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Animal Sentience Research Gets a Big Boost in Colorado

It's time to stop pretending we don’t know other animals are sentient beings.

Key points

  • A new Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection paves the way for studies of the emotional lives of animals and their feelings.
  • Future research will surely show that we need to expand the biodiversity and taxonomy of animal sentience.
This post is in response to
Do Chimps Recognize Others’ Disabilities?

The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer? —Jeremy Bentham, 1789

Philip Tedeschi, with permission.
Source: Philip Tedeschi, with permission.

It’s time to stop wondering if nonhuman animals (animals) are sentient—they are. Abundant science tells us so, including unlikely beings such as reptiles, insects, and other invertebrates. Sentience simply is the ability to feel various emotions, including joy, fear, and various types of pain and suffering. Animals’ feelings matter to them, and they should matter to us. Of course, animals' lives also matter simply because they're alive and want to live.

Animal sentience isn't science fiction, and neither are their emotional lives all that secret—when we observe them carefully, we can see and hear (and possibly smell) what they're feeling about themselves and others.

It's time to stop pretending we don’t know other animals are sentient beings. We know animals suffer when their bodies are violated and their lives compromised by being forced to live in horrific conditions of captivity, when their children are taken away from them, or when they’re severely abused to entertain us. We also know that animals feel joy and pleasure and like to experience certain activities, such as being free to move about and interact with friendly humans and other animals and play. They wouldn't seek them out if they didn’t enjoy doing these things.

An extremely thoughtful essay by Psychology Today writer Sarah Dunphy-Lelii titled "Do Chimps Recognize Others’ Disabilities?" made me revisit what we know about animal sentience. My answer to her question is, "I'm sure they do." The real question is not whether sentience has evolved, including feelings for others, but why.1 Consider a disabled elephant named Babyl. Some years ago while I was watching elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya with elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, I noticed a teenaged female, Babyl, who walked very slowly and had difficulty taking each step. I learned she’d been crippled for years, but the other members of her herd never left her behind. They’d walk a while, then stop and look around to see where she was. If Babyl lagged, some would wait for her. If she’d been left alone, she would have fallen prey to a lion or other predator. Sometimes the matriarch would even feed Babyl. Babyl’s friends had nothing to gain by helping her, as she could do nothing for them. Nonetheless, they adjusted their behavior to allow Babyl to remain with the group.

A Move in the Right Direction

Given what we know about animal sentience, it's time for more action—to use what we have known for a long time on behalf of other animals. Here's why Colorado has a wonderful head start, a catalyst to become the first state to declare animals as sentient beings.

A recent gift from Robert Brinkmann, PhD, DVM, to Denver University to establish The Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection (IASP) to expand the scientific understanding of the cognitive and emotional capabilities of animals is a move in the right direction for learning more about animal sentience and helping advance the protection of animals resulting from this evolving knowledge and understanding.

I'm pleased to learn that Denver University has a new Institute for Sentience and Animal Protection, and I hope that Colorado will become the first state to declare animals to be sentient beings. — Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE

Upon reception of the Templeton Prize, Dr. Goodall noted that she's the most proud of her scientific contributions demonstrating that also animals are sentient beings, just like us. — Koen Margodt, PhD, Ghent University, Belgium

Powerlessness is one of the emotions that we know that many animals—including people—can experience and is one of the most detrimental to our mental health. — Philip Tedeschi, co-director of the Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection

This new Institute complements DU’s internationally recognized Institute for Human-Animal Connection in their Graduate School of Social Work and the Animal Law Program at the Sturm College of Law. Co-directed by DU’s Philip Tedeschi and Justin Marceau, Policy and faculty director of the Animal Law Program, the IASP will collaborate with the Graduate School of Social Work and the Sturm College of Law. Tedeschi and Marceau hope the IASP will be a center for collaboration by those prepared to rethink our relationships with animals. There is no doubt it will develop an international reputation.

Brinkmann, with no personal connection to DU, has three laudable goals: (1) to elucidate the extent to which animals across the whole animal kingdom experience meaningful emotional lives; (2) to determine how humans can use our analytic capabilities to fulfill our responsibilities to non-human animals better; and (3) to use societal mechanisms, including the justice system, to create pressures and incentives for people to do the right thing.

Several countries have formally recognized animal sentience. These include Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

In September 2018, Slovakia, in its Civil Code, revised the definition of animals "to reflect that they are living beings, not things ... under the new definition, 'animals will enjoy special status and value as living creatures that are able to perceive the world with their own senses.'”

The list of animals who are recognized as being sentient continues to grow. In the UK, octopuses, crabs, and lobsters are included in the sentience club, and there now is a ban on bringing hunting trophies into the UK. The Treaty of Lisbon, passed in 2009, also recognizes other animals as sentient beings.

Research will show that we need to expand the biodiversity and taxonomy of animal sentience and there will be many "surprises." By officially recognizing animals to be sentient beings, many discussions will follow about what this really means. Most importantly, it will bring the topic of animal sentience to the foreground and generate much-needed exchanges about what we should and must do with this knowledge. It is not an “animal rights” position but rather a move 100 percent supported by scientific research. Declaring animals to be sentient does not automatically mean they will be protected from being abused and killed.

All in all, the abundant science—a database that continues to grow—supports the clear fact that many diverse nonhumans are deeply feeling emotional and sentient beings and provides a strong foundation for people who want to use "being sentient" to protect and respect the lives of animals with whom we interact in a wide variety of venues.

Now that formal declarations and laws are changing the legal status of other animals, we must use the recognition of sentience to improve animals' lives drastically. By doing so, we also can positively affect human well-being because caring for nonhumans positively affects caring for humans.

All things considered, the time is right for Colorado to declare animals to be sentient beings and set a model for other states. Nothing will be lost, a lot will be gained, and nonhumans and humans will benefit from this landmark move. What harms "them"—other animals—also harms us, and what works for "them" also works for us—a win-win for all.


1) For more discussions on animals feeling empathy for others in need click here and see The Emotional Lives of Animals: Grief, friendship, gratitude, wonder, and other things we animals experience; The Emotional Lives of Animals; The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age; and Dogs Demystified: An A-to-Z Guide to All Things Canine; For discussions about sentience in different species also see Insect Sentience: Science, Pain, Ethics, and Welfare; Invertebrate sentience: A review of the neuroscientific literature; Invertebrate Sentience Table (For more information, click here.); The Emotional Lives and Personalities of Backyard Chickens; Sentient Rats: Their Cognitive, Emotional, and Moral Lives; Animal sentience: history, science, and politics; The sentience shift in animal research; The Inner Lives of Plants: Cognition, Sentience, and Ethics; and A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.

Spain Joins Other Nations in Declaring Animals Are Sentient. (Although a move in the right direction, the change may not make a major difference in how animals are treated.)

The Secret (Mental Health) Lives of Pets: What Pets Really Think and Feel.

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