A New Declaration on Animal Consciousness

How much are we willing to harm other animals to prove they shouldn’t be harmed?

On April 19th, 2024, the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness was launched at a conference at New York University. Initiated by Jeff Sebo (New York University), Kristin Andrews (York University) and Jonathan Birch (London School of Economics and Political Science) it was initially signed by 40 scientists, philosophers, legal scholars and others in relevant fields of study.

The starting point for the declaration is the extremely strong evidence that mammals and birds have conscious experience. By consciousness, the document is referring to sentience, awareness, and the ability to experience positive and negative interactions with the world, such as pain and pleasure. It goes on to argue that, based on the science, there is a convincing possibility that other non-mammals – e.g., fish, reptiles, amphibians, and some invertebrates, including octopuses, crabs and insects – might also be conscious.

Finally, the authors state that “it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal. We should consider welfare risks and use the evidence to inform our responses to these risks.”

As someone who has worked for more than 30 years in the areas of animal sentience and intelligence, I applaud this Declaration and I am a signatory. It is laudable because it is based on empirical science and promotes the idea that what we learn about other animals should have real consequences regarding how we treat them.

Such declarations only have power if they modify our behavior toward nonhuman animals.

I’ve followed that maxim in my own work. In 2001, I co-authored a paper with Diana Reiss (a New York Declaration signatory) demonstrating that bottlenose dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors. Apart from the scientific value, I realized that there were moral implications to our findings. It seemed to me that if dolphins are indeed self-aware beings who, like us, recognize themselves in mirrors, then it would not be moral to confine them to circumstances that clearly cause suffering, e.g., concrete tanks.

Yet, the two dolphins – Presley and Tab – with whom we worked for that study lived in the New York Aquarium and spent their days forced to cope with an impoverished, unnatural environment for people’s pleasure and our research. They both eventually died at a young age. And I was left to make the only decision appropriate in that circumstance: I gave up working with captive dolphins and whales because my own findings (and many others) showed that it would be unethical to continue to promote captivity by engaging in captive research with them.

I fully acknowledge that it is not easy to find ways to address certain scientific questions, especially about brain function and perception of pain, that do not infringe upon the welfare of other animals. In many ways the study of consciousness is a catch-22. It serves as the basis for reflecting upon whether it should be done in the first place and often for welfare advocacy. But the New York Declaration, if taken seriously, asks us to deeply interrogate the status quo of causing harm, including captivity, to study consciousness.

Presently, many of the signatories to the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness continue to promote and conduct research that causes physical and psychological suffering to the very animals they claim are likely to be conscious. One of the authors, Kristin Andrews, has strongly promoted the idea that such a declaration should be the impetus for further research into consciousness in nonhuman animals. And while she does state that welfare protections should be extended to these research subjects, there is little to no articulation of how to expand and amplify research on consciousness without causing more suffering.

In fact, much of the research the Declaration is based upon is invasive or involves keeping other animals in captivity. An earlier proclamation from Cambridge, United Kingdom, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in 2012, stated similar scientific conclusions but without the ethical component. And some of the signatories went back to their labs and continued invasive research or holding animals captive.

The point is that such declarations only have power if they modify our behavior toward other animals. If we go back to our universities and continue to conduct research on consciousness by inflicting injury, pain, suffering or worse, then at what point are we willing to stop harming other animals to prove that they shouldn’t be harmed?

The new Declaration can serve as a powerful challenge to our capacity to conduct rigorous research without harm. We can rise to this occasion by aligning our behavior with our scientific findings and their implications – even when some questions might be left unanswered.

The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness serves as a critically important first step toward a new future where science truly informs our moral perspectives and behavior. Will we take that next logical step?

Photo of Bombina-bombina frog by Marek Szczepanek Marek Szczepanek, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Tokitae – Reflections on a Life

Kimmela co-presented a live and streamed event entitled Tokitae – Reflections on a Life: Evolving Science and the Need for Better Laws in November at the GW Law School in Washington D.C. Five experts in science and animal law and policy discussed the captive marine mammal industry and ways we can end the keeping of orcas and other cetaceans in concrete tanks for entertainment.

Tokitae, an orca also known as Lolita and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, died in August 2023 at the Miami Seaquarium after having been taken from her family in the Pacific Northwest and forced to live for 53 years in a concrete tank.

A plan for her release to a natural sea pen in her natal waters had been announced just a few months earlier in March.

Tokitae’s captivity spurred development of rigorous scientific evaluation as well as legal attempts to increase her protection and seek her release. Sadly, she died before these efforts could come to fruition.

This event explored what happened and what needs to happen to address the captivity of cetaceans and other animals for entertainment. Speakers addressed the law’s failure to follow science, to protect vulnerable beings, and to meet and improve legal obligations and will suggest pathways forward.

