RECOGNIZING ANIMALS’ SENTIENCE ADVANCES THEIR PROTECTION & WELFARE
By Dr. Michael W. Fox
The scientific determination of animals’ sentience–what they sense, feel and know–is a challenge calling for an interdisciplinary application of ethology and the neurosciences. It provides an objective basis for their welfare assessment and provisions by care-givers, and is the foundation of animal welfare science and associated animal protection laws.
The sentience of plants, long felt by empathic persons engaging in “forest bathing” and the shamanic practices of indigenous peoples finding healing plants, like animal sentience, has been long denied or ever considered. This is now changing.
Indigenous peoples believe that their crops are healthier and more productive when they sang or played music for them. Nobel prize winner and plant geneticist Barbara McClintock observed, “For instance … if you pinch a leaf of a plant you set off electrical impulse. You can’t touch a plant without setting off an electrical impulse … There is no question that plants have all kinds of sensitivities. They do a lot of responding to an environment. They can do almost anything you can think of.”
The Secret Life of Plants (1973), a book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird documents controversial experiments that claim to reveal unusual phenomena regarding plants such as plant sentience, discovered through experimentation. This set the stage for more research into the sensitivities and intelligence of plants which are attuned to each other and to insects and other animals in their environments. Some flowers open to make nectar more accessible in response to the sounds that bees make while hovering over them.
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard ( Random House 2022) is a landmark treatise opening up the reality of the symbiotic communication between trees and fungi, and the evident sentience of interdependent plant life. Plants use chemical and electrical signals to communicate with each other. (https://www.wired.com/2013/12/secret-language-of-plants/). For instance, plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages that act as distress signals to predatory insects that kill herbivores. Maize attacked by beet armyworms releases a cloud of volatile chemicals that attracts wasps to lay eggs in the caterpillars’ bodies.
It is a matter of recorded history that the science of animal sentience, which supported animal rights philosophy, was opposed as being unscientific and anthropomorphic. For instance, Stephen Budiansky, in his book, If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness,( 1998) came with this promotional statement: “Although Budiansky concedes that animals most likely experience emotions, he denies them consciousness, which, in his view, is inseparably linked to language, an exclusively human invention. Furthermore, Budiansky contends, animals don’t really suffer, at least not the way we do, because their sensation of pain lacks a social context. Budiansky, a science writer (The Nature of Horses) and U.S. News & World Report deputy editor, uses this debatable thesis to bash the animal rights and deep-ecology movements. Whatever one thinks of the correctness of his argument, it has value as a levelheaded critique of our tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior”.
Budiansky was not alone in politicizing and twisting science to discredit animal welfare and rights advocacy and environmental protection. But for me, the icing on the cake was his article ‘Academic roots of paranoia: The Unabomber may not be such an intellectual loner’ in the U.S. News and World Report, May 13th, 1996 in which he wrote “ a surprising number of leading academic writers on animal rights and the environment share the Unabomber’s paranoid hostility to science—The first is the Unabomber: [ FBI’s most wanted fugitive, Theodore Kaczynski] the second is Michael W. Fox, a widely published writer on animal rights and the environment.”
This was all part of a concerted effort to dismiss animals as sentient, conscious beings on the grounds of anthropomorphizing (having emotional states similar to us). Instead, it was argued, animals are unfeeling automatons governed by instinctual reflexes. This “mechanomorphizing” of other animals helped create the “great void”, as I call it. The exploiters of animals needed this to continue their activities in all good conscience and for protection from public accountability and censure. Distancing us from the environment and from other animals and severing empathy along with compassion was the ultimate aim to maintain the status quo of animal and environmental exploitation.
Around that time, I was testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee to improve conditions for veal calves being raised in narrow crates in which they could not even turn around. On defendant of the industry, animal science Prof. Stanley Curtis from the University of Illinois, when asked if veal calves need to turn around replied,” We need to do more research before we can be really sure.”
This great divide was eventually bridged by ethologists and other biological and animal welfare scientists, marked by the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Animal Consciousness. (https://drfoxonehealth.com/post/the-cambridge-declaration-on-animal-consciousness).
