animals and our relationship with animals

Posted on June 29, 2011


Today (29th June), an article was published in The Guardian titled ‘Can a dog feel forsaken?’.

‘… It may be the wrong question. We should base our ideas about animals’ understanding on evidence, rather than sentiment

Last week Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, declared during a parliamentary debate that circuses should be banned from keeping wild animals because the “the welfare of those animals is … symbolic of the kind of society in which we live”. The significance of their welfare is increasingly symbolic since the number of wild animals kept by circuses in England has fallen to below 40. On Tuesday Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan police commissioner, has said he was “very saddened” by the deaths of two police dogs left in a car during Sunday’s heat. What do these expressions of concern say about what animals mean to us?

Banning circuses from keeping wild animals is one thing: itmakes a statement about tempering human domination over the natural world. It affirms that having mastered nature, humans should allow what’s left of it to look after itself – to whatever limited extent that is possible. Nowadays British society, which extirpated the last of its wolves hundreds of years ago, hardly needs lion tamers to reassure it that humans have gained the upper hand over large carnivores.

Our relationship with dogs, on the other hand, is very different matter. They are intuitively felt to be so deeply associated with humans – an association that may well be tens of thousands of years old – that it’s easy to treat them as associate humans. They are seen as companions or colleagues rather than as belongings.

That is an emotional perception, and often a sentimental one. But it poses questions about our relationship with animals that can’t easily be dismissed if we are to treat our responsibilities to them thoroughly …

Scientists are increasingly engaged with what may or may not be going on in animals’ minds, and their findings may have important implications for our relationships with domesticated species. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham crystallised the issue of animal welfare with his declaration: “The question is not can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer.” But as our interest in animal minds moves with increasing purposefulness beyond intuition and sentiment, that question becomes more complicated. We’re forced to ask what they may be able to understand, despite not being able to reason or talk: whether they have faculties that extend their capacity for suffering beyond immediate sensations of pain or fear. The more sense they have of other individuals as individuals, and of how individuals treat each other, the greater those capacities will be. Perhaps the question we should ask is not whether animals feel suffering, but what domesticated animals may enjoy or find rewarding. Both these questions turn on the relationships these animals have with the people who determine the conditions of their lives. Asking them may enable us to build more mature relationships with the animals we keep based on evidence, rather than sentiment …’

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