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

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.)

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.

Kimmela Center Launches Scholar Advocacy Webinar Series

The Kimmela Center has launched a webinar series on scholar advocacy, an empowered professional path that combines scholarship in various fields with advocacy (for animals in this case).

The main reason for this series is that students, especially those in the natural sciences, are often led to believe that academic scientists should not engage in animal advocacy. They are often told that they can either be a scientist or they can be an advocate, but that they cannot (or should not) do both.

Similarly, working scientists who advocate for the animals they study are often criticized for their advocacy work. The claim is that “science is objective.”

It is true that the process of scientific inquiry and methodology needs to be rigorously objective. But how scientific data are employed to create change does not have to be neutral. Indeed, it is anything but neutral in advocacy for humans – for example in relation to children, patients and homeless people. And there is no reason why this should not apply equally to advocacy for animals. It takes advocacy based in science and scholarship to drive the cultural shift that’s taking place in how we relate to nonhuman animals. Animal advocacy is becoming mainstream.

The Kimmela Center is at the forefront of the movement to promote scholar advocacy for animals.

This year we initiated a live webinar series on scholar advocacy beginning with Scholar Advocacy in Neuroscience and Psychology. Dr. Lori Marino of The Kimmela Center was joined by Dr. Greg Berns of Emory University, Dr. Syd Johnson of Upstate Medical University, Dr. Bob Jacobs of Colorado College, and Dr. Becca Franks of New York University, as they discussed their professional paths as neuroscientists, neuroethicists, and animal psychologists who also advocate for animals in different ways. Greg Berns talked about how he advocates for animals as a neuroscientist by limiting his research to non-invasive and non-coercive studies. Becca Franks discussed how she engages in animal welfare research and teaching. And the whole group provided valuable advice to students in the webinar audience who are navigating the often-complex world of academic neuroscience and animal advocacy.

Our second live webinar, Scholar Advocacy in Marine Mammal Science, featured Dr. Marino, Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, Dr. Deborah Giles of Wild Orca, Kara Elizabeth Henderlight of the American Cetacean Society, and Mariah Kirby, a biology educator. Together, they talked about why they believe it is important to advocate for the protection, conservation and rights of marine mammals, both free-ranging and in captivity.

Upcoming webinars will focus on scholar advocacy in animal law, farmed animal protection, and many other areas.

Please go here for updates on upcoming scholar advocacy webinars and news about other activities and events sponsored by The Kimmela Center.

And thank you for making these good things possible. Your tax-deductible donation, large or small, helps support young scholar-advocates, develops scholar-advocacy professional programs, and empowers scholarship-based animal advocacy efforts of all kinds.

Webinar: Scholar Advocacy in Neuroscience and Psychology

The Kimmela Center will hold its first webinar on Scholar Advocacy in Neuroscience and Psychology on Wednesday June 3rd, 2020 from 3–4 pm Eastern Time.

For more information and to register, go here.

Scholar-advocacy is a professional path that promotes the connection between scholarship and animal advocacy. It takes various forms but has at its core the foundational concept that there is no inherent conflict between scholarship (specifically, science) and advocacy for other animals.

In the neurosciences and psychological sciences, this means advancing research that does not involve coercive, invasive or terminal methods, being sensitive to and supportive of students who want to be academic scientists but not vivisectionists, and using research findings to advocate for better protections for other animals.

In this webinar we will explore scholar advocacy with six scientist-animal advocates:
L. Syd Johnson (Upstate Medical University)
Greg Berns (Emory University)
Becca Franks (New York University)
Bob Jacobs (Colorado College)
Elric Elias (University of Colorado, Denver)
and Kimmela Executive Director Lori Marino (formerly Emory University).

Each panelist will talk about their “journey” as a scholar advocate and answer your questions online.

Join us whether you are a student or established scientist who wants to be a neuroscientist or psychologist studying animals while also advocating for their protection.

Scholar-Advocacy Returns to Superpod

On July 18th, a group of nine young scholar-advocates will take the stage at the San Juan Island Community Theater at Superpod 6 as part of the Second Biennial Scholar-Advocacy session.

Superpod 6 is a gathering of marine mammal experts, advocates and policy makers who convene on San Juan Island for several days to share their knowledge and ideas. This year scholar-advocates as young as 10 years old will showcase the way they’ve been using their education, talents and energy to advocate for marine mammals and the oceans.

There will also be a panel discussion about professional issues among the young scholar-advocates and Drs. Naomi Rose, Ingrid Visser, and Lori Marino.

