Thinking about animals thinking


Arguably our society has entered a period of change with regard to how we consider animals. A noticeable uptick in the number of animal cruelty cases in the media certainly suggests as much. Companion animals are increasingly thought of as members of the family, even if their standing isn’t quite the same as the humans.

Many people hold their animals as dear to them as any of their human relationships. I count myself in that group. As a criminologist and former police officer, I am particularly sensitized to the ways people abuse, neglect, torture, kill and otherwise immorally harm animals.

Often pets bear the brunt as a proxy victim in domestic violence. Phil Arkow, chairman of the Animal Abuse and Family Violence Prevention Project, compiled a list of several hundred scientific studies, reports and briefs that substantiate chilling connections between animal abuse and inter-human violence ( http://www.animaltherapy.net/Bibliography-Link.html ).

Ken Bell, blogger for thedogfiles.com, advocates for harsher penalties for animal abusers. Bell’s advocacy stems in part from the fact that animal protection laws have a strong spillover effect into protecting people.

As Bell states, “Seventy-one percent of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims; 32 percent reported their children had hurt or killed animals; 68 percent of battered women reported violence towards their animals; 87 percent of these incidents occurred in the presence of the women, and 75 percent in the presence of the children, to psychologically control and coerce them.”

As Bell further states, “Disturbed children kill or harm animals to emulate their parents’ conduct, to prevent the abuser from killing the pet, or to take out their aggressions on another victim.”

With this as backdrop, we can conclusively state that even individuals with complete disinterest in animal welfare still have sufficient reason to champion it — because protection of animals, also protects people.

Having written about animal neglect and abuse for several years, I have borne the criticism of many cruelty apologists, including hunters and farmers who I am certain are otherwise empathetic, decent and God-fearing folks.

On the other extreme, I don’t always agree with the well-intentioned (and often misguided) activists from PETA, but I understand why they hold the beliefs that they do. To the extent they need defending, I leave it up to them. I say this to make the point that having an interest in animal welfare and daring to explore our fundamental assumptions about animals doesn’t inherently make one a member of the lunatic fringe.

Much of my opposition to animal abuse and cruelty comes as a consequence of working in social science; and in particular trying to understand why people do the things they do. This investigation invariably returns to an inquiry on how people think.

On July 7 this year, a group of neuroscientists convening at Cambridge University signed a document, the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, officially declaring that non-human animals, “including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses” are conscious (http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf ). This is very significant because it suggests that human/non-human animal differences may not be as great as we’d like to believe.

Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American, parses the difference between consciousness and self-awareness, “Humans are more than just conscious — they are also self-aware … Consciousness is awareness of one’s body and one’s environment; self-awareness is recognition of that consciousness — not only understanding that one exists, but further understanding that one is aware of one’s existence. Another way of thinking about it: To be conscious is to think; to be self-aware is to realize that you are a thinking being and to think about your thoughts.”

By this definition, human infants are conscious, but not yet self-aware. Those on the extreme end of the abortion debate oppose destruction of any agglomeration of cells beyond the moment of conception, even though this “life” is neither conscious nor self-aware. Similarly, most would have no problem torturing an adult chimpanzee to death in the interest of medical research — even though the chimp is arguably as self-aware as a human infant.

This to me, suggests a problem in the way we ascribe moral weight to acts involving the harm of non-human animals. They are different to be sure, but difference doesn’t mean inferiority; and even if they are inferior, that doesn’t give us free reign to abuse them.

• • •

Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com