By Dr. Angel Wang
In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were given charge over Creation as “dominion” or “stewardship”. Could a third, rarely recognized interpretation be “partnership”?
Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard, in her book Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, makes the case that humans are not inherently more important than animals and therefore should treat them much better than they do. We humans have a duty to value our fellow creatures not as tools, but as sentient beings capable of consciousness and able to have lives that are good or bad for them. Ecologist Carl Safina, in Beyond Words: What Animals Feel and Think, describes through direct field observations the lives and families of elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli State Park, North American grey wolves in Yellowstone, and peaceful killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.
Animal sentience is the capacity of an animal to experience feelings such as suffering or pleasure. Negative feelings or emotions include pain, fear, boredom and frustration. Positive emotions include contentment and joy. Sentience also extends to an animal’s ability to learn from experience and from other animals, assess risks and benefits, and make choices. These abilities rely upon animals being aware of changes happening around them (perception) and being able to remember, process and assess information to meet their needs (cognition).
Understanding and recognizing animal sentience is important to help identify the needs of animals and to assess their welfare in differing circumstances. For example, are the animals farmed for food under intensive systems or under free-range systems? Are they in zoos and circuses or are they companion animals? Are they research subjects in laboratories? This calls for greater consideration of the mental well-being of animals. A newly developed framework for assessing animal welfare called the Five Domains, which includes nutrition, environment, health, behavior, and mental state, emphasizes the need to consider the mental as well as physical well-being of animals.
Over time, there has been a shift in acknowledging that animals are capable of experiencing different emotions. This was first recognized in vertebrate animals followed by recent scientific evidence of the same capability in sentient invertebrates. Although animal sentience was first recognized centuries ago, only in recent decades has it been explored scientifically and included in animal-related policies. The 2008 Treaty of Lisbon officially acknowledged animals as sentient, thus requiring full regard of their welfare requirements in the European Union. In 2017, the government of the Australian state of Victoria published their Animal Welfare Action Plan, acknowledging animal sentience. Spain, New Zealand, Canada, and the Australian Capital Territory also recognize animal sentience in legislation. In considering animal welfare, the word “animal” in its common legislative use refers to sentient animals, and a consensus has emerged that tends to include all vertebrates, cephalopods (squids, cuttlefishes and octopuses), and possibly even arthropods (insects, spiders and crustaceans) in this category. The 2012 Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness marked official scientific recognition of sentience in mammals, birds, and cephalopods (all mammals, birds, and many other creatures including octopuses). In the USA, animal research is overseen through the Animal Welfare Act, although many common animals such as rats, mice, birds, and agricultural animals are excluded due to industry lobbying.
Do animals have consciousness? Animals experiencing a positive mental state are likely to play, explore and have close social contact with other animals. Conversely, when an animal is frightened, it will either attack (fight response), escape (flight response) or show no reaction (freeze response). Safina’s book attests to the rich family and tribal behavior of animals in the wild. By observing animals under human care for signs of negative and positive emotions, we can help ensure that their mental well-being is safeguarded so that they can experience a life worth living.
Broom, DM, Sentience and Animal Welfare; Dawkins, MS, Why Animals Matter. Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare and Human Well-Being; Proctor, H, “Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading?”; Browning, H, and Veit, W, “The Sentience Shift in animal research”.
Angel Wang is the Junior Warden and the Creation Care Director at Grace St. Paul’s in Tucson, and is a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council.