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

“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.

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.

The Psychology of Blaming Others During the Time of COVID-19

Humans are emotionally invested in ensuring that, whatever happens, the spotlight of blame never shines directly on us. So we blame wet markets in Asia for the spread of COVID-19 instead of ourselves.

This article was originally posted on Sentient Media.

The Pakistani author and artist Raheel Farooq says that “ugly truths are the biggest source of indigestion in humans.” During this pandemic, his words remind us that the ugliest truth of all lies within ourselves.

The current consensus about the origin of COVID-19, sans conspiracy theories, is that it originated in a wild species of mammal, such as a pangolin or bat, typically found in wet markets—places where a wide range of wild and domestic animals are confined in small, stressful, and unsanitary conditions. Animals at wet markets are sold to customers who either have them slaughtered on the spot or take them home to eat, sometimes alive. The wet market where COVID-19 first spread to humans was located in Wuhan, China. None of these facts are disputed by reputable epidemiologists or disease experts. Because the epicenter of this pandemic is located in another nation—a “foreign” nation—some humans in Western countries have been desperately trying to find a way to blame someone else—anyone else—for our predicament.

The Chinese wet markets are indeed places where viruses like COVID-19 are hatched. They are places of heinous cruelty towards other animals and deserve to be banned. But pandemics also originate on factory farms, both in the U.S. and other Western countries. A multitude of authors, including Stubler and Sebo, have recently reminded us of this fact. Yet, while residents of Western countries are busily pointing fingers at the wet markets of Asia, we are unable to look in the mirror at ourselves. The public mistakenly views factory farms in the U.S. as places where animals are concentrated, but in sanitary conditions and not treated like the animals in Chinese wet markets. Pigs, chickens, sheep, and cows are all killed away from the public eye, given antibiotics, and looked after by certified veterinarians. The USDA assures customers that it monitors the safety of the meat from these animals; consumers in supermarkets buying pork chops or chicken thighs have little information that suggests otherwise. But most of all, humans in the U.S. are psychologically unable to come to terms with the fact that our eating other animals from factory farms is on the same continuum as shopping at wet markets in China. Both practices are equally dangerous and cruel.

People in the U.S. are psychologically unable to come to terms with the fact that our eating other animals from factory farms is on the same continuum as shopping at wet markets in China.Humans are emotionally invested in ensuring that, whatever happens, the spotlight of blame never shines directly on us; we are loath to give up the pleasures of eating meat. As I point out in my recent essay in Aeon magazine, humans “are masters at erecting psychological defenses and justifying behavior that we know is not ethical but feels good, such as pleasuring the palate.” Bluntly, our species is very good at ignoring the suffering of animals in slaughterhouses and the health risks of eating animal products, all for a juicy T-bone. As long as humans continue to “bat away” the spotlight of interrogation in regards to eating animals, and keep pushing that spotlight onto other countries and other people, we can continue to erroneously believe that we can have our steak and eat it, too.

Many psychological defense mechanisms come into play when humans try to mount excuses for actions that we want to continue despite ample evidence that we should stop. Some well-known defenses particularly relevant to the COVID-19 situation and meat-eating include Denial, Displacement, Rationalization, Compartmentalization, and Projection.

Denial is the refusal to accept fact or reality. It is a primitive defense mechanism and the most common psychological defense. “I don’t believe that COVID-19 exists” is Denial in action.

Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts, feelings, and impulses onto another person or object, usually an “easy” target. “If it weren’t for the Chinese / Bill Gates / Republicans / Democrats / Trump / drug companies, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

Rationalization is putting something into a different light or conjuring a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality. A common rationalization of meat-eaters is, “Eating a pig or a cow is different than eating a bat or a dog—cows and pigs are meant to be eaten.”

Compartmentalization is separating some parts of one’s awareness from other parts and behaving as if one part has a separate set of values. “I’m an animal lover but I love my spare ribs!” exemplifies Compartmentalization. Finally, Projection is the misattribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto another person who does not share those same sentiments Projection sounds something like, “Those Chinese are incredibly selfish for causing animals to suffer just for their pleasure.”

