Recent moves by various governments have declared dolphins, dogs, cats, chimpanzees, and even animals in general, sentient beings1.
What does this mean – the definition of sentience is consciousness of sensory perceptions, but how does it specify the way animals should be treated? A declaration that animals are sentient, like humans, provokes visions of trying to get dolphins to vote or providing chickens with flying lessons if they want. We’d never force them, of course.
Most of us want to do the right thing by animals. Many scientists study sentience, consciousness, sapience, and/or intelligence in humans and various animals. If a crow recognizes a man who feeds him, is the bird self aware or intelligent or has it learned to associate the smell of the man’s cologne with tasty treats (sentient) or does it contemplate if it is taking advantage of the man as it peaks fruit from his hand (sapience)? I need to read a stack of books and papers at least three feet tall to understand how these terms differ from one another when applied to animal behaviour. I respect the experts, but would like to understand this at a non-expert level.
I did some research on the emerging laws related to animal rights and the answers surprised me. Generally, the idea is to give animals more rights than inanimate objects, and to stop them from being used solely for human entertainment. These new laws and declarations are one part getting the laws out of the dark ages and one part enlightenment.
Why was I surprised? There’s some hype attached to the announcements about the new laws. Somehow2 the concept that animals can sense and are aware of their surroundings, which is a definition of sentience, transmuted into animals having emotions. Certainly animals can feel things. However, it isn’t necessarily the same as a cat feeling sad because it’s raining and there’s no birds to watch or a horse being anxious that its rider has had a few martinis, again, and might need counselling for addiction. If we accept the definition of emotion as an instinctive or intuitive, rather than reasoned, interpretation of a situation, I’d point to the keen instincts animals have. And that the sad cat knows hunting (food) is less effective in the rain and the horse instinctively fears a reckless rider for its own safety.
Do animals love and hate? A dog gets excited when it sees its human, either because of love or the expectation of treats, and a dog growls when a stranger skulks around the yard, but does it hate the intruder or is it defending its territory.
The new laws are to stop animals from being handled in ways that injury them. Previously, animals could be treated in the same way as all types of human possessions (this is the dark ages stuff). No one cares if you hit your table. A lot of people care if you hit your dog. The change in laws make it easier for officials to intervene if someone is doing something harmful to their sentient possessions (animals). Changing the laws so we cause no physical pain to animals seems like the right thing to do.
More interesting are the decisions to stop using animals for our entertainment3 – which I call the enlightened part. In the absence of direct pain and suffering, how do we tell if the animals are being treated well? We associate a cat purring with contentment, but they also purr when they are in pain. So if the cat purrs when stuffed into a silly outfit, is it thrilled or distressed? Is there something wrong with training an elephant to sit on a tiny stool while wearing a flowery hat? Or a walrus to clap it’s flippers and bark for fish? Taking a slightly riskier stance, why shouldn’t we drug tigers into passivity and make them jump through hoops, if the fringe benefits that come with that is a rich diet, medical care, and comfy accommodations? None of these actions are natural but putting on a suit and going to a job interview where we try to say all the right things, regardless of what we really think, is unnatural too.
Wearing a suit is voluntary. The confinement of animals in the circus and other entertainment domains is not. How do we get informed consent from a killer whale? Many people might claim they are trapped in jobs, unable to escape the drudgery or demeaning tasks because they need to make a living.
How do we tell when we’ve gone too far with animals? With sea animals, there are scientists who study the social structures the animals live in and compare it to what we provide. And yes, there is a difference between sea worlds and the wild. One point of evidence that the animals are being treated unfairly is a decreased life expectancy. This seems like a reasonable metric, but when I look at my domestic cats, who are kept indoors because this is verified to increase their life expectancy, I wonder if it’s right. My cat is convinced he should be outside, yet I imprison him in the house, based on the assumption that it’s better for him. I have some guilt, because I reap advantages, with lower vet bills. No worms, fleas, or stitches to repair battle wounds from the neighbouring tom, raccoons, dogs or cars. Domestic cats live longer inside, but are they living a fulfilling life? They don’t breed or do other natural things like hunt nor are they allowed the full range of a territory or their natural habitat.
Questions plague me:
- How to know what animals really want?
- What’s best for animals, which may not be what they want?
- How human-like are they, anyway?
We should only impose our values on the animals when we know they want the same things we do. We could defend all we do as sapience, or wisdom, a quality that presumably sets us apart from other species (hence the name: Homo sapiens). We understand the consequences of our actions, and therefore agree to get vaccinated, even if it is transiently unpleasant.
Humans don’t do whatever we want, we often do what’s good for us, like go to the dentist, eat vegetables and learn mathematical formulas. My cat hates going to the vet and howls like a wild animal when I put him in the car. I don’t think this qualifies as mistreatment, even thought he clearly thinks it does. On the contrary, many decisions to give animals more rights insist on good veterinary care, although the animals dont’ seem to like it.
I haven’t got a witty conclusion to this post. The new laws to treat animals as sentient are to prevent cruelty. We’re striving for enlightenment in our interactions with animals, but I think we have a long way to go to figure out what that means. I’m looking forward to the day when I can communicate with my cat (maybe through artificial intelligence), and let him make the decision to get in the carrier and endure the vet’s prodding, as a alternative to dying prematurely of a preventable disease.
1Here’s a few examples:
This blog post http://barkpost.com/good/oregon-court-finds-dogs-are-sentient-beings/ discusses a recent decision by an Oregon court to treat dogs as sentient. It’s a great post for making sense of the law.
A similar story comes from New Zealand http://www.animalequality.net/node/703 , where the law was amended in 2013 and this is interpreted to recognize all animals as sentient, like humans, which provides officials greater power to protect animals in situations of abuse.
And then there was a declaration of by a group of scientists in 2012 http://www.earthintransition.org/2012/07/scientists-declare-nonhuman-animals-are-conscious/ that non-human animals display consciousness.
2 Not too difficult to imagine how if you consider how easily knowledge is perturbed from the truth and circulated as un-facts on the internets.