World Animal Day: Compassion, Freedom, and Justice for All
On this special day for nonhuman animals, let's do much more on their behalf.
Posted Oct 03, 2018
Coexistence in the Anthropocene and Beyond: Compassion and Justice for All
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth." (Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod)
This 90-year old quotation from Henry Beston is one of my all-time favorites. It needs to be read in full and I always wish it could be made into a poster that would go viral globally. It could form the basis for an entire course in animal-human relationships. I go to it constantly because it says so much about who other animals are and about our relationships with them. First, we do indeed view others through our own senses and they don’t sense the world how we do. So our views are, indeed, distorted. We also patronize them for not being like us, for what we perceive as their incompleteness, as if we are complete. This misrepresentation allows some people to place dogs and other animals below us on some mythical evolutionary scale. They’re referred to as “lower” beings, a move that results in rampant mistreatment and egregious abuse. As Beston asserts, “And therein we err,” for we should not be the template against which we measure other animals. I also like how he views other animals as “other nations,” since this asks us to view them as the beings they are, not as what we want them to be. And surely, numerous other animals are caught up in the “travail of the earth,” captive to whatever we want them to do and whoever we want them to be. As we’ve seen, this makes for a good deal of stress in their lives as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world.
Power is not a license for domination or abuse
Humans engage in intimate and necessary relations with other animals and in most of these interactions we hold the power. But power is not a license for domination or abuse. Trying to imagine a world without human-animal interaction is both absurd and sad, especially since we evolved together. But can we imagine and perhaps create a world in which our interactions with animals are more respectful of their own needs and interests? We think the answer to this is a resounding yes! However, working toward such a world will require that we stop using science and human-centered arrogance as tools of violence against other animals. We need to move beyond welfarism.
Animal-welfare science is going strong and has firmly developed into an internationally recognized field of research. But where exactly is it headed? On the one hand, there have been some positive changes on behalf of animals. In March 2016, China released its first set of guidelines for the more humane treatment of laboratory animals, and the United States Congress passed reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act, one of which requires that the Environmental Protection Agency reduce and replace animal testing for chemical safety where scientifically reliable alternatives are available. The editorial board of the The New York Times called for the Pentagon to put an end to the use of live animals in combat medic training. The Buenos Aires Zoo is closing after 140 years, citing as its reason that keeping wild animals in captivity is degrading, Iran banned the use of wild animals in circuses, and at the time of this writing, 42 airline companies have adopted bans on trophy animal shipments on their carriers. [i] We recognize that these are positive moves; however, the science of animal well-being will require more thoroughgoing changes.
And as time goes on, we are accumulating more precise data about the wants and needs of animals. Donald Broom and Andrew Fraser, two of the world’s leading welfare researchers, write, “Our knowledge of . . . welfare indicators has improved rapidly over the years as people with backgrounds in zoology, physiology, animal production and veterinary medicine have investigated the effects of difficult conditions on animals.” [ii] Welfare concepts have been refined and methods of assessment have been developed, expanded, condensed. We have a good list of things that “challenge” animals: exposure to pathogens, tissue damage, attack or threat of attack, social competition, excessive stimulation, lack of stimulation, absence of key stimuli (e.g., “a teat for a young mammal”), and inability to control one’s environment. [iii]
In addition to the data, the Five Freedoms seem to be evolving conceptually. For example, David Mellor, of the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University in New Zealand, has suggested a shift in terminology to the “Five Domains.” The domains model addresses certain weaknesses of the Five Freedoms and offers, according to Mellor, a more scientifically up-to-date method for assessing harms to animals. One of the key problems with the Five Freedoms is that the language “freedom from” in four of the five statements implies that the elimination of certain experiences (hunger, fear, pain) is possible. In fact, as we all know, these affective experiences are part and parcel of life and serve, biologically, to motivate an animal to engage in behaviors essential to survival. Mellor claims that the goal of welfare science should not be to eliminate these experiences, but rather to balance them against positive affective experiences. [iv]
None of this amounts to a substantial evolution in the fundamental moral or scientific tenets and tenor of welfare science. Mellor acknowledges that the welfarist paradigm allows for negative welfare states, but he encourages a kind of reweighting of the scales so that the suffering we impose is tempered by tossing animals a few extra “positive welfare state” crumbs. He admits that animals will still experience pain and suffering but wants to give them as much comfort, pleasure, and control as possible and reduce the intensity of negative states to “tolerable” levels, within the context of using them as we wish. We are still caught in the “welfarist vortex,” and are simply accumulating bigger and bigger piles of data about how exactly we are harming animals and what they are experiencing within the various “challenging” situations we impose upon them.
