Aysha Akhtar, MD, MPH
By suggesting that animals do not have the ability to feel or think, these arguments provided what was needed for many scientists to deny animals any moral relevance. It is science, ironically, which is now proving this viewpoint to be wrong
The more we study other animals, the more we learn how species—and even strains within a species—differ in these subtle mechanisms. These differences make animals poor substitutes to understand human physiology and cure human diseases.
Do animals suffer? Do animals know who they are? Do animals enjoy a good meal? Do animals think about what they will do next? Intuitively, you would likely answer yes, of course animals feel and think! Spend one day with a dog or watch a mother cow with her young and you would be hard pressed to deny them these basic emotional and cognitive capacities.
But deny them we have. While, on one level, we know that animals can suffer and can enjoy things in life like we do, on another level, we try to dismiss these capacities in order to justify our use of animals in ways that cause them tremendous suffering. Often enough, that justification has come from scientists who have argued that non-human animals lack sentience and/or cognitive sophistication. By suggesting that animals do not have the ability to feel or think, these arguments provided what was needed for many to deny animals any moral relevance.
It is science, ironically, which is now proving this viewpoint to be wrong. There is now an explosion of studies and insights by notable scientists such as Frans de Waal, Michael Tomasello, Marc Bekoff, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Jaak Panksepp examining the mental lives of animals (how they think and feel). These studies reveal that most animals experience a wide range of emotional and cognitive capacities that were previously denied to them.
For instance, it appears that rhesus monkeys know how to play dumb. When given tests in front of dominant rhesus monkeys, subordinate monkeys perform poorly. But when given those same tests apart from higher-ranking monkeys, the subordinate monkeys perform well. Just as a human might choose to hide his intelligence due to social pressure, subordinate monkeys choose to hide what they know in front of dominant animals, perhaps to avoid any social repercussions. Jaybirds deceive other birds. They use deceptive tactics to hide food when they know that other birds are watching them.
Rub a rat's belly and he will emit an ultrasonic sound, believed to have the same neural underpinnings as human laughter. This begs the question: do rats laugh when tickled?
The notion that we share basic cognitive and emotional capabilities with other animals makes evolutionary and biological sense. In fact, our very use of animals in experimentation is often predicated on these abilities. For instance, many of the medical experiments conducted on animals to understand human diseases, particularly psychological experiments, reveal how much animals can feel and think.
Experimenters have intentionally caused and studied the effects of chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, severe anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, and dementia in animals, including mice and rats. The biomedical community attempts to distinguish what animals experience from human experiences by referring to animals’ psychological states in a type of scientific doublespeak. For example, animals in laboratories aren’t routinely described in the biomedical literature as experiencing depression, but as displaying “depression-like signs”.
Yet, if the scientific community did not believe that animals were capable of experiencing these complex psychological states, why would these experiments be conducted in the first place? If the scientific community did not believe that animals experience depression, why would studies on drugs intended to treat depression be conducted in animals? If the scientific community did not believe that animals possess at least some cognitive abilities, why would experiments on the loss of cognitive abilities (for research in dementia) be conducted in animals?
The animals in these experiments display signs that sure look like depression, fear, and loneliness. If these animals exhibit these signs in fairly systematic ways, then, in conjunction with our evolutionary continuity, it is scientifically sound to conclude that they experience chronic depression and other emotional and psychological states. In other words, animals don't just show distress, they feel it.
There will be those who will take what has just been stated to suggest that animals are effective tools for medical research. But medicine now deals with the subtle nuances of physiological mechanisms in order to precisely target an intervention such as a drug to boost or inhibit a specific cellular process. As I show in my series on animal experimentation, the more we study other animals, the more we learn how species—and even strains within a species—differ in these subtle mechanisms. These differences make animals poor substitutes to understand human physiology and cure human diseases.
Science is showing how other animals are like us in morally relevant ways, but unlike us in medically relevant ways. Now that we are proving that other animals are indeed sentient beings with complex and rich emotional and cognitive lives, it's time for us to change our moral view and demand a more just approach to our relationship with other animals.
Aysha is a neurologist and public health specialist. She is the author of
the book, Animals and Public Health. Why Treating Animals Better is Critical
to Human Welfare, which examines how the treatment of animals impacts human
health. Dr. Akhtar is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, works
for the Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats of the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA), and serves as LCDR in the US Public Health
Service. She is a regular blogger for the Huffington Post. You can read her
blogs on how animal protection benefits human health here. You can follow
her on twitter @DrAyshaAkhtar and visit her website. Finally, since she
works for the government, Dr. Akhtar must provide the obligatory disclaimer:
"The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent
the official position of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S.
government." You can read more of her articles at her
HuffingtonPost Blog page.
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