Our Fellow Creatures Have Feelings - So We Should
Give Them Rights Too
By Jeremy Rifkin
The Guardian - UK
While much of the talk in big science this past year has
centred on new breakthroughs in biotechnology,
nanotechnology, computers and more esoteric questions
such as the age of our universe, a quieter story has been
unfolding behind the scenes in laboratories around the
world - one whose impact on human perception and
our understanding of the world is likely to be even more
profound. And, strangely, the companies sponsoring the
research are McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and other
fast food purveyors.
Pressured by animal rights activists and by growing public
support for the humane treatment of animals, these
companies have financed research into, among other things,
the emotional, mental and behavioural states of our fellow
creatures. What the researchers are finding is unsettling. It
appears that many of our fellow creatures are more like us
than we had ever imagined. They feel pain, suffer,
experience stress, affection, excitement - and even love.
Studies on pigs' social behaviour at Purdue University in the
US, for example, have found that they crave affection and are
easily depressed if isolated or denied playtime with each other.
The lack of mental and physical stimuli can result in deterioration
of health and increased incidence of diseases. The EU has taken
such studies to heart and has outlawed the use of isolating pig
stalls by 2012, and mandated their replacement with open-air
stalls. In Germany, the government is encouraging pig farmers
to give each pig 20 seconds of human contact every day and to
provide them with two or three toys to prevent them fighting.
The pig study only scratches the surface of what is going on
in the field of research into animal emotions and cognitive
abilities. Researchers were stunned recently by the publication
of an article in the prestigious journal Science reporting on the
conceptual abilities of New Caledonian crows. In controlled
experiments, scientists at Oxford University reported that two
birds named Betty and Abel were given a choice between
using two tools, one a straight wire, the other a hooked wire,
to snag a piece of meat from inside a tube. Both chose the
hooked wire. But then, unexpectedly, Abel, the more dominant
male, stole Betty's hook, leaving her only with a straight wire.
Unphased, Betty used her beak to wedge the wire in a crack
and then bent it with her beak to produce a hook, like the one
stolen from her. She then snagged the food from inside the tube.
Researchers repeated the experiment 10 more times giving her
straight wires, and she fashioned a hook out of the wire nine
times, demonstrating a sophisticated ability to create tools.
Then there is the story of Alex the African grey parrot, who
was able to master tasks previously thought to be the preserve
of human beings. Alex can identify more than 40 objects and
seven colours, and can add and separate objects into categories.
Equally impressive is Koko, a gorilla who was taught sign
language, has mastered more than 1,000 signs and understands
several thousand English words. On human IQ tests, she scores
between 70 and 95, putting her in the slow learner - but not
retarded - category.
Tool-making and developing language skills are just two of the
many attributes we thought were exclusive to our species. Self-
awareness is another. Philosophers and animal behaviourists
have long argued that other animals are not capable of self-
awareness because they lack a sense of individualism. Not so,
according to a spate of new studies. At the Washington National
Zoo, orangutans given mirrors explore parts of their bodies they
can't see otherwise, showing a sense of self. An orangutan named
Chantek at the Atlanta Zoo used a mirror to groom his teeth and
adjust his sunglasses, says his trainer.
When it comes to the ultimate test of what distinguishes humans
from the other creatures, scientists have long believed that
mourning for the dead represents the real divide. Other animals
have no sense of their mortality and are unable to comprehend
the concept of their own death. But animals, it appears,
experience grief. Elephants will often stand next to their dead
kin for days, in silence, occasionally touching their bodies with
their trunks. Kenyan biologist Joyce Poole, who has studied
African elephants for 25 years, says that elephant behaviour
towards their dead "leaves me with little doubt that they
experience deep emotion and have some understanding of
We also know that virtually all animals play, especially when
young. Anyone who has ever observed the antics of puppies,
kittens or bear cubs cannot help but notice the similarities in the
way they play and our own children. Recent studies in the brain
chemistry of rats show that when they play, their brains release
large amounts of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with
pleasure and excitement in human beings.
Noting the striking similarities in brain anatomy and chemistry
of humans and other animals, Steven Siviy, a behavioural
scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, asks a question
increasingly on the minds of other researchers: "If you believe
in evolution by natural selection, how can you believe that feelings
suddenly appeared, out of the blue, with human beings?"
The new findings of researchers are a far cry from the conceptions
espoused by orthodox science. Until very recently, scientists were
still advancing the idea that most creatures behaved by sheer instinct,
and that what appeared to be learned behaviour was merely
genetically wired activity. Now we know that geese have to teach
their goslings their migration routes. In fact, we are finding out that
learning is passed on from parent to offspring far more often than
not and that most animals engage in learned experience brought on
by continued experimentation and trial-and-error problem-solving.
So what does all of this portend for the way we treat our fellow
creatures? What about the thousands of animals subjected each
year to painful laboratory experiments? Or the millions of
domestic animals raised under inhumane conditions and destined
for slaughter and human consumption. Should we ban leg-hold
traps and discourage the sale and purchase of fur coats? And
what about killing animals for sport? Fox hunting in England,
bull-fighting in Spain, cock-fighting in Mexico? What about
entertainment? Should lions be caged in zoos, should elephants
be made to perform in circuses?
These questions are beginning to be raised in courtrooms and
in legislation around the world. Today, Harvard and 25 other
law schools in the US have introduced law courses on animal
rights, and an increasing number of cases representing the rights
of animals are entering the court system. Germany recently
became the first government in the world to guarantee animal
rights in its constitution.
The human journey is, at its core, about the extension of
empathy to broader and more inclusive domains. At first,
the empathy extended only to kin and tribe. Eventually it
was extended to people of like-minded values - a common
religion, nationality or ideology. In the 19th century, the first
humane societies were established, extending the empathy
to include our fellow creatures. Today, millions of people,
under the banner of the animal rights movement, are
continuing to deepen and to expand human concern for,
and empathy toward, our fellow creatures.
The current studies into animals' emotions, cognition and
behaviour open up a new phase in the human journey,
allowing us to both expand and deepen our empathy - this
time, to include the broader community of creatures who
live alongside us.
- Jeremy Rifkin is the author of Beyond Beef: The Rise and
Fall of the Cattle Culture (Plume, 1992), and The Biotech
Century (Victor Gollancz, 1998). He is also the president
of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003