Well before this Declaration, and in spite of the paranoid pontifications of Budiansky et al, veterinarians had been diagnosing and treating emotional conditions in animals also seen in humans, and with similar medications as for depression and separation anxiety, a field of veterinary care I helped establish in the early 1970s.
For evidence of homologous and analogous human emotional responses in other animals including insects, crabs and lobsters, read the article ‘The question of animal emotions’ by Frans B.M .de Wall and Kristin Andrews, published in Science https://www.science.org on March 24,2022: 1351-1352.
Government Animal Welfare Acts in the U.S. and other countries to establish standards that mandate humane treatment of various species and their enforcement are at best inconsistent and need considerable revision and greater international accord. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducts annual inspections of all licensed facilities and generally oversees compliance but many animal species are excluded from protection.
Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the U.S. Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of ‘animal’ in the Animal Welfare Act, (administered by the U.S. Dept of Agriculture) specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research. Such exclusions essentially deny that these species are sentient, can experience pain and fear and can therefore suffer. This selective speciesism is biologically absurd and scientifically and ethically untenable. If fish could scream, would that make any difference since they have no protection under such laws in most countries? (Visit www.fishfeel.org). See also, Marzluff, John M. (2020) Bridging the empathy gap for invertebrates. Animal Sentience 29(22)
The British Veterinary Association Council has declared that crabs, lobsters, octopuses and squid “should be regarded in legislation as having consciousness and the capacity to experience feelings such as pleasure and pain.” (Veterinary Record,10 Dec.2020-2 Jan 2021, p. 468). Now this legislation has been passed into the law of the land: “.Octopuses, crabs and lobsters are capable of experiencing pain or suffering, according to a review commissioned by the UK government, which has added the creatures to a list of sentient beings to be given protection under new animal welfare laws. The report by experts at the London School of Economics looked at 300 scientific studies to evaluate evidence of sentience, and they concluded that cephalopods (such as octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) and decapods (such as crabs, lobsters and crayfish) should be treated as sentient beings.”https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/22/europe/uk-sentient-beings-crabs-octopus-and-lobsters-scn/index.html
The thoughtful editorial by Suzanne Jarvis (Legislating for animal welfare) and informative report by Josh Loeb ( Late change for sentience bill criticized) in the Veterinary Record Vol.190, No 7 p 259-260) lead one to conclude that the constraints that may be imposed on the committee implementing the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill will hamper its authority and effectiveness. Having this committee ‘respect…religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage’, conditionalities also adopted by the European Union’s constitutional acknowledgement that animals are sentient, will do little to change the status quo of many forms of inhumane animal exploitation regardless of societal and scientific recognition of animal sentience. Similar arguments were made in the not-so-distant past to oppose the abolition of slavery, child labour, bear-baiting and dog-fighting.
This “balancing” of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill with consideration of vested interests engaged in various forms of animal exploitation/use is indeed regrettable, economic justifications regardless. Ethical and legal constraints on our collective negative impacts on the natural environment, biodiversity and animal well-being are long overdue. Clearly, the concept of One Health will not advance significantly without a complementary One Ethic template: Specifically, the bioethical principle of equalitarianism (Michael W. Fox, Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. State University of New York Press, Albany NY 2001)..This principle extends the Golden Rule to embrace all sentient beings which Albert Schweitzer advocated in his philosophy of reverence for life. (Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life. Harper and Row New York 1969). David Anderson, a biology professor in his latest book, The Nature of the Beast: How Emotions Guide Us describes research from his lab that suggests the brain circuits underlying human emotions have a lot in common with circuits found in mice and even fruit flies.
Scientists have done many studies to determine what animals, vertebrate and invertebrate, sense and feel and think—so called cognitive ethology: And this as challenging as it is to know what another person is thinking and feeling. There are gradients of sentience, varying degrees and kinds of sensing, feeling, intelligence and self-awareness both within and between species as we know from our own interactions with people and other animals in our lives. If we had no empathy would we have any real understanding? As farmer Joe Hutto (in his PBS TV documentary My Life as a Turkey) asserts, “ We don’t have a privileged access to reality.”
