"Will More Science Show It's Really OK to Harm Animals?"

We know and have known for a long time that animals experience deep emotions.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

"Will more science show it's really ok to harm animals...don't we really know enough right now?"

Because of my decades long interest in the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of nonhuman animals (animals), I receive emails from many students with questions about the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals). The notes range from elementary school students all the way to university students. I'm always impressed with how much they know in many different areas, including animal behavior, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), conservation, and animal protection.

Last week I received this note from an eighth grader, and it really piqued my interest because it's been a question with which I've been concerned for quite a long time. She asked, "Will more science show it's really ok to harm animals?" She followed it up with two additional extremely apt questions, namely, "Do we really need more science to know animals have emotions and that they suffer?" and  "Will we really learn anything that tells us it's ok to treat them with less respect and compassion -- don't we really know enough right now?"

Tatiana Chekryzhova, free downloads Dreamstime
Source: Tatiana Chekryzhova, free downloads Dreamstime

I was incredibly impressed with this youngster's note and immediately wrote back to her and thanked her for writing to me and for asking such important questions. I also wrote that my simple answer to her very thoughtful questions is, "No, additional data will not make it okay to harm other animals, and we know enough right now to mandate that we take steps to develop and to enforce stronger guidelines and laws to more adequately protect them from harm. They need all the help they can get and they're not getting what they want and need."

I've been thinking about these sorts of issues and questions for a long time and, in fact, long ago I came to the obvious conclusion that we knew enough then -- and we surely do now -- to offer far more compassion, respect, and humane treatment to other animals who are used and abused by humans in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, we don't come close to using what we already know to protect other animals, and the failure to use what we know on behalf of other animals is extremely harmful to them.

For example, in The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, Jessica Pierce and I discuss the "knowledge translation gap," that refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On the broad scale, it means that the incredible amount of detailed information we now have about animal cognition and animal emotions has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices. Consider also The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, The Treaty of Lisbon, a declaration on animal sentience, and essays published in the journal called Animal Sentience, all of which clearly make the case that we know enough right now to put an end to animal abuse. And, some researchers, including the eminent primatologist Frans de Waal, wonder if we're smart enough to know how smart other animals are, and I would ask if we're smart enough to know about the true depth and richness of the emotional lives of other animals, including the nonhuman companions with whom we share our homes (please also see "Humans Are Dumb At Figuring Out How Smart Animals Are"). 

One excellent and extremely troubling example of the knowledge translation gap is found in the wording of the U. S. Federal Animal Welfare Act, which explicitly excludes rats and mice from kingdom Animalia (even though a first grader knows that rats and mice are animals). The science that clearly shows these rodents are sentient beings continues to be totally ignored. Thus, in the 2002 iteration of the AWA we read, "Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of 'animal' in the Animal Welfare Act, specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research." The first time I saw this I had to read it a few times to be sure my eyes were still working. They were and still are. For more on the idiocy of the AWA’s misclassification of rats, mice, and other animals please see “The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals.

Birds and fishes also get incorrectly and misleadingly dissed. Yes, these rodents and some other animals are not considered to be animals. And, numerous scientists sign on to this ludicrous claim. I've pondered the question, "How do you explain to a youngster that rats aren't really animals?" It beats me, but it's clear they're written off because of their widespread use and because they make a lot of money for those who wantonly breed and use them in all sorts of research. I also wonder why scientists aren't up in arms about this inane misclassification. Where have they gone and why aren't they doing anything about it. Researchers should mandate an immediate biologically based corrective to the AWA and openly lead the way. Science could help to save animals, but it's not doing a very good job at doing so. 

Questioning science is not anti-science

 “How about we accord other species the respect they deserve?” (Edward Wasserman

I've argued in a number of places that science alone will not save animals or their homes. Rather, individuals will have to work to reconnect with nature and with other animals on a deeply personal level -- they'd need to rewild themselves. I've always stressed that questioning science is not anti-science. 

Where to from here? We need to use what we know

So, do we really need more science to know other animals are sentient and feeling and conscious beings? No, we're not learning anything that says we should show less respect, dignity, compassion, and love toward other animals. While there is still much to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals, more scientific evidence won't refute the fact that they need to be treated with much more care, tenderness, and humaneness than they currently are.

I'm so thankful for the notes and questions I receive from students of all ages that get me to revisit and to rethink many different aspects about the lives of other animals and what we know about them as thinking and feeling beings. They also give me hope for the future. 

If scientific studies of animal cognition and animal emotions stopped today, other animals should be just fine and also benefit from what we already know if we truly use the information we already have at hand. Indeed, we are compelled to use what we know because each and every life matters because each and every life is intrinsically valuable. 

Nonhuman animals need all the help they can get, and the information for giving them the very best lives possible is already available and just waiting to be used. Clearly, a good deal of what we know from detailed comparative research isn't used on their behalf. 

We must do all we can to alleviate another individual's suffering.

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