We May Not Recognize Feelings in Animals, but Science Shows They Exist

Jessica Pierce and Dr. Marc Bekoff, one of our country’s leading ethologists, have a new book out that you really ought to read.


Whether you agree with the basic tenets of the animal rights movement or not—the notion that non-human beings deserve our respect—it’s an exploration in the sentience of other creatures that will force you to think and reflect.

In “Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age" (Beacon Press), Pierce and Bekoff do an extraordinary job translating what scientific research has unearthed about animals as higher-operating organisms.

To some, Bekoff, a biologist by training and frequent visitor to Greater Yellowstone, is a controversial figure. He writes a regular column for Psychology Today and is not afraid to verbally tussle with advocates of sport hunting, game farm owners, zoo managers and livestock producers.

Not long ago, we had a conversation.

Todd Wilkinson: You’ve always said that in order to understand animals you need to pay attention to how they interact with each other apart from human influence.

Dr. Marc Bekoff: As a scientist, my research on the social behavior of dogs, young coyotes, and young wolves, some of it inspired by the groundbreaking work of Jackson Hole’s own Franz Camenzind, clearly showed me just how emotional they are.

TW: It’s been said that just because humans can’t recognize the feelings of animals doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

MB: My knowing that other animals are deeply feeling beings has been borne out by detailed comparative research on their cognitive, emotional, and moral lives, and the field of cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds and what’s in them) has burgeoned over the past decade or so. And it continues to grow boundlessly.

TW: Why are some people so resistant to accepting that sentience exists, or, conversely, they claim that it only exists in certain categories of living creatures.

MB: This is an excellent question that, on the one hand, can be answered very briefly, and on the other hand could fill a number of books.

I call our species Homo denialus because so many humans are so good at denying what is right in front of their eyes or their other senses, often for self-serving reasons. Denying climate change is a rather obvious example done for political/economic reasons.

People also deny sentience—consciousness and feeling—when it serves them well. Animals are wrongly thought of as being "higher" or "lower." "Higher" translates into "more valuable" or "smarter" or "more emotional," whereas "lower" is conflated with "less valuable and disposable," "dumber," or "unfeeling." No biologist who knows her or his stuff would support such misleading hierarchal views of other animals. But it's convenient and self-serving to do so.

TW: But what about people and the animals they consider pets?

MB: When it comes to our companion animals, most people have no problem viewing them as smart and emotional beings. I often ask, “Would you do it to your dog?” when I’m discussing how other animals are horrifically abused in the food animal industrial complex, for clothes, and in research, entertainment and sport killing.

As an example of this ridiculous denial, I often hear something like, "I know they suffer but I love my burger," or "I know we are harming and killing them but we have to use them for research that will help us."

TW: What’s your attitude toward hunting?

MB: In the context of “killing in the name of conservation”—for example, trophy hunting, which actually could be called “trophy murder” in my opinion—I ask, “Would you kill your dog for fun?”

I’ve never had anyone say “yes,” thank goodness, but it becomes clear that there are people who think it’s just fine to go out and kill other animals as recreation so they can enjoy being outdoors.

Using dogs to close what we call the "empathy gap" in The Animals’ Agenda is a good exercise because it brings home questions about how we use other animals however we choose, but have very different views of the animal beings with whom we share our homes.

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This article was originally published by Planet Jackson Hole. Reprinted with permission.

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