By: Suzanne Brint
We have all seen the pictures and videos of animals mourning the death of pack mates; dogs staying at the gravesite of deceased owners, service dogs sensing the onset of cancer or seizures and alerting their humans, dogs staying by the side of their injured owner. The anecdotal cases are beyond counting and the incidents seemingly more prevalent day by day. The internet and social media abound with examples. The question is, do animals have emotion? Do animals feel pain? Can they sense what we are feeling?
On the day my father died, I sat on the back porch steps of our home and sobbed. Head in my hands and elbows on my knees. I was very young and other than my mother, quite alone or so I thought. Until this happened: my dog, Max, a big bully dog, had been observing me obviously. He sat on the step next to me for a bit. Then gradually, he pushed his big head gently under my arms, stepped over my legs, and pressed his body against my chest, enveloping me in a hug. And there he stayed until I stopped crying. There was no choice but to hug him back and shed my tears into his furry neck.
Current research into animal awareness is exciting as well as moving. I think anyone who has loved their pets will be aware that their special four-legged friend possesses a unique intelligence and awareness. I have been accused of anthropomorphism meaning that I imbue the pet with human qualities. But those folks who doubt will at some point need to address their doubt considering scientific findings as time progresses. We also need to understand that our emotional life and the emotional life of animals is biological in nature. Having emotions keeps us aware, safe and loved in this threatening and often scary world. Emotions help us to replicate our species. Emotions allow us to connect socially.
The history of animal sentience dates back further than most realize. Historically, animals were thought to be a kind of machine and not have any capability of thought or feeling. This philosophy was detailed by the philosopher René Descarte in the 1600’s. This would indicate that all animal behavior would be based on instinct. Animals were treated as property and utilized for work or as a food source. But over the intervening years research is proving this mindset to be incorrect. We have learned that the brain structure of primates and even dogs is very like humans. Animals even have a brain chemistry like ours. It is thought not only do animals feel pain and experience suffering, but they feel pleasure and happiness as well. A compelling statement was made on July 7, 2012 by scientists attending a convention at Cambridge University in England. They issued the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which stated, “convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals including all mammals and birds also possess these neurological substrates”. In other words, animals are sentient and can feel emotions, can suffer, can feel pain, and can feel enjoyment.
The legal courts are recently supporting evidence that animals indeed feel and can suffer. In 2016 the supreme court in Oregon determined that pets are not “mere property” and that the abused pet in this case could be examined much in the same way as an abused child. The judges determined that animals ‘are sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear,’ the court wrote in the unanimous opinion—and so humans’ “dominion” over the animals, the opinion continues, also has nuanced contours, as do the humans’ privacy interests in the animals’. In other words, if you hurt an animal, you are hurting a living, feeling, cognizant creature and if the animal is harmed that abuse can be found a crime in a court of law.
So, without attempting to induce guilt or assign judgement on any reader’s beliefs about animals, there is remains only accepting that animals, across many species, have the ability to cognate and feel. It is not of human quality to be sure but their ability to feel is undeniable. My goal, if you made it through this piece, would be for you to consider or perhaps reconsider your view of animals and support their welfare on some level. It is my hope that through our evolutionary process we will move to a fully plant-based food system and bio-engineered protein products. It is happening as I write. If we get there, we may develop a world where human and animal pain and suffering is minimized and our mutual happiness maximized. I believe the deeper we empathize with animals, this act might allow us a pathway to more deeply empathize and become altruistic towards each other.
In the meantime, we have our pets to love and cherish. My own experience taught me that my pet could sense my feelings. I am now accepting that I must look into their eyes of those furry critters and feel theirs too.