The instinctual intelligence evident in the behavior of Hutton’s turkeys speaks to the inherent wisdom of every living cell, plant, animal and microorganism in the co-evolving matrix of what Prof. Gregory Bateson envisioned in his book Mind and Nature (1979). Nature’s living biofield of intelligent, sentient beings leads us to consider the documented evidence of the empathosphere, the quantum field of animal awareness, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere.
As a curious naturalist in childhood and elected Fellow of the U.K.’s Royal Entomological Society in my late teens I never doubted that insects were highly sentient and had emotional reactions. Now scientists are confirming this and elevating our understanding and appreciation for this class of animal life as documented in the excellent review posted Nov. 28th 2021 by Zaria Gorvett, who writes “ For decades, the idea that insects have feelings was considered a heretical joke – but as the evidence piles up, scientists are rapidly reconsidering.” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211126-why-insects-are-more-sensitive-than-they-seem
Zebrafish (Danio rerio) become afraid when they see other members of their species in distress. This fear mirroring is regulated by oxytocin: fish that lack the genes to produce and absorb the hormone fail to detect others’ anxiety but regain the ability when they receive an oxytocin injection. Oxytocin has the same effect in mice, and is known to affect humans’ social responses, meaning it’s likely that this empathy mechanism evolved many millions of years ago, before fish and mammals diverged on the tree of life. Reference: IBUKUN AKINRINADE et al Evolutionarily conserved role of oxytocin in social fear contagion in zebrafish SCIENCE 23 Mar 2023 Vol 379, Issue 6638 pp. 1232-1237
For more insights about fish and helping in their conservation visit www.fishfeel.org This is ground-breaking research advancing our understanding of animal sentience. But I am not an advocate of such genetic engineering to selectively knock out specific genes in animals. I have always felt that catching fish on a hook is cruel and that there is no ‘nobility’ in catch-and-release fishing. Like earthworms, fish have opiate pain responsive neurochemistry when injured. Many such fish die from the stress and hook-injuries. Why make any animal suffer in the name of sport? And what of the live bait skewered on the hooks? Oxytocin is the “bonding” hormone we humans associate with the subjective feeling of love toward others and is elevated when we hug our dogs; and in our dogs too! (Marshall-Pescini S et al. The Role of Oxytocin in the Dog-Owner Relationship. Animals (Basel). 2019 Oct 12;9(10):792.)
BEES PLAY: MORE EVIDENCE OF INSECT SENTIENCE Bumble bees play, according to new research led by Queen Mary University of London published in Animal Behaviour. It is the first time that object play behaviour has been shown in an insect, adding to mounting evidence that bees may experience positive ‘feelings’. Professor Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary University of London, head of the lab and author of the recent book ‘The Mind of a Bee’, said: “This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than we might imagine. There are lots of animals who play just for the purposes of enjoyment, but most examples come from young mammals and birds. “We are producing ever-increasing amounts of evidence backing up the need to do all we can to protect insects that are a million miles from the mindless, unfeeling creatures they are traditionally believed to be.” - Queen Mary University of London (qmul.ac.uk).
Entomologist Stephen Buchmann’s book, What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories and Personalities shows that bees have sophisticated emotions resembling optimism, frustration, fear and playfulness. Experiments have demonstrated bees can experience PTSD-like symptoms. Also, they can recognize different human faces, process long-term memories while sleeping, and maybe even dream. Young bees, through observation, learn how to dance from older bees to convey where to go to collect pollen, and the buzz of bees makes some flowers open for them.
Researchers have found that the fuzz that covers bees’ bodies helps them sense flowers’ natural electric fields, allowing them to home in on their favorite plants. Bees leave an electric trace on pollinated flowers, telling other bees the flower is tapped out. A study found fertilizers change that electric field and put bumblebees off from fertilizing. (Ellard R Hunting, et al Synthetic fertilizers alter floral biophysical cues and bumblebee foraging behavior, PNAS Nexus, Vol. 1, Issue 5, November 2022, pgac230, https://doi.org/10.1093/pnasnexus/pgac230). The whiskers ( vibrissae) on many mammals and some birds, like the antennae on insects, may also be functional bioelectrical sensors.
