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The truth about animal sentience—and why it matters

Though a majority of scientists today agree that animals are sentient, that hasn’t stopped outmoded beliefs from persisting. This editorial published by Psychology Today claimed (in basic terms) that animals don’t speak, laugh, cry, think, get depressed, fall in love or have spiritual experiences. (We’ve all met people like this; the essayist isn’t alone in his beliefs.) Luckily, a few weeks later, Mark Beckoff—author, scientist and behavioral ecologist—followed up with his own essay, knocking down each one of these misguided statements.

Why do so many people continue to discount the worth of an animal’s life? Perhaps because “going there”—where your food come from, where your makeup, handbags and fancy leather couches originate—is too painful and awkward to face. But the truth about animal sentience is out there for those who will listen:

Truth #1: Animals feel real emotions. I read somewhere once that animals just felt small “traces” of emotions. That’s ridiculous—but many people still tend to believe some variation of this. And that’s in spite of research that shows what animal lovers have known all along: that animals do feel emotions, and that those emotions are very real. Legal pioneers worldwide are working toward drastic changes in the rights of animals, which will affect everything from cosmetics testing to factory farming. Luxembourg, for one, has introduced legislation stating that animals are “living non-human sentient beings with a nervous system scientifically capable of feeling pain and experiencing other emotions [including] suffering and anguish.” Germany, France and New Zealand have also enacted legal wording to recognize animals as sentient beings.

Truth #2: Animals can read the emotions of others. If you’ve ever bonded with a cat, dog or horse (or other special creature), you know with infallible certainty that they are extremely clued in to your feelings and moods. It’s like they just know if you’re sad, happy or somewhere in between. Well, that’s because they do know—as found in this recent study showing that dogs use auditory and visual sensory inputs to differentiate human emotions. And this study did the same for horses, showing they can recognize positive and negative human moods merely from photographs. I’m sure someday, research will show that other species (like felines, obviously) share the same emotional intelligence.

Truth #3: Animals can feel love, and they mourn when a loved one dies. Animal lovers know this from personal experience—how our cat or dog will fall into a depression when his best furry (or human) friend dies, whether unexpectedly or not. It’s a sad thing to experience. Their grief is real, as evidenced by this mother dolphin mourning her dead calf, which was captured on film. Or these elephants, who mourned their dead matriarch, crying and throwing branches and leaves over her body. As this recent study showed, animal brains released oxytocin—the “love” hormone associated with care and compassion—the same way we do, when in similar, intimate circumstances.

Truth # 4: Farm animals are sentient beings—not units of property. Facing this truth is a real problem for the modern farming and cosmetics industries, isn’t it? For when we truly believe this—how can we continue to keep living, sentient beings in tiny cages suffering, when in fact they think, feel and love like we do? How can we as a society continue to support torturous animal testing, when these animals experience fear, pain, anxiety, depression and more? We can’t.

What accounts for the disconnect? Maybe it’s because animals in modern factory farms are just blips numbering the hundreds of thousands, and the farmers don’t even know (or care to know) one animal from another. But there was a time when it wasn’t always so. As James McWilliams of The Atlantic so insightfully points out in “The Dangerous Psychology of Factory Farming”:

“Before 1850, when most animal husbandry happened on a relatively small scale, farmers viewed their animals as animals. That is, they saw them as sentient beings with unique needs that, left unaddressed, would result in an inferior product. Agricultural manuals from the time routinely instructed farmers to speak to their animals in pleasant tones of voice, to make sure that their bedding was soft and spacious, and to shower them with affection every day. Farmers never referred to their animals as objects. They knew better. … Farmers interacted daily with their animals, developing an emotional sense of their individual personalities and quirks. The personal scale of animal husbandry made the slaughter—which farmers also tended to do themselves—a solemn occasion at best. No normal person, even on the hardest settlement frontier, would have been indifferent about killing an animal he spent years nurturing. Nobody could have doubted that he was taking the life of a sentient being with wants and needs.”

Thankfully, compassionate advocates are working hard to help farm animals. Though it was made in 2004, check out this documentary, The Emotional World of Farm Animals:

Also worth a watch: Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home, which tells the story of farmers and others who changed their views on animals:

This amazing photo essay captures the wide range of animals’ many emotions. But to learn even more about the deep emotional lives of animals, I recommend these books: The Pig Who Sang to the Moon and the bestseller When Elephants Weep, both by Jeffery Moussaieff Masson.

Wake up, world: It’s time we declared animals as sentient! Who’s with me?

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