Let Animals Amaze Us

I think one major reason people feel comfortable exploiting animals is because they do not understand animals. It is with this premise in mind that, after a stint of reading in the field of animal ethology, I’ve written the following thoughts.

Humans love animals because we empathize with them. And we empathize with them because, like us, they are sentient beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain. I became a vegan the day I watched a video of a calf being born on a factory farm. The baby was dragged away from his mother before he hit the ground. The helpless calf strained its head backwards to find his mother. The mother bolted after her son and exploded into a rage when the rancher slammed the gate on her. She wailed the saddest noise I’d ever heard an animal make, and then thrashed and dug into the ground, burying her face in the muddy placenta. I had no idea what was happening respecting brain chemistry, animal instinct, or whatever. I just knew that this was deeply wrong. I just knew that such suffering could never be worth the taste of milk and veal. I empathized with the cow and the calf and, in so doing, my life changed.

The field of animal ethology shows how right I was to react as I did (which, in the short term, was to cry a lot). Animals are deeply emotional creatures, and their emotional lives are often lived just as, if not more, acutely than ours. Of course, the emotions expressed by non-human animals aren’t only ones of grievance. Animals also show gratitude, often towards other species, including humans.  In 2005, when five divers went to free a humpback whale trapped in crab trap ropes off the coast of San Francisco, the whale became preternaturally calm as the divers hacked at the chords entangling her. When the rescuers finally released the whale, she carefully approached each diver and, with gentle finesse, nuzzled him. To dismiss this anecdote as “mere instinct” would be to overlook the power of the human-animal emotional bond. The whale valued its life, the divers saved her, and she thanked them. It was a beautiful expression of gratitude, one that every self-aware human should understand.

There will always be naysayers. There will always be those who dismiss such stories as sentimental distortions of those prone to anthropomorphism. It’s worth noting, however, that such naysaying has deeper roots in Biblical evangelicalism than in Darwinian biology. The reason the emotional lives of animals are so openly accessible to us is because emotions have evolved and, as any high school biology class teaches, humans share an evolutionary lineage with the animals we exploit. From this perspective, to anthropomorphize an animal is seek a bond with that animal. As one expert on animal behavior has written, “feeling in animals [is] an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” We thus have every reason to look animals in the eyes, assess how they feel, take those feelings seriously, and ask why we would ever inflict unnecessary harm on the sentient creatures with whom we share the ability to feel pain and pleasure.

Animals amaze us not only because they are emotionally astute, but because they are keenly intelligent as well. No, they cannot do calculus, write novels, or solve crimes–but then again most humans cannot do these things either. What they can do, though, often goes unappreciated, mainly because we just don’t know, don’t see, don’t appreciate the levels of their intellectual lives. Imagine, for example, how empowering it would be to be smart enough to anticipate a bumper crop, detect rainfall from as far as thirty miles away, or evaluate the cleanliness of a potential mate before copulation. Animals (wildebeests, monkeys, and mice, respectively) do all these things far more reliably than do humans.  In other words, intelligence–as so many educational psychologists tell us–can take on many forms, and animals, many with vastly longer evolutionary pasts than our own, have had eons to hone remarkably useful results.

Ah, but it’s mere instinct, right? Wrong question. Much of human life, it should be noted, is driven by instinct. There’s nothing “mere” about it, especially given how often instinct protects us from injury. More important, though, is how flexible animal instinct has proven to be.  Clearly, where there is instinct there is also conscious thought. “The question,” writes animal ethologist Mark Bekoff, “is no longer ‘do animals think, but what do they think.’” Learned behavior, behaviors for which there is no direct evolutionary preparation, are proving to be far more common than we’ve ever imagined. This is especially evident when it comes to deception. When a killdeer figures out that by faking an injury she can lure a predator away from her ground nest, or when squirrels dig and cover empty holes to protect their real caches, we know we are talking about calculating decisions rather than the programmed reactions of automatons.  We know we’re in the presence of a thinking and feeling being.

So, let us be amazed by animals. Let us be moved by their talents, touched by the familiarity of their emotions, inspired by the nuance of their intellect, impressed with their ability to recognize themselves. Then let’s recall our shared evolutionary heritage, noting perhaps the fact that when a mother calf loses her baby the same hormones of panic–glucocorticoids–flood her brain just as they flood the brain of a human mother. Let’s use these examples of intelligence and emotion to remind ourselves that the one quality we universally share with animals is sentience–the ability to experience pain and pleasure–and that, in sharing this quality, we owe to animals the same moral consideration we owe to human beings.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to Let Animals Amaze Us

  1. evervescence says:

    Thank you for this amazing, thought-provoking, articulate post.

  2. Karen Diane Knowles says:

    I love love love this article. Succinct, reasoned, compassionate. I will share this with my students in my human-nonhuman relationship class. Thank you, Mr. McWilliams!

  3. Provoked says:

    Sometimes a certain arrangement of right words and authentic ideas are like a clear running stream to a parched body. This was that time for me. Ever grateful.

  4. NerdyVegan says:

    This is so lovely and well-written! Thank you.
    I would like to say that animals can do calculus, though! The example I am thinking of (I wish I could remember where I read it) is that dogs will calculate the fastest path to take when they have to both run and swim and do each at different speeds. That takes calculus. Also, the act of catching a ball flying through the air is calculus! They may not write equations out, but they can perform those same instinctual calculations that humans can. 🙂

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