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Is It Time to Recognize Animals as Sentient Beings?

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An astounding video made its rounds in January. A group of very experienced divers were on a dive off the coast of the big island of Hawaii. They were looking for manta rays when a wild bottlenose dolphin approached one of the divers. The dolphin was obviously in distress and the diver quickly saw that the problem was that a fishing line and hook were entangling the dolphin. The dolphin stayed still for the diver to begin cutting away the line, went up to breathe, and then came back down to the same diver so he could finish his work. He wasn’t able to get the hook out of the dolphin’s skin, but at least he was able to cut away most of the fishing line.

This begs the questions of exactly how could a wild dolphin know that a human could take care of whatever it was that entangling it, and how did that dolphin know that it could safely approach a human? One might also wonder how that dolphin – since it had of course never known what clothing is, much less diving gear – may have made the leap of understanding to know that the human-shaped figures it may have seen swimming near the shore or standing on boats are the same animal as the ones it approached who were wearing the scuba gear.

If this isn’t hard proof of intelligence, I don’t know what is. Now one might say that dogs approach humans when they’re in distress, but this almost always refers to tame dogs, or dogs that have at least had a significant amount of exposure to humans and have often been bred for their loyalty and friendliness to humans. Dolphins, on the other hand, inhabit a wholly different realm than that of us landlubbers. What’s more, we now know that dolphins – wild bottlenose dolphins like in the video above, at least – call each other by name. There’s even research that’s made some real progress towards not just understanding dolphins, but to engage in actual two-way conversations with them. This might well be possible since we’ve found that dolphin speech shares some similarities with human speech.

But while dolphins seem to be easily the most intelligent animal on the planet other than humans (though many of us would agree that’s up to debate), there’s plenty of other examples of both intelligence and awareness in animals. It is becoming fairly well known that octopi are not just able to squeeze through openings much smaller than their bodies but are even capable of picking mechanical locks in order to escape. Elephants have been shown to use teamwork that requires an understanding of using tools, and even ravens have been shown to use tools in a complex sequence of actions to retrieve food.

There’s indications of great white sharks showing not just the ability to hunt cooperatively, but also a tendency to show curiousity. There’s research now showing that different bees have different personalities and spiders that weave decoys of themselves that scientists suspect are “part of a defense mechanism meant to confuse or distract predators”.

Stories abound of the intelligence of dogs and horses and even cats, but such cases almost always apply to those that had been domesticated by humans. But now we’re coming to understand not just that dolphins may be every bit as sentient as humans but also that the awareness of oneself may well be found everywhere in the animal kingdom, that the old definition of self-awareness – being able to recognize oneself in the mirror – may not be an accurate definition of self-awareness after all.

I really love eating meat – I’m watching Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives as I’m typing this. They’re showing world-championship baby-back ribs and my mouth is watering; after all, I might talk trash about Mississippi most every day, but they’ve got the best BBQ there ever was. But now that I’ve seen the results of research into the intelligence of animals, when I hit the drive-through at McDonalds I can’t help but think it’s almost like cannibalism. But I still make the order. It’s an addiction, I guess.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • Dr Dreadful

    The only fundamental difference between ourselves and the cetaceans is that we use technology, a move that has enabled us to develop a new kind of intelligence.

    Even so, chimpanzees possess rudimentary tech, and several other primates – and other animals – use tools, so there’s no reason to think that our exclusively advanced status with regard to technology is anything special, other than that we appear to be the first species in the history of the planet to accomplish this.

    Given enough time and luck, numerous other species have the potential to trace a similar evolutionary path to ours.

    With that in mind, intelligence, sentience, awareness and the ability to emote seem rather arbitrary criteria to determine what we should or shouldn’t eat.

  • John Lake

    Unlike plants, animals all the way down to and possibly including the elusive dust mite have awareness of their existence, and decision making capacity. That goes well beyond “sentience.”
    The difference may be one of priorities. Yes we build complex structures and engines, but the animals aren’t interested in that.
    Merciless killing of animals that are of no danger to us is wrong, but unpunishable for the most part.
    Our species, right or wrong!

  • Dr Dreadful

    Unlike plants, which can manufacture their own food, animals must devour other organisms in order to survive. Some have evolved to eat plants; some, other animals; a few, including humans, both.

    If you’re pleading sentience as the overriding criterion, John, then – purely in ethical terms and setting aside any moral issues arising from the various approaches to livestock farming and hunting – I don’t see how a lion mercilessly killing an antelope that is no danger to it is OK, but a human doing the same thing is “wrong”.

    By the way, plants are also aware of and react to their surroundings. How was that salad you had for dinner last night?

  • G l e n n C o n t r a r i a n

    Doc –

    I don’t see how a lion mercilessly killing an antelope that is no danger to it is OK, but a human doing the same thing is “wrong”.

    The difference lay in the fact that we do it on an industrial scale, far beyond anything found in the wild.

