Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Along Came a Spider Who Stopped a Highway Project

The Braken Bat Cave meshweaver puts end to $15 million Texas underpass project

Just when you thought you've heard everything here's a story that caught my attention, took me by surprise, and garnered my support. I bet it will motivate a wide variety of comments that will tell us a lot about who we are and how other animals should be treated. 

But it's only a #$&)#)%*#ing spider

It turns out that a San Antonio, Texas highway underpass project will have to be scrapped because a rare and endangered spider called the Braken Bat Cave meshweaver was discovered living on the construction site. The response to this decision has gone all over the place, ranging from support to halt the project to outrage that a #$&)#)%*#ing spider could wreak havoc on this much needed underpass. 

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For me these sorts of decisions raise many very important questions as we incessantly and unrelentingly redecorate nature because there are far too many us trying to squeeze into finite space at the expense of other animals. I wonder if this spider were a rare and endangered bird or mammal if the people who were outraged that a lowly spider could halt this project would still have been upset. Let's remember that a fish called the snail darter got into the act back in the 1970s when its presence halted the construction of the Tellico Dam in Eastern Tennessee until an amendment exempted Tellico from the Endangered Species Act.

Smart and sentient spiders?

What's so special about spiders? Are they merely dumb hard-wired automatons? No. Consider members of the genus of jumping spiders called Portia. These spiders change their behavior depending on the behavior of their prey and show complex predatory strategies that involve problem solving and future planning despite having a small brain

Do spiders feel pain? Are they sentient? The jury is still out on the question of sentience in spiders but it's clear that insects likely feel pain. And researchers have described play in spiders and how it is influenced by the personality of the individual. Furthermore, given that we now know that fish are sentient beings (see also), something that wasn't known forty years ago when the fate of the snail darter was being debated, perhaps a different decision would have been made about the Tellico Dam project. More and more scientists now accept that consciousness is widespread among nonhuman animals and it's best to keep an open mind about just how many animals will be shown to be conscious and sentient. 

I'm sure in the future situations like the above will arise because as we habitually and recklessly expand our horizons and ignore nature we'll meet individuals of a wide variety of species who we didn't know existed or were around. Part of the process of rewilding our hearts and reconnecting with other nature is to incorporate other animals into our lives and strive for peaceful coexistence even if they aren't known to be sentient or smart. They exist and are alive and they depend on our goodwill for their future survival and we just can't continue spreading out willy-nilly without taking into account their presence. I applaud the decision to halt the underpass project. 

Stay tuned for more on the fascinating lives of other animals, for many more "surprises" are in store.

The teaser image can be found here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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