Miranda Eisen – Outreach & State Policy Specialist, Farm Sanctuary
Georgia Hancock – Director and Senior Attorney, Animal Welfare Institute’s Marine Life Program
Kathy Hessler – Assistant Dean, GW Animal Law Program
Lori Marino – President and Founder, Kimmela Center and the Whale Sanctuary Project
Elizabeth (Liddy) Stein – Litigation Director, Nonhuman Rights Project

Bringing Together Science and Animal Law

The Kimmela Center presents a new Continuing Law Education (CLE) webinar: “Using Law and Science to Help Animals.”

Produced jointly with the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School. The one-hour webinar features Kimmela Director Lori Marino and Clinical Professor Kathy Hessler, Director of the Animal Law Clinic & Aquatic Animal Law Initiative at Lewis & Clark. Together, they discuss how lawyers can effectively use science in their animal protection legal work.

Science and animal law are closely linked, as much of animal law is based on the science of welfare, animal cognition and even genetics. Thus, scientific knowledge and familiarity can empower animal law and policy efforts in the great majority of cases.

Kimmela is committed to bringing relevant scientific knowledge to practicing attorneys, law students and scholars and advocates to help them learn how to employ scientific knowledge to optimize their work for animals.

This webinar is part of an ongoing project being conducted in collaboration with the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy, an organization dedicated to advancing animal law and policy to protect animals.

The webinar is approved for one Oregon continuing legal education credit. (Check for eligibility in other states.)

“I Am NOT an Animal” – a Kimmela White Paper

We are proud to announce the first Kimmela Center white paper, entitled “I Am NOT an Animal!” Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals, by Lori Marino and Michael Mountain.

This paper is part of a long-term project that examines the psychological dynamics of our treatment of nonhuman animals in the context of our deep fear of death.

In 1973 cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, in which he put forth the thesis that when we humans are reminded of our own mortality (even unconsciously), we defend against that idea by denying our mortal animal nature, along with whatever may remind us that we are animals. Instead, we are driven to claim superiority and human exceptionalism in an attempt to transcend our mortality.

Becker’s theory became the basis for the field of social psychology known as Terror Management Theory (referring to how we deal with the anxiety of mortality awareness). And in the years that followed, hundreds of scientific studies demonstrated that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal!” and how this need drives the urge to dominate and exploit people who appear to threaten the cultural views in which we cloak ourselves to defend against mortality.

More recently, studies have taken Terror Management Theory a step further by showing that mortality anxiety also drives us toward dominating, exploiting and abusing nonhuman animals and the natural world.

In our new white paper, updated from the 2015 peer-reviewed paper in Anthrozoos, the authors employ Terror Management Theory to explain our continued exploitation and abuse of other animals and what this means for our future on this planet.

Webinar: Dolphin Assisted Therapy, Autism, and Pseudoscience

We are pleased to announce our next live webinar entitled Dolphin Assisted Therapy, Autism, and Pseudoscience.

  • Wednesday November 17th at 7:00PM ET
  • Register for the webinar here.

Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is a type of dolphin swim program offered worldwide that is purported to be an effective treatment for autism and other conditions. These programs typically involve the participant touching, swimming with, or being towed around by captive dolphins while engaged in more traditional tasks. Parents of autistic children and others are charged thousands of dollars and led to believe that they are engaging in real therapy.  There is no oversight or accreditation for DAT.

Several peer-reviewed scientific papers have shown that DAT rests upon weak methodological grounds and there is currently no evidence that DAT has any long-term therapeutic impact. Yet, it continues to be marketed to desperate parents and people seeking relief for their problems.

In this webinar we describe the standard DAT protocol and discuss why it is a pseudoscience, i.e. a practice mistakenly considered scientific.  We also discuss the considerable risks to participants of injury and disease transmission associated with swimming with captive dolphins as well as the exploitive and abusive practices that force dolphins into DAT performances.  And we highlight some of the faulty assumptions that may follow when one pursues some experience touted as a “therapy” and offer some important questions to ask providers.

The Blood Harvest of Horseshoe Crabs is a Moral Fiasco

At a time when we are dealing with a viral pandemic that began with our exploitation of other animals and nature we continue to abuse other animals to solve the very problems we create. In this case it is the horseshoe crab whose blood is used in biomedical research and now being considered in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine despite the availability of a synthetic alternative. Hundreds of thousands are ‘harvested’ for this purpose. Horseshoe crabs have existed on earth for over 450 million years, predating dinosaurs and flowering plants – as well as surviving five mass extinctions. Yet it is unclear if they will survive our exploitation of them in a highly lucrative biomedical industry.

In our latest essay entitled The Blood Harvest of Horseshoe Crabs is a Moral Fiasco, I am joined by Dalhousie University philosopher Andrew Fenton as we explore the ethical justifications used to defend this use of horseshoe crabs. We conclude that the welfare and conservation of these animals is being compromised for the sake of convenience and that the blood harvest is a moral failure.

Read the essay here.