It is evident from the United Nation’s 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/eca ) that we have yet to learn to share this planet with other intelligent life forms and consciousnesses. This would be for our own good which is bound to that of other beings who comprise and sustain the life community even if we do not respect and care for the least of them. Without the ethics of respect and care we are less than human and have become the most dangerous species on Earth. Inhumanity has no bounds ecologically, spiritually or ethically.
I did not foresee in my 1980 book One Earth One Mind how rapidly dystopias and planetary dysbiosis, signaled by climate change and a plethora of new pests and diseases, would come from our collective lack of respect and care. Now almost four decades later we are well into the “Anthropocene” age and awakening to the tragedy of reality and the challenge to either evolve or perish.
The ethics of respect and care awaken compassion and empathy, broadening into bioethics and now giving rise to the One Health movement recognized by the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ( https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/index.html ). This is being embraced by more and more physicians, veterinarians and others in the healing professions along with organic farmers, foresters and other users of animals and natural resources.
In my opinion all animals, including earthworms (who possess enkephalins and beta endorphins identified in human brains as similar to opiates in their ability to affect sensations of pleasure and pain.) and insects (who can manifest fear and injury-avoidance behaviors, many having serotonin and dopamine receptors as we have in our brains) are sentient beings. All sentient beings should be treated with care and consideration with no exceptions for commercial, animal research and other purposes or cultural tradition and erroneous belief that some species are simply instinct-driven, unfeeling automatons. Objectification and “mechanomorphization” of other sentient beings is scientifically invalid and ethically unacceptable. One of the first scientists to confront this cultural attitude was zoologist Prof. Donald R. Griffin in his seminal text, The Question of Animal Awareness (1976).
The empathic question is not do sentient beings “know” ( and are self-conscious) but rather, can they be harmed? All sentient beings avoid being harmed often in ways which we are only just discovering, like bacteria mutating and evolving resistance to antibiotics and trees signaling chemically to others when they are under some attack by insects.
Will and instinct are interdependent as are the senses, sensibility and consciousness all of which can vary as greatly within as between species. In several realms of the senses many species are far more evolved than we while others, as we are discovering, are emotionally more similar to us than they are different in their responsiveness, joys and suffering.
Our understanding of animal cognition, of what our animal companions know and what they think, is enhanced when we are able to put ourselves in their place and minds. This is not a difficult process since we share similar physical-body and mental-brain functions, sensations and inner experiences and desires that are expressed behaviorally in various emotional displays, vocal signals and specific actions and reactions. We are not the only animal species with the ability to recognize another’s intentions — or at least conceive of them. This is a basic component of Theory of Mind, namely, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others which may be facilitated by so-called “mirror “neurons.
Adapting to domestication should not lower animals’ quality of life physically or emotionally. Some animals, like humans, can suffer from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, a condition that has genetic, developmental and nutritional elements in its genesis. Other animals can vary in their abilities of concentration, self-control/inhibition, learning/memory recall, as well as reasoning, insightfulness, and affective or emotive scope of expression, comprehension, playfulness and empathy. Such individual variations in abilities and motivation mean there is no singly way to raise and relate to other sentient beings. We must relate to each as an individual, and above all we should not use punishment (negative reinforcement) to inhibit most instinctual reactions since they are part of every animal’s feral spirit, but rather, apply ways to redirect and sublimate.
Learning what and how animals express themselves and understand each other opens us to their realm of emotional intelligence, an invitation that is acceptable to those people who neither lack empathy and emotional intelligence, nor who believe that dogs, cats and other animals are simply instinctual automations devoid of feeling and self-awareness.(For more details, see M.W.Fox, Dog Body, Dog Mind.and Cat Body, Cat Mind, The Lyons Press, Guilford CT 2007, and Michael A.Jawer and Marc S.Micozzi, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion. Park Street Press, Rochester VT 2009).