While some may argue we are being too critical or not paying attention to the number of changes that have been made to improve the lives of other animals, welfare science continues to favor our interests over those of other animals and to patronize animals by acknowledging only their most superficial needs. There are new welfarist data—lots of new data—and this information is filling in what we know about how best to “humanely” slaughter, trap, confine, and constrain. But the value commitments of the welfarist enterprise are so strongly biased in favor of human self-interest that our treatment of animals under this regime will never move beyond exploitation and violence. We may try hard to give animals a better life but a better life is not necessarily a good life.
The moral commitments (or in our minds, the immoral commitments) of welfarism have remained constant: we are still the purveyors of pain and suffering. In what kind of world do we live when an entire research program is focused on how best to harm animals, and how to salve the conscience of those who might have reservations about the violence?
Why Good Welfare Is Not and Cannot Ever Be Good Enough
Hebrew University’s Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the landmark book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, wrote an opinion essay for the Guardian in 2015 calling industrial farming the greatest crime in history. “The scientific study of animals,” he writes, “has played a dismal role in this tragedy. The scientific community has used its growing knowledge of animals mainly to manipulate their lives more efficiently in the service of human industry.” [v] Harari has captured the essence of why welfare can never be good enough. Animal-welfare science operates in the service of a variety of industries, and while in this role it can and will never do more than reinforce the status quo. It will never challenge the brutal exploitation of animals in farming or in laboratory research, zoos, pet stores, or conservation-research programs. Indeed, as Harari suggests, science hasn’t just been silent about our violent treatment of animals; it has lent its support and expertise to the endeavor.
Worst of all, welfare science has woven a cloak of objectivity around abusive practices. Broom and Fraser write, for example, that, “the assessment of welfare can be carried out in an objective way that is independent of any moral considerations.” [vi] Like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, the objectivity of welfare science is meant to shield those wearing it from moral examination. But the status quo that welfare science perpetuates is a set of value assumptions, including the assumption that the feelings of animals don’t really matter all that much, and even if they do matter a little, their interests can be trumped when doing so serves our interests.
Science has been put to work to make our manipulations of animals more efficient, more productive, and more profitable. It has been a partner in crime with industries that use and abuse animals, and has been employed to substantiate and scientize and ethically neutralize crimes against animals. But this is not an inevitable role for science. Science has the potential to help animals and to heal our fractured relationship with them. Indeed, as the science of animal cognition and emotion continues to advance, it may well be that the weaknesses of welfarism will become more apparent and the basic inconsistencies will be laid bare. The more we know about the inner lives of animals, the more incongruous animal-welfare science in the service of industry becomes.
Science, Ethics, and Advocacy
The basic insights of animal-welfare science are profoundly important. The first of these is that animals have subjective experiences. The second is that animals not only experience negative feelings like pain and fear and frustration, but also experience pleasure, happiness, excitement, and other positive feelings. Following on these, the final insight is that behavior offers a clear window into animal feelings.
Behavior is, indeed, a good window through which to see and know animals. But it can be a very tiny welfarist window, in a house we design, build, and manage for our own ends. Or, it can be a much bigger window, one through which we can peer but didn’t build, the dimensions of which are unknown. If we looked inside an abattoir or peered into an orca tank at SeaWorld, we would see a vast collection of “welfare” concerns. But the abattoir and the orca tank need to be seen from a much larger vantage point. We shouldn’t be looking in the abattoir and the orca tank and tinkering with the conditions we find, but looking at them, taking full measure of what these places mean for animals. The essence of the ethology of freedom is that behavior is a window onto what animals really want and need—to be free to live their own lives, to be free from the suffering and exploitation to which we subject them—but only if we are looking the right way: straight into the eyes of the animals themselves.
In contrast to welfare science, the science of well-being uses what we are learning about cognition and emotion to benefit individual animals, continually seeking to enhance their freedom to live their own lives in peace and safety. To the three basic scientific insights of welfare science, the science of well-being adds the essential ethical corollary that the feelings of individual animals matter. In contrast to welfarism, a science of well-being acknowledges up front that science and values are intertwined and that our assessments of what individual animals need are scientific and ethical. Indeed, values come first and inform the kinds of scientific questions we are open to asking and the kinds of answers we are willing to discover. Welfarism is a cage that traps human perception, one that also confines our sense of empathy for other beings. We need to open the doors of the cage.