Scholar-Advocacy Superpod 6 Schedule, Abstracts and Bios

Wednesday, July 18th, Community Theater, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA

10:45-11:00 Mariah Kirby Until Toki is Home: Miami Seaquarium, STL 
11:00-11:15 Andrew Robinson The Case Against Captivity: Orcinus orca
11:15-11:30 London Fletcher Walking in the Footsteps of Giants
11:30-11:45 Jenny Katic Marine Mammal Inventory Report: Preliminary Research on Bottlenose Dolphins
11:45-12:00 Jessie Hawk Call of The Wild: The Importance of Shifting Public Opinion

3:45-4:15   Heirs 2 Our Oceans Our Water Planet, Our Cetaceans and Us
Presenters: Abi Subramanian, Arjun Subramanian, Charley Peebler, Aislinn Clark
Introduction (Abi S.)
Ocean Story (Charley P.)
Orca Intelligence (Abi S.)
Forage Fish and Cetacean Sustenance (Arjun S.)
Entanglement Issues and Cetaceans (Charley P.)
Does the MMPA Adequately Protect Marine Mammals? (Aislinn C.)
Mission (Arjun S.)
Movement (Aislinn C. and Charley P.)
H2OO Global Movement (video)
Wrap-up/Call to Action (all Heirs)

4:15-4:45   Scholar-Advocacy Panel Discussion (with all scholar-advocate speakers and Drs. Naomi Rose, Ingrid Visser and Lori Marino)
In this panel discussion, to get the conversation started the scholar-advocates will ask a specific question of Drs. Marino, Rose and Visser. Topics could range from professional development to education to advocacy to gender/orientation issues to animal welfare vs. rights and pretty much anything the scholar-advocates are interested in. We hope this exchange will be one that provides an opportunity for other young scholar-advocates to develop their talents and interests in the area of animal advocacy.

Abstracts and Bios

Until Toki is Home: Miami Seaquarium, STL Rally and Blackfish – the Children’s Book  Mariah Kirby 

Abstract: Mariah will be presenting parts of her YouTube video entitled “A day at Miami Seaquarium.. Toothless dolphins?!” in which she documented Lolita and other marine mammals at the aquarium. She will also present the turnout of Missouri’s first anti-captivity rally, which she organized and hosted at the St. Louis Arch that focused on Lolita, and finally will be discussing her self-published children’s book, Blackfish: From Planet to Park.

Bio: Mariah is a 5th year Biology Education student at the University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL). She will be a high school biology teacher with hopes of researching whales and dolphins in the wild during her summers off. At Superpod 5, Mariah shared her experience of how she got involved in the issue of captivity and became friends with the members of the Blackfish documentary. This year at Superpod 6, she is going to share her experience in going to visit Lolita (Tokitae) at Miami Seaquarium, hosting the first anti-captivity rally in Missouri called “Until Lolita is Home” which was one of fifteen rallies across the world, and why she wrote Blackfish: From Planet to Park, which is a children’s book based on the documentary.

The Case Against Captivity: Orcinus orca
Andrew N. Robinson

Abstract: Andrew will present a classical discourse or argument that Seaworld should release the killer whales in their parks to a seaside sanctuary. His speech will include a statement of facts, division, proof, and refutation.  His three points of proof are: the environment at Seaworld is harmful to the health of a killer whale, the environment at Seaworld causes the whales to be hyper aggressive, and the environment at Seaworld ultimately leads to the premature deaths of the whales.  I have a video recording of my thesis presentation that I would be happy to share if it would be helpful.

Bio: Hi! My name is Andrew Robinson.  I am a recent high school graduate from Westminster Academy, a small classical school in Memphis, TN. I love Killer whales with all my heart and I will be attending Mississippi College in the fall to study nursing.  I am here to deliver my senior thesis from my high school rhetoric class. At my high school we had to deliver a senior thesis in the form of a persuasive speech.  I chose to advocate for the orcas in captivity at SeaWorld. I have a passion for these animals.  I feel an incredible amount of compassion and hurt for these whales. So much so that when researching the horrors of captivity I would break down into tears. I am here not only to advocate for the orcas in captivity, but also to show that everyone has the ability to take action and make a difference. And if we come together, we can end this inhumane situation.

Walking in the Footsteps of Giants
London Fletcher
The Blue Advocates Group / Orca Research Trust NZ / Damsense.org

Abstract: London will be showing a video which gives a very brief update on her advocacy work since the last Superpod meeting, her fight to save the Southern Resident Killer Whales, and her internship with the Orca Research Trust. She will also discuss how her work with leopard seals in New Zealand inspired her to conduct her own research on the local harbor seal population in Whatcom County, Washington.