ANIMALS’ RIGHTS: LIBERATION FROM LEGAL LIMBO Aside from some animal welfare, anti-cruelty and endangered species protection laws, animals are still largely regarded by our judicial system as being objects of property. The concept and evidence of their sentience is slowly making progress in the collective psyche of society today. Now the Non-human Rights Project has filed a writ of habeas corpus in New York state’s Court of Appeals which has agreed to hear the case involving a solitary captive elephant named Happy at the Bronx zoo. She has spent more than 40 years in captivity and should be placed in an open sanctuary with eventual social contact with other elephants also rescued from extreme confinement and social deprivation.
Habeas corpus petitions have only been filed on behalf of humans being held against their will and this case will raise the issue as to whether Happy is a “thing” or “person” with certain rights and interests,, writes Julie Knopp with Compassionate action for Animals in Minnesota in her article “Happy the Elephant is Giving Animals Their Day in Court”, published in the Star Tribune, Dec 31st 2021. She underscores the fact that factory farmed animals live under worse conditions than this elephant and that their welfare needs to be addressed as well as their negative environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture and its risks to human health especially from zoonotic and food-borne illnesses.
THE SENSE OF SELF IN NON-HUMAN ANIMALS
Fifty- two years ago a psychologist developed a test which he claimed to be the cardinal indicator of self-awareness in animals.
This experiment, reported by psychologist Gallup (1) involved chimpanzees responding to a mark on their faces when they saw their images in a mirror. It has since been widely cited as indicative, as he proposed, of self-awareness in animals.
Tests on other species in accord with this criterion of a sense of self that proved positive include the great apes, elephants, rays, cleaner wrasse, dolphins, orcas, the Eurasian magpies, and ants.(2). But a wide range of species has been reported to fail the test, including several species of monkeys, giant pandas, and sea lions. (3). From an ethological perspective these “failures” reveal the fallacy of psychologizing animals’ behaviour. (4). In many species, especially humans, positive responses to changes in self-image seen in a mirror may be no more than an indicator of narcissism.
The Gallup mirror test, now being embraced in legal terms of animal “personhood” is an example of psychologism (5) and it is wrong to assume that those species who fail this test have no sense of self and, therefore, personhood to warrant equal consideration and protection. Dogs will often bark or growl when they first see their image in a mirror; will not respond like chimpanzees or older children when a mark is put on their heads; and will ignore subsequent mirror encounters. Such ignoring surely indicates that they know it is not another dog. Other studies have shown dogs have body awareness (6) and self-awareness in recognition of their own versus other dogs’ scents. (7)
A better gauge of the sense of self in relation to objects is the demonstrated ability to count, evident in many animal species, Numerical abilities have been identified in gorillas, rhesus, capuchin, and squirrel monkeys, lemurs, dolphins, elephants, black bears, birds, salamanders, fish, as well as 3-day old chicks, ants and spiders. (8.9)
Without some sense of self, how could animals including insects, groom and preen themselves and each other?
Suddendorf and Butler conclude that the visual self-recognition skills evident in humans and great apes are a byproduct of a general capacity to collate representations, and need not index other aspects of self-awareness. (10). Therefore, in assessing animals’ self-awareness, we need to avoid psychologizing and consider each species and its adaptive, cognitive abilities and related environmental, physical, social and emotional needs to make informed, science-based decisions as to their optimal care and protection.
REFERENCES AND END NOTES
1.Gallup, Gordon G. Jr. Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition SCIENCE 2 Jan 1970 Vol 167, Issue 3914 pp. 86-87 DOI: 10.1126/science.167.3914.86
2.“List of Animals That Have Passed the Mirror Test”. 15 April 2015 http://www.animalcognition.org/. Retrieved 2 September 2022
3.Kohda, M. et al. If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals? PLoS Biol 17, e3000021 2019.
4.To speculate in psychological terms or on psychological motivations https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/psychologize
5.Psychologism is the belief that psychology is the basis for all other natural and social sciences Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers
6.Lenkei, R., Faragó, T., Zsilák, B. et al. Dogs (Canis familiaris) recognize their own body as a physical obstacle. Sci Rep 11, 2761 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-82309-x
7.Horowitz, A. Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test. Behav. Proc. 143, 17–24 2017.
