Research suggests sentience in animals

By Brandon Smith

Scientists have developed a database illustrating the growing body of work that suggests emotions and possibly consciousness exist in animals., a website run by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, recently added the Sentience Mosaic, an entire section devoted to demonstrating the enormous body of research done on animal intelligence and emotion.

“We wanted to promote the [research saying] that animals can feel emotions and why it is relevant,” said Helen Proctor, science and research manager for WSPA. “It goes beyond just animal welfare. We want to show how it is important to conservationists, environmentalists, veterinarians, even agriculturalists.”

Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who studies animal sentience, also expressed hisappreciation for the launch of the newest section.

“This is a fantastic resource for scientists, academics, [and] students whose work impacts animals, and anyone else who is interested in the fascinating lives of the other animals whom we share this planet with,” he said.

Sentience in animals is a misunderstood term, according to Michelle Rafacz, an assistant professor of biology in the Science and Mathematics Department.

“The problem with animal sentience is how we as humans perceive their feelings,” Rafacz said. “If an animal doesn’t react to something the same way that people do, then we automatically assume it doesn’t feel anything.”

Approximately 1 billion of the world’s poorest people depend on animals for food, income, companionship, security and cultural identification, according to WSPA. It believes that protecting animals defends these elements of society.

“Human compassion promotes better legislation for agricultural and environmental practices,” Proctor said. “This has huge implications for our societies. We need to look at life from a fundamental standpoint. If we treat other lives well, we will treat ourselves well.”

Proctor said responsible management of animals affects land use, climate change, pollution, water supplies and habitat, which in turn affects human health.

Rafacz said that although recognizing sentience in animals is important for human well-being, there is a risk of anthropomorphization—attributing human behavior to them.

“Many times, we may overestimate animals’ emotions,” she said. “It is typically in human nature to look at animals through our own perspective as self-aware, conscious beings. We must be careful not to confuse sentience with a theory of mind or self-awareness.”

Proctor said anthropomorphism is one of the main controversies surrounding animal sentience and agrees with Rafacz that it is human nature to give other species human like qualities.

Proctor added that children are bombarded with cartoons and television shows that personify animals. This facilitates thinking at an early age that animals are like people.

“We can see, with empirical evidence, that animals have emotions and can feel pain and pleasure,” Proctor said. “That is why we need this objective body of research, so anthropomorphism does not need to be involved, and we can step back from human tendencies.”

Bekoff said finding and acknowledging sentience in animals can also affect the way humans live.

However, researchers agree there is much more work to be done until a full understanding of how animals think, feel and perceive the world is developed. They say research must work to eliminate a natural bias.

“The biggest roadblock is overcoming our human perspective in an attempt to think objectively about how other animals perceive and experience the world,” Rafacz said.