    Frankly, I’m really looking forward to when vat-grown meat – which does not need sentience in order to develop – becomes available. I know that sounds rather unpalatable, but it would be far less cruel to animals.

    And that day just might be closer than you think.

  • Dr Dreadful

    The difference lay in the fact that we do it on an industrial scale, far beyond anything found in the wild.

    Precisely why I put in my disclaimer regarding farming and hunting up there, Glenn.

    If you want to abstain from eating meat because of concerns about factory farms and the suffering they induce, that’s fine. It’s the blanket “meat is murder” attitude that makes no sense to me.

  • G l e n n C o n t r a r i a n

    Doc –

    I agree that it’s silly to look at it like that. I mean, I’ve no desire to hunt, but if that’s the only way I can get food for my family, then I’ll lock and load with the best of them and I won’t feel the least bit guilty.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena?r= Irene Athena

    Glenn Contrarian, here is a list of companies who report they “employ humane practices raising their animals.” It includes
    Organic Prairie
    The Buffalo Guys
    Wild Idea
    Lasater
    Grande Premium
    Beeler’s Coleman
    Pederson’s Natural Farms
    Niman Ranch
    Lone Peak,
    Crystal River Meats

    I guess you could find places like this near where you live–some of them ship frozen, too.

    You may also find Dr. Temple Grandin’s webpage of interest. Dr. Grandin is a highly functional woman with autism. She’d been working in the slaughter industry for awhile, but her way of experiencing the world differently from a lot of us gave her insight into the suffering of animals prior to and during slaughter. Anyway, with her combination of expertise and empathy, she has developed methods of humane slaughter and is well-respected in the industry.

  • G l e n n C o n t r a r i a n

    Thanks Irene – I really appreciate that. I do keep an eye out for grass-fed beef, and it drives my wife nuts that I insist on buying free-range organic eggs (’cause “Dr. Oz said that’s just a racket”).

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena?r= Irene Athena

    Well, Dr. Oz *genuflects* is really careful about what he recommends to his listeners, and yeah, a lot of bogus outfits claim to sell organic food, or claim their chickens are free range, when they only let the chickens out of their pens for a few minutes a day. Mega-farms have huge influence in what gets regulated and how, and they understandably aren’t too interested in having the public trust claims of more humane (but expensive) animal husbandry practices by the competition. I’ve heard “cage-free” is a safer bet when buying eggs.

    Bon appetit!

  • John Lake

    Of course animals on the plains must hunt and kill to live. That balance of nature may be more natural than the situation we find ourselves in.
    An important issue is the quality of life of the food animals we raise.
    Killing of veal while it is young, or force feeding of ducks and geese to enlarge their livers is repugnant. The most repugnant is the keeping of creatures with only one life to live in small confining areas, making their lives a living hell.
    It speaks well of us that we care about these things. Maybe a lion intentionally goes for the throat of the wildebeest to make his death quick and painless as possible.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Maybe a lion intentionally goes for the throat of the wildebeest to make his death quick and painless as possible.

    Yes – for the lion. A wounded and struggling wildebeest is a dangerous prospect. Far better for the lion if its prey dies swiftly and with little to no opportunity to cause pain on its way out.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena?r= Irene Athena

    The goal is for humans to hold themselves to higher standards of compassion than lions do. (I know it’s a goal of yours, too, Dr. D., as evidenced by the objections you’ve sometimes raised to the drone-related deaths of civilians in what has been called “OverThereIstan.”)

    (Who knows John, maybe the compassion of a “sentient creator” is in evidence in the efficient way some animals dispatch their prey. Just as in the world of humans, though, there are displays of cruelty, wanton non-food-related cruelty, in the animal world. That May be evidence of a sentient, not so-compassionate counter force at work in the world.)

    It is worth noting that people in developing countries do depend on animals for food, and some micro-investors are helping folks in poverty begin (or continue) animal husbandry as a way out of extreme poverty.

    Compassion, reason, knowledge, balance.

  • John Lake

    Irene,
    That May be evidence of a sentient, not so-compassionate counter force at work in the world.
    This raises a number of issues. Is morality just the bane of humans, or is there an innate morality in the animal kingdom? Is the force that undermines the human race sentient, and self-aware, or it is a result of our ability to determine right and wrong? Are religions that preach abstinence in some way correct, or can we live for today? Animals have no such qualms. Are we then better than the beasts, or are we imperfect, doomed to destruction.
    Humans wage war, and murder for irrational reasons, as the animals enjoy a life where death can come at any unexpected time.
    Maybe, as H.G. Wells suggests, at some far distant time, the imperfections that plague us today will evolve away, and we can become one with the creatures of that walk (or crawl, or fly, or swim.)

  • John Lake

    Dr. Dreadful,
    Compassion or expedience; you may be right. It isn’t necessarily one or the other. Some animals might be more vicious than others. I can’t bear the thought of being eaten by an evil grizzly.(pun unintentional)