04 June 2012

TDIV Q&A: I understand animals feel pain, but aren't they simpleminded? So does it really matter?

Firstly, let me ask you this: if an adult referred to a child as “simple," would it matter that he or she caused the child harm? If one being is not as developed mentally, physically or emotionally as another, does that justify the more advanced creature causing them pain?

In other words, is a creature’s worth determined by its ability to “understand” its pain?

As humans, we are constantly attempting to understand feelings such as love, loss, hope and despair. Yet we assert that what we feel does matter. A teenager’s broken heart, a widow’s grief and a wounded soldier’s pain all matter. The pain that animals feel when they are brutally treated in factory farms and slaughterhouses matters as well.

Secondly, animals are not as “simpleminded” as people once assumed. Pigs are intelligent, curious creatures with problem solving abilities. Chickens form friendships and social hierarchies. Cows enjoy mental challenges. Fish work together to avoid predators and find food.

There is a plethora of research asserting that nonhuman animals have complex cognitive, emotional and moral lives. In addition to pain, animals can feel and process fear, loneliness and empathy.

One recent study by University of Chicago scientists is notable for examining the emotions of one animal often portrayed in a negative light: the rat. In a simple study to see if one rat would help another who was trapped, scientists found that the rat decided to selflessly help out another member of its species.

If a rat, as a “lesser” creature than us humans, can feel empathy towards its fellow animals, what’s our excuse?

Whales have also been shown to help out fellow species under attack. Humpback whales, and many other cetaceans possess higher-order thinking and feeling. These include empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and gut instinct.

The ability to distinguish between right and wrong is an exemplary quality, one that we often use to symbolize humanity. But morality is not exclusive to humans. Animals also display moral codes, including a sense of right vs. wrong and social responsibility. Ecologists, philosophers, scientists and animal behavioralists are continuously conducting new research to analyze animal intelligence. By exploring the depth of animal social organization, emotions and moral choices, researchers help to broaden our understanding of how sophisticated animals’ minds really are.

When it comes to eating animals, you can justify your choice to eat meat or not to consume animal products in various ways: your health, the environment, industry, family, tradition, education, awareness, and experience.

But there is too much evidence that animals do process their suffering and the suffering of others for us to deny their mental development. The animals that we eat, and the animals we use for work and keep as pets all have unique minds and personalities. They think and feel very complexly. And their pain is significant.

The best indication of advanced mental capacity is the ability to feel and show compassion. For it is a highly developed mind that understands the worth of every being.

“We have to understand we are not the only beings on this planet with personalities and minds.” –Jane Goodall.

Rachel Fryer | Email
Maryland A lifelong vegetarian and animal lover, Rachel Fryer enjoys writing, traveling, eating spicy food, drinking coconut water, reading historical fiction and sweating (she is also a Bikram yoga teacher). Rachel is excited to attend grad school for her Masters in English in Fall 2012 and to adopt a shelter dog in the near future.

Photo Credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/fatmandy