Given the strong psychological currents underlying humans’ desires to eat meat, relying heavily upon voluntarism or “moral awakening” to end factory farming and wet markets is not likely to be effective. Humans tend to seek the paths of least resistance, or most pleasure, instead of challenging themselves to do the “right” thing. And we are well-equipped, psychologically, to stand our ground.

To meaningfully change our collective habits, I recommend two simple objects—a carrot and a stick. We can use the stick to end meat-eating through strong legislation and enforcement of consequences for violations. Legal protections for other animals, including the granting of legal personhood and other rights-based approaches, are another branch of the stick. At the same time—here comes the carrot—we can continue to provide more positive incentives that entice consumers and businesses to substitute plant-based foods for meat in stores and restaurants.

I once asked my sister Deb, an omnivore who is leaning toward vegetarianism, what it would take for more of the public to order a plant-based meal instead of a meat dish at restaurants. She said: make plant-based options abundant on the menu, affordable, and most of all, tasty. Can’t argue with that logic. Sounds much more appetizing than chronic indigestion and ugly truths.

Other Animals Are Not Humans’ Sacrificial Fall Guys

This article was originally posted on Sentient Media.

Using lab animals to solve human-made problems amounts to more of the same hubris that spawned the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place.

James Gorman, in a March 14th article in The New York Times, states insightfully that humans “get diseases from other animals, and then we use more animals to figure out how to stop the diseases.” Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, research labs around the world are scrambling to find the appropriate “animal model” for a treatment or vaccine for the virus. Right now is an especially bad time to be a mouse, as labs attempt to genetically engineer and produce mice who are susceptible to COVID-19 and, crucially, get sick from the virus in the same way that humans do.

And so it goes. Humans create a dangerous situation by treating other animals like commodities and then force some animals to shoulder an even greater burden as part of our “remedy” to the problem. Let’s be clear: the root cause of the COVID-19 pandemic is humans’ consumption of other animals—in this specific instance, bats and possibly pangolins. Humans like to say that the virus “jumped” from bats to pangolins to humans, as though our exploitation and consumption of these creatures has nothing to do with the “jump.” Humans invite the spread of pandemic viruses in by valuing only our base appetites and expressing little concern for the wellbeing of other animals.

The worst epidemics in recent history have been caused by humans capturing, marketing, killing and eating other animals.The worst epidemics in recent history have been caused by humans capturing, marketing, killing and eating other animals, not just wildlife but also domesticated animals like chickens and pigs. One of the worst viral diseases, bird flu, originated in the Chinese chicken markets in 2003 and 2013; in these markets, animals are crammed together with other species and sold “warm and wet”—i.e. alive or freshly killed—making the chickens superb reservoirs for viral mutation and reproduction. Another viral disease, the swine flu of 2009, was caused by intensive factory farming of pigs in the U.S. and Mexico. Zoonotic diseases are not new, or even rare.

Gorman highlights the possibility that once research labs have enough mice to begin initial research, they will move on to “ferrets, hamsters, and monkeys.” Some labs are already intentionally infecting rhesus macaque monkeys with COVID-19. Chimpanzees who have been abandoned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may be another target. Nearly four dozen chimpanzees at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico have been turned down for transfer to sanctuaries, ostensibly because they are “too old and sick to move.” Chimpanzees at other federally-owned or -supported biomedical primate facilities also may not retire to sanctuaries. Will these individuals “sitting on the shelf” be used for medical research if humans get desperate enough? In an interview that aired on PBS in 2012, Dr. John Vandenberg of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute—a vivisection lab in San Antonio—stated, in a blunt plea to keep chimpanzees in research labs, “I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library. There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year… But we don’t know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after.”

Using other animal species to solve human-made problems amounts to just more of the same hubris and human exceptionalism that spawned the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place. Until our species learns to respect the lives and wellbeing of members of other species, plagues will continue to occur. The next pandemic may be even worse. As long as humans continue to use other animals as the “fall guys” when disasters strike, ignoring our own behaviors that directly cause these crises, we will always falsely believe that other species’ purpose is to provide a “safety net” for humans. Never taking full responsibility for the consequences of our actions may ultimately be the downfall of Homo sapiens.