Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

The Ghosts in Our Machine: Award-Winning Documentary in USA

This top ten documentary challenges common cultural practices about animal abuse

The Ghosts in Our Machine is a feature-length award-winning documentary directed by Liz Marshall. It's world premier was in April 2013 at the prestigious Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, where it was voted a top ten audience favorite. The film's highly anticipated American release is November 8th in New York City, followed by Los Angeles with other cities to be announced. This incredible and forward looking film follows internationally renowned photographer Jo-Anne McArthur over the course of a year as she documents the stories of individual nonhuman animals (animals) who are caught in the web of so-called "civilized society" in the United States, Canada, and Europe. By doing so she introduces us to the sentient beings who are the "ghosts" in our societal engine and confronts us with the compelling question, "Have you ever wondered how and why our species has managed to develop such a sophisticated well-oiled machine we call 'modern society'?"

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To begin finding some answers to this important and daunting question try this simple thought experiment. Take away the billions of animals who suffer on factory farms, those sentient beings who make up our diet and who are called "meat", "bacon", "pork", and "sausage", for example, so as to distance ourselves from whom they really are. Take away the billions of animals who are used in research so that we can supposedly live a bit longer and more comfortably. Also take away all of the animals who are forced to jump through hoops and rings of fire in circuses and who are trained/"broken" to perform other stupid and unnatural acts solely for our entertainment. And, don’t forget those animal beings who are held captive in zoos and aquaria to satisfy our curiosity and who gain nothing at all from losing all of their freedoms.

There's more. Take away the animals who are shot, blown up, poisoned, and irradiated so that we can find more efficient ways to kill other human beings in the wars in which we engage. And, finally, remove the animals whose skin and fur serve our fashion tastes, those beings who we choose to wear when there are numerous and more effective non-animal alternatives.

Now ask, who's left? Note I use the word "who", not "what", because animals are subjects of a life, not mere property or objects, although they are treated as if they are unfeeling items to be used however we choose to use them. We really are the most powerful species on earth and we're constantly making decisions about who lives, who dies, and why. 

In the trailer where there are some very disturbing images but also beautiful prose, McArthur says she feels like a "war photographer" because we really are waging an egregious war against other animals as we wantonly exploit them in myriad ways. McArthur also wonders how and why we so easily leave them behind and alienate ourselves from these amazing individuals as we go through our days in mindless and heartless ways.

The Ghosts In Our Machine invites us to reflect on the attitudes and norms of our so-called exceptional contemporary culture as we meet individual and named animal beings – cows, turkeys, dolphins, chimpanzees – whose pain, suffering, and death are a major part of why our species makes claims of superiority and domination over other animals. It asks that we consider and change the fact that all sentient nonhuman beings are still considered as owned property under the law.

Moving into the future with empathy and compassion: Animal pain and death hurts us all

The Ghosts In Our Machine also provokes us to think about a path forward for our species that does not rely upon the reprehensible exploitation of other animals but, instead, compels us to create a compassionate and empathic culture that is truly as advanced and accomplished as we claim it is. The future needs to be a "ghost-free journey" for our species on which we expand our compassion footprint (see also) to include all other animals.

Nonhuman animals beings are not mere ghosts and we can't continue to build our own society on the backs of these amazing individuals. They are real beings and they are sentient and they care deeply about what happens to them and to their family, their friends, and their homes. To claim we still don't know if other animals are conscious beings is to ignore an incredible amount of detailed scientific data and is thoroughly irresponsible. The long overdue Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness and the Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience must be used to protect other animals from intentional and unnecessary harm. I frankly don't see how anyone who has worked closely with any of a wide array of animals or who has lived with a companion animal(s) could remain uncertain and agnostic about whether they are conscious and feeling individuals.

The only path forward is to use what we know about animal sentience to protect them, so this information must be incorporated into laws and regulations governing how they are used. Unfortunately, in the United States, this information has not been used on behalf of animals and billions of individuals continue to suffer and die each year because of this convenient oversight.

The reprehensible and unnecessary torment to which we subject billions upon billions of fascinating animals as we conveniently distance ourselves from them is utterly shameful and not at all flattering to who we humans are. It's also essential that we recognize that we, ourselves, also deeply suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals. We often don't realize that we can experience what's called secondary trauma because of our efforts to relieve the incredible trauma to which we expose other animal beings. This trauma can lead to burnout because of the selfless work in which many animal advocates partake. Animal pain and death hurts us all.

Jo-Anne McArthur believes we really are an innately compassionate species and that when given the opportunity to care the vast majority of people will do something for other animals. I couldn't agree more (see also). As University of California psychologist Dacher Keltner claims, we are born to be good (see also). Let's harness our innate compassion and empathy to make the world a better and more peaceful home for all beings.

We need to mind other animals (see also) and work as a unified community to harness our innate goodness, kindness, compassion, and empathy to work on behalf of other animals who depend on our goodwill for their very survival. We can do no less. We need to have youngsters take part in this global peaceful movement because they are ambassadors for the future of our one and only planet. We need to stop ignoring nature (see also) and end the widespread and heartless war on other animals now. As we do this all animals, nonhuman and human, will benefit greatly. 

Clearly, our warlike ways haven't worked, so let's give peace, compassion, empathy, and love the chance they deserve. I'm sure we will like what we see as the future unfolds. And, I'm sure other animals will thank us for our efforts. The Ghosts in Our Machine is a very important move in the right direction. 

The teaser image can be seen here.

I thank Dr. Lori Marino, Executive Director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, for calling my attention to this documentary and for contributing to this essay. 

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

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