Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So they're sentient. What next?

I stumbled upon a seemingly thoughtful and thought-provoking piece this morning on the website for the Scotland on Sunday paper. The article discusses animal sentience and how our views concerning it have evolved over the years. The article kicks off with the story of Gana the gorilla at Germany's Muenster zoo, whose offspring died recently and who for several days displayed obvious signs of grief, refusing to part with her baby's body. Richard Bath, the article's author, continues by noting zoologist Dian Fossey's extensive work with gorillas and how she's observed them mourning the loss of their young. Bath then asks whether these are truly indications of similarities in emotion between our fellow primates and ourselves, or whether we're merely projecting. Are we ultimately just looking for something that isn't really there?

Bath provides context for why we've come to view other animals as lacking in sentience and spends some time discussing how we've since started considering that this isn't so. Modern research shows that chimps who are subjected to the cruelties of vivisection, for instance, even end up suffering from what we recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder. Bath goes on in this empathetic vein, comparing speciesism and the fight to establish basic rights for sentient non-humans to abolitionism and the all-too-recent battle to establish basic women's rights.

Bath then reverses course somewhat abruptly and points to the usages of terms such as ''non-human animals'' and "companion animals" (which are now used instead of "animal" and "pets") and he describes them as stemming from political correctness. He elaborates upon this by pointing out instances of legal measures enacted to protect animals which he deems excessive. And then? Then he brings up the ''a'' word: ''The trend is exacerbating out tendency towards anthropomorphism -- the allocation of human traits to animals''. So after paragraphs spent describing animal sentience, Bath goes from pointing out emotions and cognitive abilities shared by humans and non-human animals alike, to asserting that we are the ones somehow projecting our ''human'' traits on non-humans, as if we have dibs on sentience after all.

Bath ends his piece bringing things back to Gana, writing about her prior rejection of another offspring as if it's an indication of the great divide between "us and them". He ends with a question for which he seems to think there could only be one answer, which he uses to prop up his final point that animals are, in fact, inferior to humans. He asks: ''Would most human mothers in similar circumstances do likewise?'' and adds: ''For the moment, it seems, some animals are still created more equal than others.'' The irony in this is that it assumes that human mothers wouldn't abandon their offspring, when volumes could be written illustrating the exact opposite. From the scared teenager who secretly gives birth and leaves her baby bundled for another to find (or in a garbage can to be forgotten), to the parents who walk away from their families at any given point in their lives for any number of reasons -- these are indeed unfortunate facts of ''human'' life. Furthermore, Bath asks if most human mothers ''in similar circumstances'' would do the same as Gana. I'm not certain of whether there have been studies involving women raised in captivity being given the option to either keep or give up their offspring. We -- including Bath -- can really only speculate, rather than assume and use that assumption as a wedge between us and our fellow primates, or between us and the rest of our fellow animals.

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