8.Shane, Cari. Fish Can Count, Along with Other Animals: Researchers find that counting may be an evolutionary trait that helps fish and animals survive. Jun 2, 2022 https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/fish-can-count-along-with-other-animals
9.Goldman, Jason G. While other species may not spend their time sweating over quadratic equations like we did at school, they can carry out some pretty impressive calculations. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20121128-animals-that-can-count#27th November 2012
10.Suddendorf, T. & Butler, D.L. The nature of visual self-recognition. Trends Cogn Sci. Mar;17(3):121-7. 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.01.004
ANIMAL FEELINGS AND FEELING FOR ANIMALS
In my doctoral dissertation in ethology/animal behavior I documented emotional states in the behavior of wolves and other wild canids (as published in my book The Behavior of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids, 1971) which we humans share. These include care-giving empathy, protectiveness, affection, joyful playfulness, curiosity, fear, anxiety and depression. So how can we continue to be indifferent to other species who share similar emotional intelligence and degree of sentience?
This disconnect of empathy is rooted in ignorance, rationalization, denial and beliefs so trapping, snaring, shooting, poisoning and caging of wolves, coyotes, foxes continue.
Coyote and other wildlife killing contests ( visit www.projectcoyote.org for details) should be outlawed just as dog and cock fighting are illegal in the U.S. The capture and trade in wildlife and their products, nationally and internationally, legal and illegal, must end for humane, environmental and public health reasons.
English philosopher Richard Ryder attributes such wanton cruelty to “speciesism”, which shares the same root of psychopathy with racism and sexism. Without respect and empathy for all life the rule of law will remain arbitrary, capricious and self-serving. All creatures have intrinsic value and interests and also, extrinsic ecological value which Dr. Jonathan Balcombe in his book Super Fly, 2021) underscores in his statement “ Whatever justified angst and antipathy we may feel for certain flies, we can simultaneously cultivate respect, even reverence, for their essential place in the world.”
Lakota Sioux Luther Standing Bear, in his 1993 book Land of the Spotted Eagle, wrote “The animal has rights-the right of man’s protection—-The concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal respect for all.” Missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer later echoed this spiritual realization in his philosophy of reverence for life especially from the perspectives of world peace and disease prevention. Contemporary religions have taken us away from such affinities with other living beings and the natural world, long condemning such views as primitive paganism, and heretical to the divine order of man under God and man over all else.
EMPATHY IN ANIMALS
If animals were incapable of empathy, of understanding another’s emotional state and having feeling for another’s distress, then we would find no evidence of altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom. But indeed we do.
Ethologists use the terms care-giving, or epimeletic behavior, and care-soliciting, or et-epimeletic behavior, to identify those behaviors that underlie the altruism we see in various species that means that they do have the capacity to empathize.
Skeptics dismiss all of this as anthropomorphic and scientifically unproven, and it disturbs me to read some professional comments on this topic. For example, veterinarian John S. Parker stated that “Pets can and often do react to their owners’ distress or discomfort, but that is not to be confused with experiencing the emotion of empathy” (Letter in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, June 1, 2006, pp 1677-1678). Aside from contending that animals “do not have the cognitive capacity to put themselves in our place”, he incorrectly sees empathy not as a process or affective state but as an actual emotion, which it is not.
Animal ethics philosopher Dr. Bernard E. Rollin’s response (in this same Journal, on p.1678), stating that “there is some very suggestive evidence that at least some animals, such as higher primates and elephants, do [empathize]” begs the question. The evidence from countless instances of empathetic behavior in companion animals is a red flag and not some anthropomorphic red herring, putting us all on notice that animals are far more aware than many people would like or accept for reasons best known to themselves.
EMPATHY, PREDATION AND SUFFERING
Wolves do not have a killing bite while the big cats like tigers can sever the spinal cord in the necks of their prey. Nature may protect the deer and other prey from feeling pain, if not also terror, because the attack may trigger numbing endorphins.
