In freeing animals can we free ourselves?

Posted May 18, 2017

As human beings and as individuals we hold freedom near and dear to our hearts. We value freedom to such an extent that we wrote it into our constitution and have fought wars on its behalf. Yet simultaneously some have decided which individuals deserve freedom, should have freedom, how much of it, and when. And not just for other humans, but for nonhuman animals [hereafter animals] as well. The idea that freedom must be available to all is at the core of Drs. Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce's new book, The Animals' Agenda

What I love about this book is how it challenges us to have those difficult conservations, where many people who are convinced they love animals often clash or have different ideas about what it means to truly protect them and serve their best interests. I recently had a chance to talk with Dr. Marc Bekoff about The Animals' Agenda which he wrote with Jessica Pierce. Below is a part of that conversation.
Q: One of the cornerstones of the book is differentiating between animal welfare and animal well-being. Can you tell me more about that?

A: Welfare concentrates on balancing the costs to animals while maintaining the benefit to humans. In that way, human interest trumps those of other animals. Many people championing animal welfare say that they are improving the lives of animals by providing them with a better life within the constraints of meeting our needs. But, a better life is not necessarily a good life. Welfare general means something bad is going to the animal. In contrast, well-being concentrates on individuals—valuing the needs, wants, and desires of the individual and finding ways to honor that. 
In The Animals’ Agenda you highlight much of the new research emerging about animal emotions, cognition, and behavior. Even since the book was published news out of science has revealed horses understand human emotions and facial expressions, bats share information with each other, and bees learn to solve complex problems from other bees. What are the implications of these types of discoveries for how we think about our relationship with other animals?

Ivar Leides  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Source: Ivar Leides Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

A: It means we need to give them much more credit than we do and that many of these discoveries aren’t really so-called "surprises" when we pay close attention to who they are and what they need to do to be a card carrying member of their species.
Q: Despite this information why do you think that people are seemingly immune to the suffering of other animals? Why the disconnect, what you refer to as “knowledge translation”?
A: The average person is alienated from nature and other animals in their daily life. We have lost our connection with nature, we spend less time in nature and that compromises our ability to make the connection between knowing and behavior. 
Q: What do you think it will take to go from acknowledgment to measurable change in behavior? 
A: It will take a paradigm shift and adopting what we call the science of well-being rather than following the science of welfare. And being explicit about the difference and being willing to uncover the inconsistencies, confront them, and make changes. 
Q: In Chapter 3 you explore freedom for the animals we eat, namely farm animals. We share a high regard for chickens and I think few people understand how remarkable chickens are and what they need. Can you tell me about chickens and what specific changes could be implemented to ensure their well-being? 
A: What we know and continue to learn about chickens and other birds is central to what we put forth about all animals. Chickens are smart, emotional, display empathy, have friends, and remember at least 100 different individuals. When we talk about parrots and other birds, people suddenly remember that chickens are birds too. We have a tendency as humans to ascribe certain characteristics to animals (e.g., less intelligent, mean) as a way to convince ourselves that they suffer less. But the reality is that they suffer the same as us. Freedom for a chicken would honor who an individual chicken is and what she or he needs. Chickens need to peck, fly, socialize, dust bathe, and rest, among other things. Essentially, freedom is looking at the lifestyle of an individual of a given species and truly tailoring their experience and life so that they can have those conditions. Chickens have personalities and the burden is on us to recognize the characteristics and needs of all individuals and to honor individual differences even among members of the same species. 

Q: We, as humans, routinely deny freedom to each other, as well as to other animals. How can we grant freedom to members of other species when we seem incapable of providing that to each other?
We often look to animals as catalysts for bridging the empathy gap. This means often people may be nicer to nonhuman animals than they are to other people and we can use this trend to expand one’s empathy to all Individuals, including other humans. 
Q: What drove you and Jessica to write this book?   

By Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: By Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0

A: It was a deep discontent with animal welfare science. Welfare science patronizes other animals in the name of humans and does not focus on the well-being of individuals, and does not even recognize animals as individuals. We argue that this is of the utmost importance. Individuals matter. With all we have learned, animals are not really better off in captive situations. We want to change that. 

This compelling and provocative book will have you rethinking not just what it means to have empathy and compassion for other animals, but also for your fellow humans. And freedom. Well freedom must be experienced by all or it is known by none.