The Charter for Animal Compassion for Non-Humans and Humans

A vision of a world in which non-human and human animals flourish together

Posted Jul 26, 2017

The Charter for Animal Compassion calls upon all people to collaborate in bringing animal perspectives to life

I recently learned about the Charter for Animal Compassion that will be launched later this year, and was intrigued enough to ask Rob Percival, its founder and director, to do an interview about his most need project. The charter is an independent not-for-profit based in London, England. It recognizes animals as sentient beings and stresses that "our interactions with animals often lack compassion," "empathy is the art of perspective taking, the ability to see through the eyes of another, to step imaginatively into their skin," and calls "upon all people to act compassionately towards animals." Many of the goals of this charter are in line with my Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience (for more discussion please see "A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending") and blend in nicely with the goals of Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling.1

Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve.” (Elisabeth Costello, in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals)

My interview with Rob Percival went as follows.

Why did you begin the Charter for Animal Compassion?

The Charter hopes to start a conversation about the significance of compassion in an age of animal suffering, wildlife destruction and species extinctions. It is predicated on the belief that as a society we have become stranded beyond an ‘empathy gap’ – we struggle to understand the experiences, emotions and mentality of nonhuman animals. As a result we pay scant heed to their points of view in deciding how to feed ourselves, organise ourselves, or interact with our natural environment. 

In one sense, our predicament is peculiar – no society has ever undertaken such rigorous research into animal sentience, into the sensory and cognitive abilities of other species; no society has ever had such a wealth of science at its fingertips. And yet no society has ever acted with such destructive consequence. The science of animal sentience has not been translated into more empathetic behaviour. The Charter hopes to contribute towards such a shift.

What are your goals?

The Charter champions the science of animal sentience with a view to inspiring compassion towards nonhuman animals. One tangible aspiration concerns our relationship with the animals that we eat. Our carnivorous impulses are currently out of control – our appetite for meat is a principle driver of deforestation, habitat loss, wildlife destruction, and greenhouse gas emissions globally. Billions of animals suffer terrible conditions on intensive farms every year. And yet while it is widely known that collectively we should be eating far less meat, there are deep emotional and psychological factors make this a profound challenge.

These psychological factors have been the focus of a growing body of research - at the heart of our seemingly uninhibited consumption of animals is a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’. For most people, a nexus of negative emotions arise when confronted with the fact that eating meat means killing living animals. We do not want to participate in the killing. We do not want to believe that the animal that we are eating has suffered. Some significant psychological gymnastics are needed to assuage this cognitive dissonance while maintaining uninhibited consumption. Loughman, Bastian and Haslan, in an important paper, note that “[Individuals eating meat] tend to reduce mind attribution to animals and see them as dissimilar to humans. In preparation for eating meat, and after it, they attribute diminished mental capacities to animals.” This happens on an unconscious level, and without ill-intent. As a society we have simply become strikingly adept at denying the sentience and mentality of the animals that we eat; we have become skilled mental gymnasts. This suggests that one strategy for reducing meat consumption, thereby alleviating animal suffering and reducing wildlife destruction, would be to champion the science of animal sentience. Perhaps by making the cognitive dissonance conscious, we can inspire a change in behaviour. 

The scope of the Charter is broader than the animals who we eat, but this would be one example of a goal that we are pursuing. 

How is your charter related to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness?

The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was both a watershed moment and a statement of the already known. “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” the Declaration declared. A significant body of research had already shown this to be the case, but, as the authors noted upon its publication, this research hadn’t been spoken to a broad enough audience or in a loud enough voice. The Charter has similar aims in this respect. It seeks to amplify existing research, and to carry it into new audiences.

Who is your intended audience?

The Charter aims to engage a spectrum of audiences and has already been affirmed by hundreds of people from more than a dozen countries. We’re reaching out to researchers, scientists, philosophers, lawyers, activists and advocates. Ultimately, however, our aim is to engage visual artists and creative writers.

