper."

In these studies, the team used a "stacking process" — stacking images on top of each other to better understand what the data is they are looking at — to quantify how many galaxies could be hiding in these deep images. 

Carleton, an ASU postdoctoral researcher and a lead author on the papers, and his team analyzed hundreds of thousands of archival images. This team is unique, in that they are interested in something other than the bright, exciting objects in the Hubble image that everyone would expect.

Carleton is more interested in the background aspect of the image, taken out in one of those calibration steps. But because Hubble is above the Earth's atmosphere, that background level can reveal many interesting things; it's a valuable measurement because it constrains those models that help us understand of how bright that background should be.

"This has yet to be tested with this wide variety of data we have. There are a few measurements that look at this background level, but this SKYSURF project uses such an enormous amount of data that are all archived, but no one thought to look at," Carleton said. 

Video by Stephen Filmer/ASU Media Relations

Working with Carleton and Windhorst on the Hubble SKYSURF Project, co-author O'Brien, a third-year PhD candidate at ASU, studied images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, which contains lots of galaxies, lots of stars and maybe even some dust clouds. She says they are looking past or ignoring all those discrete objects that astronomers usually study. Instead, they are studying what we call the sky's surface brightness.  

"When we look up at the night sky, we can learn a lot about the Earth's atmosphere. Hubble is in space," O'Brien said. "When we look at that night sky, we can learn much about what is happening within our galaxy, our solar system and on big scales as the whole universe."

Hubble veteran astronomer Windhorst first got the idea to assemble Hubble data to look for any "ghost light." 

"More than 95% of the photons in the images from Hubble's archive come from distances less than 3 billion miles from Earth. Since Hubble's very early days, most Hubble users have discarded these sky-photons, as they are interested in the faint discrete objects in Hubble's images, such as stars and galaxies," Windhorst said. "But these sky-photons contain important information which can be extracted thanks to Hubble's unique ability to measure faint brightness levels to high precision over its three decades of a lifetime."

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore conducts Hubble and Webb science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Written by Ray Villard of the Space Telescope Science Institute with contributions by Kim Baptista of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Media Relations and Marketing Manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration