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Vulture Culture

Hands up if you’ve met a vulture.

Hands up if you've met a vulture.

I doubt many hands went up. Most of us have only ever seen vultures soaring and tilting above, as I did yesterday while I drove from Pittsburgh to Washington. From that perspective, vultures are dark, anonymous birds.

I met a vulture once. She had been on the losing end of a collision with a car. Unable to fly again, she went on occasional outings where people could see her up close. I met her at an animal welfare fair in a high school gymnasium. She was a black vulture, Coragyps atratus. She stood on a wooden perch, and seemed perfectly at ease in these unnatural surroundings. She was remarkably unlike my preconceptions of vultures. She had deep, black eyes. She blinked. She moved her head slowly to observe the goings on. She wasn't smelly or scruffy as I had shallowly imagined vultures to be. She looked immaculate. She had a presence. If I had to choose one word to describe her it would be dignified. She wasn't an object but a subject--a thinking, feeling being.

For much of the twentieth century, science didn't view animals as thinking, feeling beings. Animal feelings, minds, and emotions were considered unfathomable mysteries beyond the reach of experimental science. As such, they were dismissed and almost wholly neglected.

Today that's all changed. Science has emerged from what American neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has termed its "terminal agnosticism" towards animal experience. Studies are being performed and published showing animal capacities that would have been deemed fantasy a generation ago. Elephants keep mental tabs on thirty or more compatriots. Baboons bereave the loss of an infant and seek therapy by expanding their social networks. Caged starlings become pessimistic and free ones optimistic. Rats know what they know and don't know. Scrub jays remember the what/where/when of a past event. Domestic dogs object to unfair treatment. And chimps trounce humans in a short-term memory task. There is now even a journal titled Animal Cognition .

What does this revolution in science mean for our relationship to animals? I think it means we can no longer justify treating them like so many blocks of wood. The paradox is that as our knowledge of the inner lives of animals grows, our treatment of them falls further behind. Humans will confine, kill and consume more animals in 2010 than in any year in our prior history. More promising is that cultural change proceeds much faster than evolutionary change does. It takes millions of years for an eye or a wing to evolve; acknowledging the injustice of discriminating against a person based on their skin color can happen within decades. On the wings of justice and empathy we can rise like a vulture on a thermal.

Sentience is the bedrock of ethics. And it's getting harder to deny animals their sentience. I believe we are on the brink of a paradigm shift in our relationship to animals, and that humankind may look back on the 21st century as the Century of the Animals.