While traveling in Africa in 1857, David Livingstone, a Scottish explorer travelling in Africa in 1857 observed in his daily journal that when he was attacked by a lion, he became numb. He considered the experience an altered state of consciousness, in which he was able to watch the proceedings without feeling the pain.
Scientists have subsequently revealed the release of endogenous opiates ( enkephalins and endorphins) in many species including earthworms (Alumets J, Hàkanson R, Sundler F, Thorell J. Neuronal localisation of immunoreactive enkephalin and beta-endorphin in the earthworm. Nature. 1979 Jun 28;279(5716) and fish, when subjected to traumatic injury. (Sneddon LU. Evolution of nociception and pain: evidence from fish models. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2019 Nov 11;374(1785)
This does not mean that it is acceptable to hook fish and mutilate sentient animals because they may not experience pain, but rather, acknowledge that they do react to injuries and trauma as we do and should not be harmed: But rather, the spread-sheet of sentience goes from invertebrates to mammals, from earth worms to humans.
This endogenous opiate neurohumoral system along with oxytocin and other neurochemicals plays a role in empathically and vicariously experiencing and responding to other’s suffering, (Bernhardt BC, Singer T. The neural basis of empathy. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2012;35:1-23.) It is evidenced in the behavior of social animals responding to the plight of conspecifics and in their care and protection of their offspring. In their review on this subject, Toward a cross-species understanding of empathy. (Trends Neurosci. 2013 Aug;36(8):489-96). J.Panksepp and J.B.Panksepp state: “Cross-species evolutionary approaches to understanding the neural circuitry of emotional ‘contagion’ or ‘resonance’ between nearby animals, together with the underlying neurochemistry, may help to clarify the origins of human empathy”. Animals witnessing others being experimented upon in the same laboratory holding facility or waiting to be slaughtered, raises a significant ethical issue when it comes to how most animals destined for human consumption are killed.
ACCOUNTS FROM READERS OF MY ANIMAL DOCTOR NEWSPAPER COLUMN
Esther Schy from Fresno CA writes that “When I returned from the Cancer Center following treatment, I was extremely weak and ill. My two Airedale dogs would each take up their positions, like two book-ends, one on either side of me in bed and would lie there unmoving for hours, except for their taking turns laying their heads gently where I hurt the most. “One night two years earlier one of her dogs named Robbie “suddenly jumped up in bed next to my husband, almost plastered to his side. He normally never did this, preferring to sleep on his cushion next to my side of the bed. He kept trembling for one hour, and then went down stairs by himself, which is another action he did not normally do (leaving the bedroom at night). My husband suffered a massive heart attack and died a few minutes later. I believe that Robbie knew that something awful was to be.”
Like the Airedales who rested their heads on where their human companion hurt most, M.S.D., from Romeo MI has a Siamese cat who picked up on her cardiac palpitations that were causing much distress and preventing her from sleeping. “My Chloe came up, got as close as she could, and placed her paw on my left chest over my heart. Within a very short time the palpitations slowed and stopped, allowing me to get a good night’s rest.”
Amy e. Snyder in Chesapeake, VA was comforted by her Main Coon cat Bonkers, who slept at her side during the woman’s ordeal with throat cancer, giving her comfort and constant attention. During radiation treatment some 100 miles away from home, Ms. Snyder was only able to come home on weekends, and one weekend she found Bonkers lethargic and looking older. She took him to her veterinarian, and Bonkers was euthanized because he had developed an inoperable cancer “completely cutting off his windpipe.—I believe, due to the extreme oddness of similarity to our illness that my cat literally tried to take on my disease. He did get me through all of this.”
This anecdote supports my theory of sympathetic resonance, where highly empathetic animals may develop the same or similar disease that afflicts their loved one. Whether it is a deliberate or coincidental, the fact remains that empathizing is not without risk for humans and non-humans alike.
Many other letters attest to how cats and dogs have helped their human companions cope with depression and other emotional and physical difficulties, especially the loss of a spouse or other close relative.
Cary Watson from Clifton Park, NY writes that “Without my two dogs’ companionship, dealing with the loss of my wife would have been much harder. I can see why many people die soon after losing a spouse. We need love to carry on.”
