Sentience in Farm and Other Animals


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To add interest I have interspersed this commentary with thought provoking quotations from philosophers, ethicists, scientists and other notable thinkers both past and present.

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Sentience in Farm Animals Introduction

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               Sentience in Farm and Other Animals

New In Animal Sentience Stories: Sentient Rabbits

“Never believe that animals suffer less than humans. Pain is the same for them that it is for us. Even worse, because they cannot help themselves.”
Dr. Louis J. Camuti

In this commentary I will endeavour to discuss sentience in animals and demonstrate that animals are indeed not only sentient like you and I, but sentient on levels not available to us. I will draw my information from personal experience, anecdotes, philosophical considerations past and present and current scientific research.

Farm animals have been reared for so many thousands of years, yet, unlike our pets, few people consider them as sentient. The reason that many people consider they do not possess the awareness of their cat or dog may simply be due to the fact that there has not been the interaction on a similar level with  farm animals. This is particularly so in our modern society where most people in towns or cities never see a live farm animal except as they drive by in the car. And even than you are unlikely to see pigs or poultry and only occasionally a few cows as most of these animals are factory farmed and are confined to sheds, see section: Animal rights   Yet clearly when you associate with any farm animal on the same level as your dog or cat a similar relationship will develop. It is accepted that pigs for example make fine pets, although I prefer the term Companion Animals, as do poultry and
sheep in much the same way as your cat or dog if given the opportunity to do so.

Sheep for example have been and sadly continue to be considered unintelligent, even stupid, although I do not care for the use of such a derogatory word to describe any creature, as of course such a term is used in comparison to our own perception of what constitutes intelligence. This is most likely because it is in the interests of those who exploit animals for profit to encourage this fallacy, most notably the meat industry who wish to promote the misconception that farm animals are not sentient beings. I have to state here that even if this was the case and animals where not sentient in the way we perceive sentience, no one can deny that animals feel pain and that all creatures fear death. The fact that an animal feels pain makes him or her sentient on some level. We know that animals feel pain and that is why there are laws, albeit often flaunted or inadequate, to protect animals from basic cruelty. Here of course we should include fish and invertebrates often considered as less likely to be sentient, a consideration that is becoming increasingly more erroneous as more evidence becomes available to support the idea that these creatures are also sentient. In fact the laws in some states in the USA include certain invertebrates such as cephalopods (octopuses, squids) and decapod crustaceans (lobsters, crabs) in the scope of animal protection laws. Here the implication is clear; it is considered that these animals experience suffering and pain.

Basically Sentience can be defined as the ability to feel pain and respond to stimuli. Even if farm animals are not sentient or aware on any other level this would in no way justify the exploitation of them or any other creature in such a way that causes pain and suffering. See
Animal rights

For likeness begets fellow feeling, and the more like to ourselves we deem the lower animals the more strongly shall we be led to apply to them like rules of treatment.
Edward Byron Nicholson, The Rights of an Animal, "Animal-Reason," 1879

When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.
Ingrid Newkirk

Sentience,  consciousness, awareness, I shall use all of these words interchangeably to describe this state of being, has long been debated by philosophers and scientists alike since we ourselves as a species have had the conscious awareness to do so. What is sentience and is it exclusive to humans.

What is sentience

There are many definitions of sentience and despite much contemplation, speculation and scientific research we still do not fully understand what it means to be conscious ourselves let alone understand what it means for another creature. Even in man each individual is sentient on a different level of consciousness; awareness of the world around us and our interaction with it varies quite notably from person to person. No two people are sentient in quite the same way. In some circles it is considered that man is a conscious animal because he is capable of attributing mental states to others, this ability if it actually exists, psychologists call a
theory of mind,
Theory of mind - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  a state of awareness which is believed to be only present in man and some primates. Yet people with autism are said to lack theory of mind, yet we do not perceive them as lacking sentience. More about this later on.

