Animals are like us

Animals are much more sentient than many of us let ourselves believe.

For humans, it is often difficult to realize that animals have feelings and intelligence, since they cannot express themselves in a language that we understand. But animals too have a nervous system like ours, complete with the five senses that humans use to interact in the world.  If we allowed ourselves to appreciate their capacities we could not ethically treat them as we now do.

The extremely strong bond between a mother and her baby is not limited to our own species. Cows share a similar bond and are pained by the separation from their babies. By refusing to consume dairy, you keep your compassion alive and your body healthy with every meal.

9b cow and calf in garbage

Animals surpass us in certain abilities

We can do many things better than animals, because of our intellect and language. But animals have other abilities that are far beyond our own. The motor abilities of animals are often superior to humans: a hawk can spot its tiny prey from a distance of a mile. The senses of animals are often much more precise; a cat can easily see in the dark. And animals appear to have a sense of memory and origin: some migratory birds travel across the globe, to the very same spot they spent the last season.

Animals have their own systems of communication. Whales send messages across the oceans to each other through a kind of sonar. Dogs and cats establish a hierarchy and abide by its laws. Birds are able to make complex nests out of dry plant materials that humans find impossible to replicate.

Clearly, animals also have complex neurological and sensory systems.

Complex social structures

The social networks of animals are much more developed than most humans are aware of.

Chickens show sophisticated social behaviour, recognizing more than a hundred other chickens and remembering them. They communicate via more than thirty types of vocalizations. Perhaps the chicken’s most intriguing ability is to understand that an object, when taken away and hidden, nevertheless continues to exist. This is beyond the capacity of small children.

Most mammals too are clearly social animals like ourselves. When we ‘give away’ puppies or kittens, are we somehow breaking up a family unit whose workings we may not clearly understand?

The emotions of animals

Professor Donald Broom, from Cambridge University, studies the behaviour of cows. His team put them in a special pen which had a lever that, when pressed, would release the cows into a field with delicious food rewards. The researchers found that when the cows finally “clicked” and worked out how to press the lever to reach the food, they showed signs of delight and excitement. Their heart rates increased and they were more likely to jump and gallop when they went down towards the food.

Dr Christian Barnard, the first cardiac surgeon to do a heart transplant observed the sensitivity of chimps, “… I had bought two male chimps from a primate colony in Holland. They lived next to each other in separate cages for several months before I used one as a donor. When we put him to sleep in his cage in preparation for the operation he chattered and cried incessantly. We attached no significance to this. but it must have made a great impression on his companion, for when we removed the body to the operating room, the other chimp wept bitterly and was inconsolable for days.  The incident made a deep impression on me. I vowed never again to experiment with such sensitive creatures.” (Good Life Good Death)

Animals show grief at the loss of their close ones. Cows cry for days when their calves are taken away from them and dogs are known to grieve when their masters die.

Animal altruism

Cows and sheep, like other animals, guide their blind kin while being herded together in a flock. Often when a sick animal arrives in a home where other animals already live, the animals readily accept the new mate recognising that it needs help, even though they may otherwise be quite defensive of their territory.

Maureen J Valenti of San Angelo, Texas remarks, “I worked on a dairy farm and at this one period, when the cows were being kept in the stanchions in a long row, there was this first cow that would hold her head in the water trough to let the water run over for the longest time, till the alley was full of water all of the time. Then one day we found that the drinking cup for the cow at the end of the row did not work. As soon as we noticed this and fixed it, the first cow no longer held her face down to cause it to over flow… I was amazed.”

Dr Jane Goodall, 71, who has spent 45 years studying chimps in Africa, says that humans and chimps are strikingly similar – that both shared a capacity for barbarity but were also capable of great altruism. Chimps come to the aid of others who had been frightened, orphaned or injured, demonstrating “a care and compassion indistinguishable from our own.”

Animals are seen to be altruistic even across species.  A baby hippopotamus, named Owen and weighing about 300 kilograms (650 pounds), was swept down Sabaki River into the Indian Ocean, then forced back to shore when tsunami waves struck the Kenyan coast on December 26, 2004. The orphaned hippo was traumatized at the loss of its mother, and adopted a male tortoise, about a century old, as a surrogate mother. The two established a strong bond. They would swim, eat and sleep together. The hippo followed the tortoise exactly the way it would follow its mother. If somebody approached the tortoise, the hippo became aggressive, as if protecting its biological mother. Hippos are social animals that like to stay with their mothers for four years.

