It is difficult to find anyone nowadays who is willing to admit they believe animals do not suffer. For those of us who live with dogs, cats and other companion animals, we not only know they experience pain, because of how they react when they are injured or sick, but also they have needs. Like us, they want to be fed on a regular basis, enjoy the occasional fuss and have a safe, warm place to sleep. It often seems that our role in life is to make sure their needs are met before our own! Come to think of it, isn’t this how it should be?
When it comes to farm animals, however, not everyone is as open to the idea that chickens, cows, pigs and sheep are much like our companion animals.
The good news is that the Lisbon Treaty, which was adopted by the European Union in 2009, includes a policy that recognises farm animals as “sentient beings”, capable of feeling pain and suffering, and requires the EU and its Member States to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.” Compassion and our tens of thousands of supporters played a significant role in making this happen. It started in 1991 when we submitted a petition with more than one million signatures to the European Parliament calling for animals to be no longer classified as “agricultural products”.
The Lisbon Treaty signifies public opinion is moving in the right direction toward recognising farmed animals are like our companion animals in that they also have psychological and behavioural needs. This progress is aided by new scientific reports that confirm what common sense already tells us about animals.
For example, I recently listened to an interview with Jonathan Balcombe on BBC Radio 4’s “Start the Week” about his new book, Second Nature. My colleagues at Compassion, Wendy Smith and Kim Stallwood, went to a presentation made by Jonathan at the British Library the evening of the original broadcast. They said Jonathan was an impressive speaker who spoke as an ethologist and a biologist specialising in animal behaviour.
“My chief aim in this book,” Jonathan writes, “is to close the gap between humans and animals – by helping us understand the animal experience, and by elevating animals from their lowly status.” For instance, he discusses in his book a study published in the journal Human Nature in 2004 which reported on chickens who showed they had an “aesthetic taste that we associate with humans”:
“[a] group of chickens who were trained to make choices by pressing a button with their beaks, lined up in a laboratory presented with digitised photos of thirty-five young men and women. In another room were seven female undergraduates instructed to choose the most attractive male face, and seven male students who were to choose the most attractive female face. When the chickens cast their votes, their preferences were almost identical to those of the students. The preference overlap was an uncanny 98 per cent.”
Jonathan explains the chickens were similarly capable to us in determining a difference between human faces. “That they are discerning a different species is even more impressive,” he concludes.
Elsewhere in Second Nature, Jonathan discusses research with farm animals which shows pigs express emotions and sheep graze in patterns of relatedness to each other. That is to say they are mindful of those around them. What relevance do these scientific studies have in our campaign against factory farming?
One key argument made in support of factory farming claims the needs of animals are met because otherwise chickens wouldn’t lay eggs and pigs wouldn’t put on weight if they weren’t healthy. This line of reasoning could be satisfactory if chickens and pigs, as the seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes described them, had no minds and functioned like a clock.
Of course, we now know differently, thanks to scientists like Jonathan. We also know that animals are sentient beings with complex psychological and behavioral needs. As Jonathan documents in his book, scientific studies demonstrate animals are capable of making choices, using tools, planning activities, working cooperatively, communicating with each other, recognising themselves in mirrors, sharing food, mourning death, playing on their own or with each other and much more. In other words, animals are not merely agricultural products or clocks. They are individuals who have lives that matter to them as much as ours do to us.
Jonathan concludes his book on an optimistic note. He believes we are on a threshold of a new era. Presently, we live in what he calls “First Nature” when we view “animals as things to be used and taken for shortsighted gains”. But, he argues, this is unsustainable on a finite planet with a growing human population. Therefore, we’re making the difficult transition to a new era, “Second Nature,” which is “grounded in science and driven by ethics”. This is the time when we recognise animals with the respect and consideration they deserve.
I share Jonathan’s optimism. But change does not come without a challenge. Knowing that there are scientists like Jonathan and others like him who conduct groundbreaking research of this nature is extremely helpful. We include updates on this kind of work on our animal sentience blog, The Lives of Animals.
And it seems that this ”Second Nature” is increasingly coming to the fore, not least with the news that plans have been withdrawn for a ‘super dairy’ in the UK. Although this might only be temporary as the proposers work further on technical issues, it demonstrates the power of opposition to the industrialisation of the way dairy cows are kept in the UK. Thank you for helping the campaign, and for helping shape a future where farm animals are treated with compassion and respect.
PS: If you would like to hear more from Jonathan Balcombe, he is podcasted by The Guardian here.