Sentience is indeed a difficult concept to get to grips with and finding a precise definition is impossible, sentience is experienced differently in different people and in different animals. It is impossible to have a blanket definition, and that is my whole point, an animal’s experience of consciousness may be entirely different from your own and yours from that of your neighbour or even your child. A good rule of thumb is to keep in mind that animals may have a different type of sentience than our own, existing on a different level that may well exclude an awareness of our existence, and because it is different or we cannot define it in comparison to our own does not mean that it does not exist.

Pain and suffering is however one of the most obvious indications that a creature is sentient. All creatures feel pain, both vertebrates and invertebrates have a nervous system; albeit perhaps in some ways different, without exception the respective nervous systems all consist of pain receptors. Pain is an important survival mechanism without which no creature would exist for very long. Animals like humans need to be able to experience pain in order to escape from situations that would lead to damage to themselves and ultimately disability or death, and they need a memory of pain to help them avoid similar conditions in the future. Pain is the body's way of sending a message to the brain of an animal, including humans of course, that he has been harmed in some way so that the appropriate action may be carried out, such as removal from the source of pain and consequently further damage. In short, although an unpleasant experience, if an animal did not feel pain he would not know he was injured, pain acts as a deterrent and stops an animal from repeating past injurious mistakes.

The life spark in my eyes is in no way different than the life spark in the eyes of any other sentient being.
Michael Stepaniak.

However sentience is more than just the ability to feel pain and act accordingly although it does mean that of course, and if pain is the only indicator that an animal is sentient than that is conclusive enough, and concerning animal rights justifies our treating animals with respect and to stop inflicting harm upon them. But there is more to sentience than pain in any creature.

So how exactly does sentience manifest, other than the ability to feel pain, in other creatures?

Even though it is difficult to give a precise definition as such even concerning our own sentience, lets look at attributes we might look for in animals that may indicate sentience.

Basically sentience means awareness, consciousness. We as human beings experience the world through feelings and sensations, we are aware of these feelings and perceptions, we are aware of the existence of ourselves and others. Sentience is defined as the ability to experience such sensations and perceptions. A sentient being is aware of his surroundings and is capable of both pain and pleasure and experiences distress and fear. It is nowadays at the very least accepted in most scientific circles that vertebrate and some invertebrate creatures are capable of feeling pain, not only physical but also emotional. It is becoming increasingly apparent that animals have more complex and emotional lives than people have previously realised, there is now much research into the cognitive abilities of animals. Studies shows that farm animals have a whole range of emotions and a keen intelligence far beyond that previously thought possible.

It may surprise you that Charles Darwin over a century ago observed that animals have similar emotions, sensations, affections and intuitions to those of man in varying degrees, from basic to a high level of development.

We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention and curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

‘There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties… The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.’
Charles Darwin

An awareness concerning sentience in farm animals is becoming generally more accepted. In 1997 a Protocol was formally added to the European Treaty recognising animals as sentient beings and this of course includes farm animals.

Below is a an extract summery of the issues from “Stop Look Listen Recognising the Sentience of Farm Animals”:

" Animals are recognised in the European Union (EU) law as 'sentient beings', which means that an animal

is capable of being aware of his surroundings

is aware of emotions related to his sensations

is aware of what is happening to him

has the ability to learn from experience

is aware of sensations in his own body, such as pain hunger, heat and cold

is aware of his relations with other animals including humans

has the ability to distinguish and choose between different objects, animals and situations which shows that he understands waht is going on in his environment.

In Short, animals are aware of how they feel, where they are, who they are with and how they are treated.

Stop Look and Listen. CIWF Trust. Compassion in World Farming Trust


stop_look_listen_2006 full document

Concerning the quotation above I have taken the liberty of altering "it" to him when "it" refers to an animal.

Personally I find the use of the word "it" when referring to a living feeling being unacceptable, I do realise that other people who are involved in animal welfare or animal rights continue to use the word "it" or a mixture, and at times from force of habit I may do likewise, however I try whenever possible to refer to animals using the personal pronouns he or she unless the gender is not specific than I will use the pronoun he or him.