Bio: London is a 10-year-old from Washington State who has a deep regard for the ocean and marine mammals. She is probably the youngest person ever to earn an internship in cetology, which she completed with Dr. Ingrid Visser at the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand during the North American summer of 2017. London is also the youngest member of the Society of Marine Mammalogy. London advocates on behalf of chinook salmon and the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, educating the public on the plight of Southern Residents and the need to breach the lower four Snake River dams to restore wild salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Marine Mammal Inventory Report: A Preliminary Research on Bottlenose Dolphins
Jenny Katic

Abstract: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains the Marine Mammal Inventory Report (MMIR) and updates it when it receives notifications of any acquisition, disposition, and transfers/transports from a facility. Due to the complicated design of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, this inventory report is limited to cetaceans and pinnipeds (excluding walruses) only. There are currently 6,868 individuals listed on the MMIR as of February 5, 2018; this includes live and deceased animals. There are a total of 43 different cetacean and pinniped species accounted for in public facilities. Of those listed, California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins make up the majority (69%) with 2,946 (43%) and 1,810 (26%) individuals, respectively. The focus of this exploratory study was to determine if the MMIR could be used as a reliable source for evaluating the welfare of individuals and the quality of public display industries. This preliminary research focused on one species, bottlenose dolphin. It was determined that the MMIR could, in principle, be used for statistical analyses but it requires accuracy and due diligence from the public display industry, NOAA, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services. The data, even though a federally mandated document, are often inaccurate and are missing key elements for all species listed. A full review of submitted documents is needed to clarify and correct data. Further analyses on the other 42 species listed, as well as, comparisons between species is needed.

Bio: Jenny Katic is a first year graduate student at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia pursuing her Doctor of Public Administration degree with a concentration in Environmental Policy. She previously completed her Bachelor of Arts with a major in History and minor in Sociology and Masters of Public Administration at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She currently works at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University as the Administrative Assistant for the Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education.

Call of the Wild: The Importance of Shifting Public Opinion
Jessie Hawk

Abstract: Jessie will be discussing the results of her survey of 50 respondents on the most effective way to change the general public’s opinion of keeping orcas in marine parks. She will present her results showing that news reports and documentaries had the largest impact (even above social media and family/friends) and discuss ways these results can be used to develop forms of media that would not only sway opinion away from supporting oceanariums and aquariums but also towards alternatives, such as seaside sanctuaries.

Bio: Jessie Hawk is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Denver. She received a degree in Creative Writing as well as two minors: one in philosophy and one in women’s and gender studies. She is currently working on a short story collection that she hopes to eventually get published. This fall, she will be attending the University of Tampa to pursue a Post-Bac degree in Marine Biology. She hopes to get a master’s degree in marine mammalogy from the University of Miami and wants to pursue a doctoral degree afterward towards a career working with marine mammals and conservation.

Our Water Planet, Our Cetaceans and Us


Heirs To Our Oceans (H2OO) is a San Francisco Bay Area youth-led organization that began in May 2016 with 10-16 year olds whose primary mission is to educate youth about the crisis facing our oceans and waterways and empower them to take action in being a part of the solutions. H2OO started a global movement and has attracted youth from as far away as the Micronesian island of Palau. A critical focus of H2OO is the education of youth beginning in the middle school years, redefining the age group of “youth”, leading to their and others’ empowerment to their informed choices. H2OO is founded on the belief that informed and empowered youth are crucial to solving the crises our oceans and waterways face.


The Heirs hope to use the platform at Superpod 6 to share the learnings and experiences from their journey of the past 2 years and their plans to continue this work to empower youth of all backgrounds around the world. They also look forward to sharing their youth perspective with the current generation of decision makers.


Abi Subramanian studies the crucial role that cetaceans play as top predators in the marine ecosystem. This has led Abi to learn about the evolution of cetaceans through a naturalist course with the American Cetacean Society, understand the impact of pollution in the lives of these animals, raise awareness about cetaceans on the brink of extinction such as the Vaquita and also understand and communicate the role that these creatures play in combating climate change. Abi is also concerned about cetacean captivity, including the carnage at Taiji, and she actively protested the opening of a dolphin exhibit in the desert in Arizona. Abi is currently talking to the International Marine Mammal Project as they explore ways to stop opening the new dolphin facility in Mississippi.

Charley Peebler studies the impact of derelict fishing gear problems. Charley has learned from expert Level 4 whale disentanglers Justin Viezbicke and Pieter Folkens. She has also attended workshops about entanglement problems including at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, OR, and at the 6th Int’l Marine Debris Conference in San Diego, CA. Additionally, Charley studies coral, including deep sea habitat, and advocates for their protection to ensure healthy marine ecosystems for future generations.

Aislinn Clark is focusing her research and advocacy on ocean policy and legislation with a specific interest in marine protected areas, marine mammal protection and marine pollution. Aislinn’s interest is in strengthening the Marine Mammal Protection Act and banning off-shore drilling to better protect cetaceans.

Arjun Subramanian is currently studying the issues faced by the pelagic fish due to overfishing and climate change challenges. In particular he is looking at the issues faced by the anchovy fish off the Pacific coast which provide sustenance to the marine mammals and birds of the Pacific coast and recently testified at the Pacific Fisheries Management Commission (PFMC) meeting regarding fishing limits for anchovies. Additionally, Arjun has spent the last year studying the problem of plastic pollution and the current alternatives that exist in combating this worldwide problem.