There will always be trade-offs in what humans need and what animals need. Humans inevitably interact with and use other animals, and we are not advocating a hands-off approach to animals and nature, although that might not be a bad idea in a human-dominated world. But a great number of things that we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachments on wildlife. The threshold for taking away an animal’s freedom or denying any or all of the Five Freedoms is, at present, extraordinarily and offensively low. The bar must be raised.
As we’ve emphasized throughout this book, the central question motivating animal-welfare science is “What do animals want and need?” This question has remained the focus of welfarism over the past five decades. Do we know enough to answer this question? Absolutely. We know enough, right now, to know that animals want to be free from human exploitation, free from captivity, and free from the sufferings we impose on them. This is not to say that further scientific research into animals’ hearts and minds isn’t important, for it is. The more we know, the more mindfully we can interact with other animals, as long as we can break out of the welfarist cage and focus more objectively on what they want and need.
What we must do now is to close the knowledge translation gap. We must apply what we know about emotion and cognition, and follow through on the moral implications of the science we currently have at hand. Cognitive ethology, the study of animal minds, needs to take a “practical turn,” putting what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves. Scientists can be tools of industry, or they can be advocates for animals in ways that really serve the animals. We would like to see more scientists move away from being advocates for welfarism and become more positive advocates for the animals themselves. While some scientists claim that scientists should not be advocates, they forget that arguing for the use of animals is advocacy that works against animals. A few years ago, Marc gave a talk in Sydney, Australia, where he argued that it was wrong to kill kangaroos for sport, fun, and food. At the end of this talk, a scientist working for the kangaroo-meat industry criticized Marc for being an advocate. He said that science is supposed to be objective and scientists should not be advocates. Marc responded that he and his critic were both advocates. Marc advocated for the kangaroos, whereas his critic advocated against them. The room got very quiet.
The best hope for closing the knowledge translation gap lies with future scientists and with all of our children because they have not yet been inoculated against compassion for animals. One can do “good science” and still feel for animals, and indeed, we’ve already seen that compassion and concern for animals can produce better science. Once this knowledge becomes integrated, business as usual will look very different.
By encouraging schools and parents to include humane education we can hope to raise children who both understand that animals have feelings and, more importantly, translate this into their daily lives and choices. Marc has been writing a lot on the notion of “rewilding education,” retuning our relationship with earth, and getting youngsters off their butts and out into nature. [vii] A recent report has shown that prisoners in a maximum-security facility in the United States are guaranteed two hours of outdoor time every day, whereas 50 percent of youngsters worldwide spend less than an hour outside each day. [viii] Not only will our children benefit, but so too will future generations as we negotiate the challenging and frustrating path through the Anthropocene.
What research into animal cognition and emotion continues to demonstrate is just how intertwined we are, evolutionarily. Human exceptionalism, the idea that we are of a different sort altogether, and thus (in our own self-serving logic) have a right to do as we please, is scientifically unsupportable. Writing about the 2015 discovery of fossils from an early human relative called Homo naledi, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal wrote, “We are trying way too hard to deny that we are modified apes. The discovery of these fossils is a major paleontological breakthrough. Why not seize this moment to overcome our anthropocentrism and recognize the fuzziness of the distinctions within our extended family? We are one rich collection of mosaics, not only genetically and anatomically, but also mentally.” [ix]
As we were in the early stages of writing this book, Marc received an e-mail from his friend Jennifer Miller, who was working at a reintroduction center for previously captive parrots in Costa Rica. Jennifer told him the story of a great green macaw who had escaped from the center. The fate of the parrot became a source of argument among the center’s staff. Jennifer’s feeling was that they should not try to recapture the animal and should just let him be free. Others strongly disagreed, feeling that it was their obligation to find him and bring him back because he would likely perish on his own in the wild. This story is a wonderful example of how freedom for animals means different things for different people, and how freedom can conflict with other values.
We decided to ask some colleagues to share their thoughts about what freedom means for animals. Here are some of their responses:
Michael Tobias (award-winning author and filmmaker): “We have no idea what freedom means. But we can certainly appreciate what the lack of freedom means.”
Sarah Bexell (Institute for Human-Animal Connection, University of Denver): “Self-determination . . . including the choice of where to roam, fly, swim, choice of friends, choice of activities, choice of food, choice of mates, choice of home/nest, and even poor choices that end their lives, but at least death came in the midst of freedom.”
Jo-Anne McArthur (director of the video "The Ghosts in Our Machine" and author of We Animals): “To be free from bodily and psychological exploitation by humans . . . to be respected by humans and not objectified.”