Furthermore concerning the links above to documents from CIWF Trust which has done a considerable amount to improve the conditions of farmed animals, I nevertheless consider that the only way to stop abuse of animals is to cease exploiting them in any way shape or form, and that includes farming in any guise. However humane the system of farming it cannot be ethically justified as in the end the animals are still enslaved and meet an untimely death to provide man with food he no longer needs or when their " useful existence" is over, when they can for instance no longer lay eggs or provide milk as in the case of hens and cows, they are killed. Nonetheless the above documents are well worth reading and of course any improvement in the conditions in which animals are farmed is of course a welcomed improvement until we finally realise that it is unethical and unnecessary to farm animals.

Although even without such official confirmations as the EU treaty and scientific validation, the fact that farm animals are sentient should really be a matter of observation and plain simple common sense. Anyone who has any association with farm animals surely can not know that these creatures are sentient, thinking and feeling beings .

Because it is very difficult to give a scientific and absolute definition of sentience, it is all to easy to consider the sentience of other animals, and indeed at times other people, in relation to our own sentience and how we perceive the world. And we continually make comparisons with our own levels of awareness and interactions with our environment.

Concerning other people, it is obvious that even amongst different people there are different types of sentience, different levels of awareness. For instance some people are more perceptive than others, some are more analytical, other much less so. For example there are people who view the world as a pleasant place, they see the rose and miss the thorns, these people present with a happier disposition. Conversely others are painfully more aware of the negative aspects of existence, so much so that such levels of awareness or perceptions can give rise to depression. Both of these states of mind constitute sentience even though such manifestations of awareness are quite different.

Generally Indications of sentience as far as we can know may include - but not exclusively - some of the attributes listed: Intelligence, ingenuity, the ability to problem solve, to reason, to experience and be capable of compassion, cognition, awareness - including self awareness -, the ability to experience suffering both on a physical and emotional level and the ability to experience pleasure. A note on intelligence: although sentience exists without intelligence, at least intelligence according to our perception, intelligence rather like sentience itself should not be assessed according to our own unique perspective; animal and human intelligence may be both very much the same but also very different. Moreover we should consider that in addition a non human animal may be sentient on enhanced levels of awareness not available to us.

One way in which animal sentience may differ from your own occurs in what is sometimes called a sixth or heightened sense in some animals. Ever considered that some animals may in fact be more sentient on some level than we are because of such faculties, at least more aware of their environment due to heightened sensitivities. Anyone who has contact with other animals may recognise that in many ways they are perhaps more conscious on levels of awareness we have either never possessed or have lost as we have evolved in different directions. I will refer to this again later.

In simple terms if an animal is capable of being aware of his surroundings, of bodily sensations to include pain, hunger, heat or cold and experiences  emotions related to these sensations and is aware of how these sensations make him feel than that animal is a sentient being . A sentient animal is aware of what is happening to him and of his relations with other animals, including humans. Other indicators that an animal is sentient include an ability to learn from experience.

Sentience does not necessarily mean that an animal posses complex abilities to understand, to learn, to solve problems or have what we might call intellectual capabilities, of which sadly we set so much store even in our own kind, although many animals as we shall see may well have these too. Intellectual abilities though are something we can relate to and gives us a strong indication that the animal is aware, a thinking conscious individual.

Lets now look at some of the main indicators of sentience in more depth, at least sentience as we perceive sentience: Intelligence, use of language, self awareness, awareness of other creatures, an ability to experience, emotion, feel compassion, experience pleasure and to feel pain both physical and mental.

Sentience in Farm Animals Page Two
Expressions of sentience: intelligence, communication and tool making

Credit Banner photograph

(c) 2008 by Wanda Embar, Vegan Peace. Picture taken at Farm Sanctuary.

Picture Library: Vegan Peace