Astonishingly, there has been a debate since the dawn of human awareness concerning the ability of animals to feel and express emotion.
I say astonishingly because it has always seemed rather obvious to me, and one look in the eyes of a dog upon your return home after an eight hour day at work, should be all the proof anyone ever needs.
Though the physiological process and extent of those feelings has long been a murky issue, I believe it is a thing that doesn’t need to be quantified. Others disagree. They want to know, what is the difference between an oyster and a dolphin, between a dolphin and a dog, between a dog and an elephant. If they feel love, can it be said to be the same kind of love that humans feel, or some simplified facsimile based on more or less advanced nervous systems.
For all those doubters out there (factory farmers & hunters, Michael Vic & Barnum & Bailey, I’m looking at you), there is new and compelling research which should answer some questions.
A group of international and highly esteemed scientists have recently signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, declaring their support for the idea that animals are aware and conscious to the same degree as humans. Animals as evolutionarily diverse birds and octopi have been shown to have similar neurological responses to humans which impact their physiological state and behavior in much the same way.
In other words, they have feelings.
Why has this idea been such a point of contention? Clearly, if we acknowledge that mother cows suffer the same as human mothers suffer when their young are forcibly removed from them, or if we accept that chickens are desolate at the living conditions to which many are subjected ending in an impersonal and wasteful death, we must dramatically change our approach to how we interact with them. Changing our approach means a lot of people will lose a lot of money, and generally speaking, that’s enough of a reason to keep the status quo.
That being the case, I’m always kind of amazed that slavery was ever abolished. The social systems it supported were lucrative and accepted, and the abolishment of it meant a total restructuring of massive corporations. The same debate about consciousness was had, in fact, about slaves; countless people believed that they were not human and as such, did not feel. These people interacted with their brethren, stealing children from their families, beating, raping and demoralizing them, with no more thought than they would have swatting a fly.
I believe there will come a time when we look back at our treatment of animals much the same way we look back at our treatment of African Americans. We are far enough away from that time now that I can hear the snickering laughter of my detractors. Nevertheless, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness is proof to me of more than the awareness of our animal friends, it is proof that humans have deep and profound feelings, acknowledged or otherwise, about how we interact with our fellow creatures.
At the end of the day, that’s the real news. With a growing body of concrete evidence that the treatment of all animals is a weighty ethical issue, not just because we are their “stewards” but because they are our equals, it should stand to reason that we ourselves will evolve into a kinder, more compassionate species.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant journal archives