We witness our beloved pet pooches and feline friends experiencing moments of joy, pain, fear and even grief. We accept that they feel, they have an emotional world of their own. With this understanding, comes a moral imperative and legal framework to protect them from suffering.
Yet our empathy for our pets does not extend to the billions of animals we use and exploit for food, fashion, beauty and profit.
A dog is a cow is a pig. In the world of sentience, there is no difference.
What is animal sentience?
Sentience is the ability to perceive and feel things.
A sentient animal is aware of her surroundings, her relationships with other animals and humans, and sensations in her own body, such as pain, hunger, heat or cold. Animals avoid suffering and seek positive experiences, just as we humans do because they are a being who has "interests," a being who, according to Dr. Bernard E. Rollin, a professor at Colorado State University, "prefers, desires, or wants."
In 2012, an international group of eminent neuroscientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which confirmed that many animals, including all mammals and birds, possess the "neurological substrates that generate consciousness."
Yes, animals do feel pain
According to Prof. Rollin, the neural mechanisms responsible for pain behavior are remarkably similar in all vertebrates. Pain relieving drugs control what appears to be pain in all vertebrates and some invertebrates. The natural pain-inhibiting systems found in the human body (such as endorphins) are very similar to those found in all other vertebrates.
Rollin says, "given that the mechanisms of pain invertebrates are the same, it strains credibility to suggest that the experience of pain suddenly emerges at the level of humans.”
Factory farm egg production involves negative welfare impacts for an egg-laying hen and her chicks. These are "inherent cruelties": husbandry practices or behaviors that are an intrinsic part of the egg production process across all production systems—cage, barn-laid and free range. (infographic: Voiceless)
Peter Singer, DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of Animal Liberation, argues it is "unreasonable to suppose that nervous systems that are virtually identical physiologically, have a common origin and a common evolutionary function, and result in similar forms of behaviour in similar circumstances should actually operate in an entirely different manner on the level of subjective feelings."
The emotional lives of animals
While animals cannot express their feelings verbally, or in ways we humans can understand, scientific studies and experts such as Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, clearly show that many animals have rich and deep emotional lives.
Dame Jane Goodall argues that, "farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain.”
However, it is important not only to focus on negative emotions such as stress and fear. Animal welfare, just like our human welfare, is also dependent on pleasurable emotions such as playing, socializing, communicating and forming family groups.
Calves play-fight and prance and young chickens jump and flap their wings for fun. Animals find pleasure in the search for and consumption of food as well as tactile interactions like grooming, sexual activity and basic comforts like basking in the sun.
Cows are extremely social animals who live in small herds, forming social hierarchies and friendship pairs. Chickens share information with specific calls to communicate their frustration, the discovery of food, or the presence of a predator, suggesting some level of language. Familiar pigs greet each other by touching noses and grunting while those with close bonds may groom each other.
The disruption of these behaviors and relationships can be damaging and distressing. Separating bonded individuals like a mother and baby can cause protest and despair. Piglets separated from their mothers call her with distinctive and frequent squeals and dairy cows develop strong maternal bonds with their calves after as little as five minutes of contact after birth. They become stressed when their four-day-old calf is removed.
Watch this video of a mother cow calling for her calf when a farmer tries to take her baby:
Watch this video of a newborn calf searching for his mother:
Benefit of the doubt
Despite the growing body of scientific evidence, some people remain skeptical about animal sentience.
The precautionary principle states that “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
Animals can be included in this principle too. Even if we are not 100 percent certain, if proof is lacking, of a certain animal experiencing particular emotions, the precautionary principle must come into play. Animals should be given the benefit of the doubt and protected from any of our actions that may cause pain and suffering.
Different animals, different standards
Most countries classify animals as property under the law and fail to recognize their sentience. However, some basic laws do protect animals, but only those we deem appropriate.
Billions of farmed animals are excluded from animal welfare legislation, instead, suffering from cruelties such as being permanently confined in cages, kept in isolation, deprived of social interactions or crowded in sheds.
Painful operations such as the castration of piglets without pain relief are routinely conducted, procedures that would be illegal if inflicted on our dogs and cats.
This is a double-standard that must be addressed.
Animals are voiceless
Animals cannot vote, protest or advocate for their own welfare. They are entirely at our mercy, and we have an ethical obligation to protect them.
Cruelty towards animals cannot be justified by their level of cognition, communication skills or difference of species. These traits are irrelevant to an animal’s capacity for suffering and preference for a good life.
If we accept animal sentience, then the same laws that protect our companion animals must extend to the billions of farmed animals killed worldwide every year—56 billion in the United States alone.
We must think critically and examine the hypocrisies that allow us to arbitrarily label, group and discriminate between sentient animals, protecting some while inflicting others, with untold cruelty.
It's critical that young people are educated about animal protection and animal law in order to do just this. By ensuring the youth of today are well-equipped to be tomorrow's decision-makers, we can help create a world in which animals of all species are treated with the respect and compassion they rightly deserve.
The author spends some quality time with a rescued hen. (image: author provided)