The Science of Sentience: An Interview about Animal Feelings
An Animal Rights Article from


Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today – Animal Emotions
January 2015

Lastly, scholarship does not exist in a vacuum. We regard bridging the gap between science and advocacy as one of the highest priorities of academia. Our understanding of other creatures informs the evolving human-animal relationship. For this reason, authors are encouraged to reflect on the practical applications of their work: How can it be leveraged into advancing policy and practice?

Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling is a new and rather unique online journal, and I was thrilled when its founders, Andrew Rowan and Jonathan Balcombe, along with editor Stevan Harnad, agreed to a joint interview about this exciting new addition to the existing literature on animal sentience, one that will include essays and wide-ranging discussions and commentaries on animal cognition, animal emotions, and animal protection, and will only publish studies in which animals are not harmed.

In many ways, this new journal is a declaration on animal sentience and shows just how important it is to have input and discussions from many different disciplines (for example, please also see Ethology Hasn't Been Blown: Animals Need All Help Possible). The first issue of Animal Sentience centers on the question of whether fish feel pain (for discussion, please see Fish Feel Pain: Let's Get Over it and Do Something About It) and contains extremely informative and diverse discussions about this "hot topic." I am very pleased to be on its editorial board.

Marc Bekoff (MB): How did Animal Sentience come to be?

Andrew Rowan: We had just held a conference on animal sentience under the auspices of the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and were looking for ways to continue the "discussion" at the conference. There is a widespread feeling (pun intended!) among animal advocates that animal sentience and its recognition throughout society is a critically important framing concept for the expansion of animal protection policies and initiatives. We are seeing the term used more in policy documents (e.g. the Treaty of Lisbon for the EU, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, Article 515-14 in the Civil Code of France, and Quebec Law 54 according animals the legal status of sentient beings, Indian supreme court opinions, etc.) and we believe it is very important to expand academic discussion in the field. A journal seemed to us to be the most efficient and effective way to proceed.

Stevan Harnad: I got involved when Andrew, a long-time Associate of the journal of which I had been editor-in-chief for many years, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), asked whether I would agree to edit Animal Sentience and — although I had had no intention ever to edit a journal again -- I immediately said yes, not just because I consider animal sentience to be an extremely important domain of cognitive science, but rather because I consider the scale of suffering that humans inflict on sentient non-human organisms to be the greatest crime in the history of our species. I had been a (minor) part of the problem as editor of BBS; I now hope Animal Sentience will make a major contribution to the solution.

Jonathan Balcombe: With the recent rise of scientific interest in animal cognition (sapience), the time had become ripe for a journal focusing on animal feeling (sentience). I’ve learned that if you wait for someone else to do it, you better not hold your breath. So we launched it ourselves.

MB: What are its major guidelines and goals?

Stevan: Sentience means “feeling.” Not just emotional feelings like pleasure or pain, fondness or fear, but any feeling: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, moving, wanting, planning, thinking, believing. Those are all states it feels like something to be in — if you are a sentient being rather than an insentient robot. With other people’s feelings, we need not try to mind-read and they need not wait for us to guess: They can tell us what they are feeling — except if they can’t talk, as in the case of babies: There we do have to use our mind-reading ability, because their welfare depends completely on our figuring out what they feel, want and need. That’s our legacy as social mammals. And humans are really good at figuring out what their infants feel, want and need, especially with the help of biological, medical and cognitive science. That same combination of empathic and scientific abilities can also be used to learn what other species feel, want and need.

And researchers need all the help they can get, because there are many species, in many environments, and, as with medical diagnoses, we need the knowledge of many specialists. So all articles published in Animal Sentience will be accompanied by “open peer commentary ” from experts in the many fields that study feelings: zoology, ethology, ecology, developmental psychology, brain science, veterinary science, evolutionary biology, social science, computer science, robotics, philosophy, ethics and even law, political science and public policy.

The open peer commentary (and authors’ responses) helped make BBS one of the most influential and cited journals in the many fields it covered. We hope it will do the same for the wide spectrum of fields that bear on the question of what it feels like to be a member of the many different sentient species on the planet.

Jonathan: We also want the journal to have a strong emphasis on the application of our understanding of animal sentience to advances in human-animal relationships. To that end, we will not publish studies that harm animal subjects; and where animals are studied, we encourage authors to use rewards as positive motivators, and not punishments or deprivations. For scientific and ethical reasons, submitted manuscripts should also include information on the procurement and final disposition of animal subjects. Using animals bred for laboratory research is discouraged unless the research is specifically aimed at improving the welfare of those animals. Authors are encouraged to study wild animals in their natural settings, or domesticated animals in settings that provide for their behavioral and psychological needs.

Lastly, scholarship does not exist in a vacuum. We regard bridging the gap between science and advocacy as one of the highest priorities of academia. Our understanding of other creatures informs the evolving human-animal relationship. For this reason, authors are encouraged to reflect on the practical applications of their work: How can it be leveraged into advancing policy and practice?

MB: What makes Animal Sentience unique?

Stevan: Animal Sentience is unique both in its extremely wide and diverse subject matter — what other species feel, want and need — and the way it is addressed, through “target articles” subject to multiple peer commentary.

Jonathan: As far as I am aware, no other scientific journal is committed to such a high level of regard for the well-being of animals.

MB: What do you hope to accomplish with this forward-looking journal?

Stevan: Although it is hard to believe, it was not that long ago that it was thought that human infants do not feel , hence do not require anesthesia if we do with them what would be painful or stressful for an adult. Only recently has it been universally accepted that not only do babies feel, but that those early hurts can have long-lasting traumatic effects for the rest of the child’s life. Much the same has been found to be true about early injury and stress to the young of domestic animals — and of course they are no less vulnerable when they are older either. Yet, because the young and the adults of other mammals don’t look like or behave exactly the same way our species does (with birds, fish, other vertebrates and invertebrates even more different from us), we have not given them the benefit of the doubt, often assuming that they are not distressed by injury, captivity, and manipulation. Animal Sentience has the scientific goal of broadening and deepening our knowledge about animal sentience, but it also has the ethical and humanitarian goal of sensitizing us to animals’ feelings and inspiring us to protect them.

Jonathan: We hope Animal Sentience will help inspire other journals to adopt higher standards of concern for animal subjects. To echo Stevan’s words, the research reported in our pages and the ensuing discourse are intended to help change the way humankind views and treats non-human animals. Current public awareness of animals as subjects worthy of our concern and respect — rather than objects to be used — is already growing. We hope to help accelerate and guide its momentum.

MB: Any other comments you'd like to add?

Stevan and Jonathan: Articles and commentaries will come mostly from the many scientific specialties bearing on animal sentience, but articles and commentaries are also invited from practitioners who are concerned about animal welfare, and ways to apply knowledge about animal sentience to remedying and prneventing animal suffering. Drawing together the findings and views from such a rich diversity of fields, Animal Sentience will generate a broad and diverse authorship, commentatorship and readership. We hope the cross-pollination this engenders will not only help sensitize us all to the diversity of animal sentience but inspire us to protect it.

MB: If this first issue is any indication of the value of a publication devoted to animal sentience, it surely will become a leader in comparative research offering most-needed discussions about the cognitive and emotional lives of the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet, beings with whom we must peacefully coexist for their benefit and ours. It is essential that we use what we know on behalf of another animals and Animal Sentience will also stress the application of these data. Far too often, animal protection regulations and legislation lag too far behind what we know about the rich cognitive and emotional lives of other animals, and data that have been readily available for years are categorically ignored.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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