George Schaller (world-renowned conservation biologist): “An intriguing question. I just returned yesterday from eastern Tibet in search of nonhuman animals. An animal in the wild is free to spend much of its time in search of food or starve, competing for status and mates, and remaining alert to avoid becoming prey. A captive animal is fed well, its social life, if any, confined to cellmates, and, secure from danger, its existence is blunted and banal, its evolutionary force spent, placing it among the living dead.”
Hope Ferdowsian (physician and bioethicist): “The same as for humans. Freedom to meet our basic physical needs, whatever those might be by species and individual—including freedom of movement (bodily liberty); safe and secure from harm from humans (bodily integrity—and this should include freedom from harm to the mind); freedom to love and bond with whom we wish; respect for our choices, and freedom from humiliation and intentional shaming.”
This is a sampling of what freedom means to people who have worked in diverse sectors of the human-animal interface. But the story of the macaw reminds us that we need also, and especially, to think about what freedom means to animals. What did freedom mean to the escaped bird? To be free to fly but possibly not survive long, or to delay freedom of flight until better equipped to survive longer? Maybe he gave us his answer by escaping.
Transitioning from Welfare to Well-Being: The Adjacent Possible
A recent issue of the Atlantic featured as its Big Question, “Which contemporary habits will be most unthinkable 100 years from now?” One of the responses was, “Eating animals for their protein.” [x] It is indeed possible to imagine a future in which people will look back at how animals were treated in the early twenty-first century and shudder with horror. “They were barbarians,” they may well say about us. “How could they possibly ignore animal sentience and suffering?” They might say this about all of the venues of animal use about which we have written.
Steven Johnson, who has studied and written about the history of innovation, explores the notion of what he calls the adjacent possible. [xi] The adjacent possible, writes Johnson, “is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” The past and present prepare us for any number of futures. Depending on what groundwork has been laid and what ideas are floating around, certain new thoughts become thinkable. As Johnson suggests, “The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”[xii]
The pieces are here right now for a major paradigm shift in how we think about and interact with other animals. Indeed, they have been here for quite a while, but few are bold enough to say “enough is enough.” A future is possible in which humans and other animals coexist peacefully, where nonviolence is the norm rather than the exception, and where exploiting animals will be viewed as morally offensive. Welfarism raises the ante by acknowledging that animals have feelings and that these feelings matter. But in continuing to favor human interests above the interests of individual animals, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Enhancing the freedoms and well-being of individual animals, and championing the peaceful coexistence and harmony of animals and people, opens the door to a new “adjacent possible.” The Anthropocene—the Age of Humanity—may well evolve into the Compassionocene. Building on the momentum of increased global concern for the well-being of individual animals, we must work toward a future of greater compassion, freedom, and justice for all. This is the right thing to do.
[i] Kathleen McLaughlin, “China Finally Setting Guidelines for Treating Lab Animals," Science, March 21, 2016; Richard Denison, “Historic deal on TSCA reform reached, setting stage for a new law after 40 years of waiting,” EDF Health, May 23, 2016; "Ban Animal Use in Military Medical Training," Editorial Board, The New York Times, June 27, 2016; Uke Goñi, “Buenos Aires zoo to close after 140 years: 'Captivity is degrading'” The Guardian June 23, 2016; Amanda Lindner, “Oh Yeah! Iran Bans Use of Wild Animals in Circuses!,” One Green Planet, March 30, 2016; Humane Society International, “More than 42 Airlines Adopt Wildlife Trophy Bans after Cecil the Lion’s Death,” August 27, 2015,
[ii] Broom and Fraser, Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare, p. 6, our italics.
[iii] Ibid., 14.
[v] Yuval Noah Harari, “Industrial Farming Is One of the Worst Crimes in History,” Guardian, September 25, 2015.
[vi] Broom and Fraser, Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare, 6.
[vii] Marc Bekoff, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence
[viii] Katherine Martinko, “Children Spend Less Time Outside Than Prison Inmates,” TreeHugger, March 25, 2016,
[ix] Frans de Waal, “Who Apes Whom?” New York Times, September 15, 2015.
[x] Atlantic, June 2015, "Which Contemporary Habits Will Be Most Unthinkable 100 Years From Now?"
[xi] The theory of the adjacent possible was first proposed by biophysicist Stuart Kauffman in 2002, but Johnson is the first to apply the concept to creative thought.
[xii] Steven Johnson, “The Genius of the Tinkerer,” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2010. See also Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
Excerpted and updated from The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, written with Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce.