Essay

Re-thinking animals

‘ALEX TAUGHT ME to believe that his little bird brain was conscious in some manner; that is, capable of intention. By extrapolation, Alex taught me that we live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures. Not human thinking. Not human consciousness. But not mindless automatons sleepwalking through their lives, either.' So Irene Pepperberg wrote about her African grey parrot Alex, the most famous parrot in history. Alex died in 2007, after working with Pepperberg in her laboratory for thirty years. He was already well known, but when he died he got obituaries in the New York Times andTime.

When Pepperberg began working with Alex, she had no idea that he was going to help overturn human understanding of the capabilities of animals. Alex showed what fond pet owners have long suspected: there is a lot going on inside an animal, and we can only guess the half of it. For hundreds of years, animals have been viewed as less important, less feeling, less cognisant. For most of the twentieth century, scientists derided the notion of animal consciousness: dumb animals – not able to speak, not able to think. Language was seen as the magic attribute that separated humans from brutes. But over the past thirty or forty years, scientists who have been working with non-human animals have been gradually uncovering the special talents and means of communications of all sorts of animals, from bees to octopi, dolphins to elephants.

Recognising that animals have consciousness is a huge step for humans, and dangerous, too, as it might well undermine not only traditional thinking but our traditional means of survival – that is, what we eat.

For much of humankind's history, animal suffering didn't matter. Some religions give animals consideration in theory, but there are still many places in the world where animal suffering, even torture, is commonplace. Yet the position of animals, their place in the universe and our responsibility towards them, has been a perpetual question for philosophers. Mostly their conclusions have not been to animals' advantage. The idea of the food chain, a hierarchy of value, originated with St Thomas Aquinas and his belief in animals as mere instruments of humans. Immanuel Kant said that because animals lacked autonomy and rationality, they had no moral value. And Rene Descartes denied animal consciousness on the basis that it was not necessary to believe in animals' awareness in order to explain their behaviour. Human belief that animals don't suffer – or at least not as we suffer – has justified much cruelty.

 

IN JULY 2009, several hundred delegates – philosophers, scientists, animal-rights activists, historians – from more than twenty countries descended on Newcastle, in New South Wales, for the largest animal-studies conference ever held. ‘Minding Animals' was held at the City Hall, a wonderful 1930s edifice that seems to exude confidence about human achievements and satisfaction with our place in the world as the pre-eminent species. A startling array of papers was delivered in five or six simultaneous sessions every hour for six days.

There is no one academic area that covers ‘animal studies'. It is a sprawling subject that spills over from ethology (animal behaviour) into biology, psychology, geography, neuro– and cognitive science, and veterinary science. And then there are the humanities – history, literature, religion, philosophy – where animals crop up constantly, as soon as you start to look. There is so much going on in animal studies that it seems inevitable it will change the way that humans view animals. Already it is beginning to affect what we eat and how we farm animals.

Philosophers are at the forefront of much of the work. Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation (Random House) became a founding text of the animal-rights movement, told the conference that over the past three decades philosophers have challenged people to re-examine their beliefs about animals; in particular, to recognise the ‘cognitive overlap' between humans and animals. On the matter of eating them, he said it was unrealistic to think that everyone would become a vegetarian, but it was possible for everyone to eat less meat, and that in itself would reduce animal suffering.

The food at the conference was vegan, and this was popular even among the meat-eaters. It is not possible to sit for hours hearing about the lives of animals, then turn around and eat one.

I took my first steps towards vegetarianism at that conference. I don't think I will ever become a strict vegetarian, but I now think about what I eat, and once you start to do that you find that there are a lot of dishes that you simply have no appetite for: chickens, for example, the ones that have been grown fat and fast, six weeks from birth to death, in vast broiler sheds, their little skeletons unable to support the artificial growth forced upon them. Or pork which comes from an industry where sows are piglet machines and spend their lives in cages so small they cannot turn around in them.

It is now widely accepted that animals do feel pain, but the degree of their ability to feel, know or perceive – their sentience and cognisance – is still contested. Apes and dolphins, maybe, but lizards? We know that the individuals of many species recognise one another, communicate with one another, feel distress and sorrow. Maybe even lizards, although the jury is still out.

At a session entitled ‘Attending to Animals', the point was made that feminism has had little to say about animals, perhaps because as soon as one starts ‘attending to animals', concepts like care, nurturing, attentiveness and consideration arise – concepts that in the early years of feminism women were keen to separate from beliefs about what it was to be a woman. But times have changed. Instead of worrying about our relationships with men, some of us are beginning to worry about our relationships with animals. Being attentive to them, and recognising the relationships we have with them, unveils a new world view – the start, perhaps, of another revolution. The first step is recognising that each animal is the subject of its own life.

 

HUMANS SLEEP IN order to restore our brains after the demands of a day of conscious life. Frogs and other animals that probably aren't conscious don't seem to sleep. But mammals and birds sleep and maybe it is because they, too, need a break from their conscious lives. And maybe they also wake, as we do, and ‘experience their presence in the world'.

Alex the parrot was able to prove that he could think and feel. On one occasion, Irene Pepperberg was demonstrating to a visiting colleague some of the things of which Alex was capable: counting and distinguishing between objects. It had become clear to her that Alex sometimes got bored (as well he might, given that he sometimes had to repeat an experiment hundreds of times for it to be scientific). On this particular day, Alex was not being co-operative. He was shown a range of objects in groups – three of this, four of that – and was asked a question, the answer to which was ‘two'. But he repeatedly gave every answer except ‘two'. So Pepperberg told him, ‘Okay, you're going back in your room.' She put him in his room and closed the door. As she walked away, Alex began calling out, ‘Two...two...I'm sorry. Come back!'

There are so many mysteries in the minds and bodies of non-human animals, and we are only beginning to get an inkling of them. The more researchers open up their own, and our, thinking about the nature of animals, the more the mysteries deepen.

Petra Stapp, a young English researcher looking into the nature of human-animal encounters, was told of an encounter between a woman and a sheep on a moor. The woman was out walking with her boyfriend. She decided to sit for a while to enjoy the surroundings while her boyfriend walked on. Soon a single sheep appeared over a hill. It walked towards her. Indeed, it walked right up to her, purposefully. She watched. When it reached her, the sheep leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. Astonished, the woman sat still. Sheep and woman observed each other, face to face, for a few moments. Then the sheep turned and retraced its steps.

The boyfriend observed the interaction from further along the track. The two then finished their walk and returned to the car. The woman switched on her mobile phone and retrieved a message left at about the same time as her encounter with the sheep. The message was from a friend, telling her that another close friend had just died.

How do we interpret this? The woman was unlikely to be hallucinating, because the act was observed by a third party. Maybe it was a coincidental meeting with an affectionate sheep. Or perhaps the sheep was, as the woman believed, delivering a farewell from her friend. We have no rational way of accounting for that. We may never know the truth behind such human-animal occurrences. But stories such as this suggest that our human-centric explanations of animal capability are seriously lacking.

 

OUR LIVES ARE entwined with those of animals. For thousands of years, they have helped us survive in all sorts of ways: dogs who became domesticated and hunted with humans, benefiting both; cats that enabled people to begin accumulating grain because they controlled rats and mice. (Without the ability to store grain, cities might never have developed.) The ‘beasts of burden' that made it possible for human societies to move, conquer and colonise.

There is a little-known example of the latter in Australia's history. Camels have been romanticised in the Australian story – ‘ships of the desert' – but alongside them, and outnumbering them, were donkeys. Big teams of fifty or more were used to pull the wagons that took supplies and mail. They moved between towns, stations and settlements. When motorised transport came and the animals weren't needed anymore, the men who used and cared for them took them out into the bush to some remote well and let them go. The donkeys, being donkeys – smart and adaptable – not only survived but multiplied.

Jill Bough, a Newcastle historian, has studied what became of them, and what happens to them now. They're what we like to call ‘feral', meaning that, having introduced them, we damn them for existing in places adjacent to those we introduced them to. Chased and hunted off good land, they retreated ever further into the interior. They give humans a wide berth.

Aerial culling is widely accepted: the removal of species that are damaging our environment, threatening the livelihood of native animals and the like. But the closer you look, the more complicated it becomes. Once again humans are playing god, deciding which are worthy animals and which are not. It may be that donkeys eat the grass that native animals might eat, but the real problem is that they eat the grass that the cattle belonging to pastoralists might otherwise eat.

Since the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of donkeys in the Kimberley and the Northern Territory have been culled from the air. Since 1994, the culling has been particularly nasty. A female, a mature jenny, is captured and fitted with a radio collar, then released. She meets up with a herd and the helicopter shooters track the herd by following the radio signal. All the donkeys are then shot, bar the jenny with the collar. This collar is known in the trade as a Judas collar, and the donkey who wears it a Judas donkey, because she then moves on and finds another group of donkeys. The helicopter flies in, all these donkeys are killed, and the Judas donkey is again alone...until she meets up with the next herd. After this happens a few times, the Judas jenny stops looking for friends. She has worked it out: wherever she goes, the others die.

No one who has ever known a donkey could be unaffected by this practice, because donkeys are gentle creatures. Jill Bough found that the shooters were often sad about what they had to do, taking pride only in doing it cleanly. Most of us close our minds to the atrocities that we perpetrate on animals. That is the only way we can carry on as the dominant species and still sleep at night.

Our blindness towards animals reminds me of the way in which colonisers viewed those they colonised. Even the terminology is the same: brutes, dumb animals, uncivilised – meaning that they don't live like us, don't have the finer feelings that we have, don't speak our language. We have armed ourselves with prejudices against animals the way we once armed ourselves against indigenous peoples and women. The thousands of academics who have found in animal studies a new home may well be at the forefront of the next revolution, a new deal between humans and animals.

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