Echoing this sentiment, Barbara K. Joyner of Courtland VA wrote that, following the untimely death of her husband to be, her adopted cats “make me feel wanted, needed, loved. They bring joy and happiness into my dark, sad existence.”
Suffering the loss of her only child from suicide, Patricia Maunu of Sioux Falls, SD tells me that her Bichon Frise dog J’aime “has given me the desire to get out of bed, and on many days given me the will to live!”
These and many other personal stories about how companion animals have helped their human guardians through difficult times, and are a constant source of affection and the joy of life, help us all appreciate why so many people who were victims of the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans and other communities refused to leave without their animal companions. They are integral parts of the family and emotional lives of millions of people, and those who have not experienced the gifts of animal companionship, and the depths of animals’ empathy, have missed a golden opportunity to enrich their lives and awaken their appreciation for all creatures great and small.
Harvard University Sets Endowment for Animal Law and Policy Program
Harvard Law School has established a $10-million endowment for its Animal Law & Policy Program in November 2021 expanding the seven-year-old program through a gift from the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy.
The inaugural program allowed for an expansion of courses to include wildlife law and farmed animal law, helped in the development of visiting fellows programs and workshops and opened the door for the launch of the HLS Animal Law & Policy Clinic. This in-house public-interest law firm gives Harvard students hands-on experience and mentorship working directly on real-time animal law cases and policy projects, the school noted in a news release.
The program bears the name of Brooks McCormick Jr., the Brooks Institute’s founding benefactor and an animal lover and philanthropist who passed away in 2015. The institute has become the leading foundation supporting academic work in the field of animal law and policy, supporting animal law programs at Yale University, New York University, Lewis & Clark, the University of Denver and Vermont Law School, among other academic institutions. Animal rights law-related courses currently are offered at 167 U.S. law schools, 21 years after the first such course launched at Harvard, the release noted. For more details see https://today.law.harvard.edu/10-million-endowment-established-for-the-harvard-law-school-animal-law-policy-program/
END NOTE CITATIONS
Johnathan Balcombe, Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects,” Penguin Books.2021. Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award His award-winning book What a Fish Knows, Dr. Balcombe leaves no doubt that fish have feelings. Efforts to protect them and their aquatic habitats are being promoted by non-profit organizations like Fish Feel ( www.fishfeel.org). On the basis of several scientific studies ( Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans, by Jonathan Birch et al, November 2021, https://bit.ly/3DUgeTe) the U.K. government is extending coverage under the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill to include cephalopods and decapods ( octopuses, crabs and lobsters)
Marc Bekoff, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/202112/spain-joins-other-nations-in-declaring-animals-are-sentient. He notes: “As of November 2019, 32 countries have formally recognized non-human animal sentience. These are: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom…” A detailed table on the ways in which numerous countries view animal sentience and animal suffering can be seen in this summary titled “Animal rights by country or territory.” See also by Marc Bekoff:
_____. Sentient Reptiles Experience Mammalian Emotions. (A detailed review of scientific data finds evidence of reptile sentience.) _____. A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending. _____. Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter, _____. Animal Sentience is Not Science Fiction: Recent Literature. ____. Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain. _____. Should Sentient Insects Be Farmed for Food and Feed?
Dana L. M. Campbell * and Caroline Lee A Perspective on Strategic Enrichment for Brain Development: Is This the Key to Animal Happiness? Front Vet Sci. 2021; 8: 720422. Mollie A. Bloomsmith, et al Behavioral Management Programs to Promote Laboratory Animal Welfare. Chapter 5 in Management of Animal Care and Use Programs in Research, Education, and Testing. 2nd edition. Robert H. Weichbrod et al, eds, Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2018. Helen S. Proctor, Gemma Carder, and Amelia R. Cornish Searching for Animal Sentience: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature Animals (Basel). 2013 Sep; 3(3): 882–906. Monsó, S., Benz-Schwarzburg, J. & Bremhorst, A. Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters. J Ethics 22, 283–310 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-018-9275-3