A lady found a fawn under her step in bad shape (they think the doe might have been hit by a car). Her Ridge Back dog is helping look after it. The family named the fawn Bella, and planned to rehabilitate her back into the wild once she regained strength. Their dog, Hogan, took over the job of mothering the Bella and even shared his bed with her

Debby Cantlon, who has cancer, says rescuing injured animals is therapeutic for her. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when someone asked her if she’d care for a newborn squirrel, Finnegan, found at the base of a tree. When Cantlon took in the tiny creature and began caring for him, she found herself with an unlikely nurse’s aide: her pregnant Papillon, Mademoiselle Giselle.  The dog dragged the squirrel’s cage – twice – to her own bedside before she gave birth. Cantlon ultimately decided to allow the squirrel out – and the interspecies bonding began. Two days after giving birth, mama dog Giselle encouraged Finnegan to nurse alongside her litter of five pups. The pups and the squirrel got along together as if they were meant to.

More intelligent than we may think

Staff at the south London animal shelter, Battersea Dogs Home had been arriving every morning for two weeks to a complete mess with dogs and food everywhere, so they decided to install cameras to find out what was happening. A dog, Red, was caught on camera unlocking his kennel using his nose and teeth before releasing his favourite canine companions for regular midnight feasts. Lucky, the dog he was found with, was always the first to be freed.

Betty, a New Caledonian crow at the University of Oxford, needed a hooked wire to retrieve a bucket containing a treat. So she wedged a straight wire into a crack in the lab’s table and bent it, creating the right tool.

Kanzi, a bonobo chimp at the Georgia State University Language Research Center in Atlanta, communicates with his trainers using symbols on a keyboard. He understands the difference between sentences like “Pour the lemonade in the Coke” and “Pour the Coke in the lemonade.”

Male humpback whales compose and seasonally alter lengthy, complex songs.

Vervet monkeys distinguish between snakes and eagles by different alarm calls. A tree frog partially submerges itself in the water of a tree hole and then adjusts its call to the size of the hole to play the tree like a musical instrument.

The way we treat our fellow beings

Despite this evidence that animals can emotionally and physically experience the world in much the same way that we do, we continue to treat them as mere commodities that can be exploited for our benefit.

It is the desire to maximise profit and fill supermarket shelves, which has led to such inhumane treatment of farm animals. Because it is less expensive than more humane alternatives, we accept the practice of keeping animals in abysmal concentration-camp style factory farms, in zoos, in testing facilities, in pet stores and cages of all sorts. In many of these facilities, they lead bleak lives, with no stimulation, unable to perform their natural behaviours.

To understand a little how these animals feel, put yourself in a closet or a tiny room and stay there for the whole day in the dark. Ask someone to bring you a tasteless meal and do not move out even to go to the toilet. Keep a bucket for a toilet in the same closet and do not remove this for the whole 24 hours. Now you will understand what animals in cages endure for days, sometimes their whole lives.

For farm animals the journey to the slaughterhouse entails further suffering—they are packed onto lorries, squashed together and often shipped abroad for slaughter in foreign abattoirs where their short lives are ended in barbaric ways. Broken bones, and wings, injuries and sickness over and above the lack of food water and rest. Fear, pain, frustration, despair, hopelessness are just some of the negative emotions we are guilty of causing them. Animals are capable of feeling love, pain, joy, and depression—like ourselves.

We are happy to attribute feelings to our pets, but for the animals we eat or use in other ways for our material gains, we create an entirely new set of rules. This disconnect, for many, is an attempt to continue practices that are inconsistent with our values. After all, what sort of creatures would we be if we ate animals with feelings?

Every religion tells us that we should behave towards others, as we would like others to behave towards us. Yet we too often treat animals in ways that we would not like to be treated though they are our fellow beings on this planet. They also have senses, nervous system like us, and show emotions and feel pain.