Reading Series

“Animals Matter” Chapter 4: Animal Sentience

For animals, do feelings matter?  Or, to put another way, are animals sentient?

The answer is yes, they are: Animals are conscious and aware of pleasure and pain. In this brief but important chapter, Bekoff addresses animal emotions and their ability to suffer and experience pain. As usual, I will be summarizing and addressing his main points and adding my own thoughts and insights.

Animal Emotions
happy cowI am sure we have all seen food product advertisements that claim that the animals are joyful and content. For example, “Happy Cow,” pictured to the right, is a brand of dairy products in which the dairy has been obtained from — guess what — “happy” cows.

Of course, animals cannot talk to us, so their happiness is inferred. And we interpret animals’ emotional states all the time, especially when it comes to our companion animals. I have a dog named Banksy who lives with my mom, and whenever I return home, I interpret Banksy’s rapid tail wagging and butt wiggling reaction to our reunion as joy.

But given how we easily we accept that animals have the ability to feel pleasure, isn’t it a little strange that there is often so much push back when animal advocates address the grief and sadness that our food animals endure? Or animals kept in cages at zoos? Or those forced to perform tricks?

Consider this image of Arturo, the polar bear who is forced to live in an Argentinian zoo. What emotions do you interpret from this image?

ArturpThis brings us to the question, and the next topic of the chapter…

Do Animals Suffer?
To answer that, let’s address pain. What is pain, and can animals feel it? “To experience pain, an individual must have at least a simple nervous system.” Pain includes experiencing unpleasant sensations.  Have you ever accidentally stepped on a cat’s tail? I grew up with cats and have unfortunately stepped on quite a few tails. If you have as well, then I am pretty sure you would agree with me that the cat did not like being stepped on. The cat probably let out a yelp and ran away to get away from you, indicating that s/he felt pain.

And of course, it is not just cats who can experience pain; all animals do. And yet it was not that long ago when fish were thought to be unable to experience pain, but new research (and common sense) proves otherwise. It would be an act of speciesism to assume that only certain animals, e.g., our companion animals, experience pain and suffering, or that only their suffering matters. As Bekoff writes, we should “assume that animals can experience pain and treat them accordingly.” How should we treat them, though? This will be discussed in the next chapter.

The last topic addressed in “Animal Sentience” discusses animal pain compared to human pain.

Is animal pain is different from human pain?
I think the better question, what does it matter if our pain is different from each other; does it need to be the same for it matter? As Bekoff points out, humans and animals do not behave exactly the same, so why should we feel pain or respond to pain in the same way that other animals do?

Consider the following image. Because the calf cannot cry out, “Help me!” in words, does his suffering not matter?

Because he cannot say, "Help me!" with words, does his pain and suffering not matter?

In regards to animal suffering, Bekoff wrote this in the beginning of the chapter, and it’s one of my favorite passages from the book: “Even though their own perceptual experience and the way they sense the world around them are usually very different from ours, they can still be conscious in their own ways and also experience pain and suffering in their own ways. Their own pain and suffering are no less important than our pain and suffering.”

How wonderfully stated! As animal advocates, I believe that is what we really need to teach and instill in others. What do you think?


Previous chapters in this reading series:

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