Crying Elephants, Giggling Rats and Other Surprisingly Sentient Animals

By Emily Birch, Nottingham Trent University | January 11, 2018 10:08 am

Motherly love. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Years ago, we believed that we weren’t animals and that animals were here solely for our use. Indeed, a cow was just a walking burger, a Sunday roast, keeping itself fresh and tasty ready for when we were hungry.

Luckily, for their sake, things have progressed significantly from then and now we recognize that animals (including our “superior” human selves in that category) can experience emotions from more simple ones such as happiness and sadness to more complex ones such as empathy, jealousy and grief. Animal sentience is defined as the ability to feel, perceive and experience subjectively. In other words, it’s about emotions and feelings and in some respects, having an awareness that “you are you”.

In fact, the scientific evidence for animals being sentient is vast – so clear that three scientists read 2,500 papers studying sentience in non-human animals and concluded confidently that sentience does indeed exist.

If you saw Blue Planet II recently, for example, you’ll have seen the footage of a pilot whale carrying around her dead calf. For most humans, this clearly demonstrates a form of grieving, particularly given the behavior changes in the wider family pod.

The Evidence for Sentience

Studies have shown that sheep are able to recognize the faces of their sheep friends even after being separated for two years. Elephants form strong family groups with immense memories and they cry when they are hurt (both physically and emotionally). Capuchin monkeys know when they are receiving unequal pay (grapes vs cucumber) and Macaques develop individual cultures, particularly when it comes to how one should wash a potato.

Chimpanzees like to keep the peace by redistributing bananas if someone complains that their share is unfair and even rats have been shown to demonstrate empathy by giving up their favorite snack to save a drowning friend. They also giggle when being tickled.

Fish use tools and octopus weigh up whether the effort needed to gain a food reward is worth it depending on the type of food. There is also plenty of evidence on how animals have individual personalities and indeed how some are a glass half full type while others are more glass half empty.

But it isn’t just from watching their behavior that we can say animals are sentient. When we examine the brains of species (and indeed individuals), we can draw parallels from what we know about human brains and start to make assumptions.

Emotions mainly stem from a part of our brain called the “limbic system”. Our limbic system is relatively large and indeed humans are a very emotive species. So when we come across a brain that has a smaller limbic system than ours, we assume it feels fewer emotions. But, and here’s the big but, when a limbic system is comparatively much bigger than ours, we don’t assume it feels more emotions than us. Most likely because we cannot imagine something that we do not feel or even know about.

The Act of Killing

In some marine mammals, their limbic system is four times larger than ours is. In addition to this, some marine mammals have spindle cells, which we originally thought were unique to humans, allowing us to make rapid decisions in complex social situations. Would these evolve if they weren’t used for the same (or at least similar) purposes?

One potential reason why we don’t like thinking too much about animal sentience is because we like to kill animals. Some to eat and some, quite simply because we do not like them. Look at those poor spiders in autumn, coming in to find some shelter, only to meet their end being smacked by a slipper wielding human. We also turn a blind eye to systematic cruelty on an mass scale to ensure we save some money on meat at the supermarket. It’s far easier to pretend these animals don’t have feelings or emotions so that we can enjoy a cheap dinner without the emotion of guilt creeping in.

So is animal sentience a big deal? Yes, it is. We need to ensure we include it everywhere to safeguard the welfare of all animals, not just our pets. We live in a world where a lady putting a cat in a bin causes immense public shaming, yet we’ll pop down to the nearest fast food outlet and eat meat that has lived the most abhorrent life ever without thinking twice. It really is time that we spent more time thinking about the thinking beings around us.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • John Thompson

    No one claimed that they didn’t have emotions.
    You can make an ant mad.
    You can make a dog happy.
    But logic and reason are hard even for many people.
    Heck, we have an entire political party in the US that uses emotion over reason.
    A cow can be made angry – doesn’t change the fact that steaks taste great.
    The scorpion with it’s young on it’s back came for me as I sprayed it with Raid – anyone think that was because there is any logic in that move by the scorpion?
    It was pure emotion.
    Perhaps someone needs to explain to Birch that emotions are the most base form of thinking – the lowest level.
    A one day old infant who knows nothing still has emotions – and they can’t even see straight.
    So contrary to the conclusion reached in the article, it doesn’t matter one bit if the cockroach doesn’t LIKE being killed.

    • Tim Donahoe

      The most current thinking on emotion, at least in humans, is that it’s actually a very complex subconscious process of constructing interpreted meaning in a given context. The infant you speak of does not have emotion like you and I do. It has to learn cultural concepts in order to experience emotion like we do…and even so, we individually experience emotion slightly differently, as it is dependent on so many variables.

      The only base emotions we have, and probably most animals, are bodily status updates, of which you can reduce to four. To display signs of more complex emotion there actually needs to be a fairly rich internal experience in that animal.

    • Erik Bosma

      there’s reacting to emotions and there’s responding to emotions

    • Maia

      For a long time, animals were believed to have no emotional life and not really mind physical pain all that much either. Even infants were included in this latter and subjected to painful procedures without anesthesia.
      You are now creating another chasm ( in your own mind) between other animals and humans by making “logic” the only thing that matters.
      Logic is not ” higher” than feeling, both are simply different capacities.
      We do not know what other animals experience because we cannot “speak their languages”, but what do know so far is that they far surpass our original (and more convenient) assumptions.

  • Uncle Al

    So much of the world is like a refugee family only asking for a free ride forever and every advantage in the interim.

    • Kurt S

      And much of the discovery readership must be weary of Uncle Al and his dreary world interjected upon us all.


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