What does it mean to be an artist in an age of animal suffering, wildlife destruction and species extinctions? A hundred years from now our descendants, living in a diminished world, will look back at our time, at the novels being written and the galleries filled with art, and they will see little but distraction and dishonesty. How was it, they will ask, that the web of life was unravelling before your very eyes, and you did not respond? Where were the artists whose work confronted the reality of extinction? Where were the poets whose verse plumbed the suffering of a factory farmed pig? Why, they will ask, did our ancestors not seek to harness art, in its various guises, to engender inter-species empathy, before it was too late?

The Charter hopes to galvanise inter-disciplinary collaboration between artists, writers and researchers, with a view to inspiring compassion towards nonhuman animals. It will work to promote the artists and writers whose work responds to, interprets, or celebrates the science of animal sentience. It will be calling for a more authentic reaction to the time in which we are living.

Do you have hope for the future?

Hope is a difficult thing. There is a naïve sort of hope that would have us avert our eyes, believe that everything will be OK. This naïve hope trusts that the challenges we’re facing, social and ecological, will be resolved in the end. I believe that such hope is ultimately a distraction from the difficult task of seeing and speaking honestly. Everything is not OK. Everything will not be OK. Much of the damage that we are inflicting on the biosphere and upon ourselves cannot be undone. But there is another sort of hope, a heavier hope, weighed down by grief and doubt, but nevertheless filled with resolve. This is the hope that I think we need. This hope is not afraid of being overwhelmed by sorrow or anger, knows that much of our best efforts will be in vain, knows that the world will get worse before it gets better, but still acts. 

What are some of your present and future projects?

The Charter has only recently been published, and will be launched more formally later in the year. Throughout 2017 and 2018 we will also be constructing an online ‘library’ that will archive key papers in the science of animal sentience, emotion and cognition, and which will act as an inter-disciplinary hub. In the longer term we are looking to curate events and publish new writings that bring the Charter to life. We’re a small organisation, still finding our feet, but the response so far has been hugely positive. We’re excited for the future of the Charter - we encourage everyone to sign up and affirm the principles it contains.

Evidence of animal sentience is everywhere: It's a matter of why sentience evolved, not if it evolved

With permission of Andrezj Krauze
Source: With permission of Andrezj Krauze

Thank you, Rob. I fully support your much-needed charter and hope that it receives global attention and support. I really like how it focuses on nonhumans and humans. 

For an essay I wrote for New Scientist magazine called "Animals are conscious and should be treated as such" about The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness there is a wonderful cartoon by Andrzej Krauze of different animals sitting around a table discussing these issues. The print copy was called "Welcome to our world" and it's about time we did so with open hearts.

We surely are not exceptional or alone in the arena of sentience and indeed, membership in the sentience club is rapidly growing. There are sound biological reasons for recognizing animals as sentient beings. We need to abandon the anthropocentric view that only big-brained animals such as ourselves, nonhuman great apes, elephants, and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have sufficient mental capacities for complex forms of sentience and consciousness. So, the interesting and challenging question is why has sentience evolved in diverse species, not if it has evolved. 

It's high time to stop pretending that we don't know if other animals are sentient: We do indeed know what other animals want and need. We need to stop pretending we don't know if other animals are sentient. We also need to accept that we know what they want and need. Their minds aren't as private as some claim them to be. Surely, we might miss out on some of the nitty-gritty details but it is safe to say that other animals want to live in peace and safety and absent fear, pain, and suffering, just as we do. And, the life of every single individual matters, a point Jessica Pierce and I make in our book The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. 

The time is now to shelve outdated and unsupported ideas about animal sentience and to factor sentience into all of the innumerable ways in which we encounter other animals. The animals will be grateful and warmly thank us for paying attention to the science of animal sentience. And, when we listen to our hearts we are recognizing how much we know about what other animals are feeling and that we owe it to them to protect them however we can. It will be a win-win for all, nonhumans and humans. 

1"An interdisciplinary journal, Animal Sentience (ASent) publishes current empirical findings on what, when and how nonhuman animals feel, along with the practical, methodological, legal, ethical, sociological, theological and philosophical implications of the findings. All articles are followed by Open Peer Commentary from specialists in the fields covered by the article; the author then responds to the commentaries."

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.