Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scientists discover what pet lovers already know

From time to time, articles appear in the media reporting scientific findings that only confirm what anyone who has ever owned a pet knows instinctively. For instance, the New York Post recently reported that scientists now believe animals seek out pleasure for the sake of pleasure. For those of us who love animals, it is difficult to believe this is even a topic for debate.

How often do we observe our dogs flopping on their backs and displaying that unmistakable, non-verbal and slightly pathetic yearning for a belly rub - which has no benefit other than feeling really, really good.

The dispute over animals having feelings arose in earnest in 1823 when English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, reacted to the overwhelming animal cruelty of his generation. His distress first appeared in the journal "Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation" (1823) as a footnote. Today, this is considered the most quoted footnote of all time: "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but rather, 'Can they suffer?'" As strange as it may seem to us today, this was a disturbingly reflective question at the time.

Nonetheless, Bentham's question was not taken seriously by the scientific community for another half-century - not until 1872, when Charles Darwin first theorized that animals do indeed have feelings.

Sadly, those early awakenings were subsequently rejected by scientists following Ivan Pavlov's famous 1901 experiment, which proved that dogs are easily behaviorally conditioned. Pavlov's findings convinced scientists they could dismiss the idea that animals have feelings until the 1970s, when respected American scientist Donald Griffin began publishing a series of books and articles that convincingly argued against the notion that humans alone are capable of thought and emotion.

Since then, we have learned that elephants have their own funeral rites: holding weeklong wakes, shrouding the carcass with branches and dirt, returning to visit years later. Wolves feed and care for injured or vulnerable members of their own pack. In his famous 2000 essay "Consider the Lobster," the late David Foster Wallace explored the ethics of boiling alive an animal that was classified as a sea insect, but which has pain receptors "which make it sensitive to potentially damaging extremes of temperature."

Today, science and technology are routinely providing a more sophisticated and humane understanding of animals - conceding that crustaceans can suffer, elephants mourn and dogs can feel happy.

However, understanding animals as sentient beings seems to be news only to modern-day scientists. In the early 13th century, Saint Francis of Assisi taught that animals are our brothers and sisters. "Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it."

In the 15th century, Leonardo De Vinci opined, "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men."

"Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics," according to French poet Charles Peguy. Proof of this can be found in our laws against animal cruelty. The words of saints and mystics regarding the sacredness of animal life has resonated with greater and greater numbers of people in each succeeding generation until our generation finally enacted laws declaring individuals who inflict suffering on animals to be felons in 46 states. This would have been unheard of in any previous generation.

What will be the next generation's relationship to animals? Perhaps the future can be seen through a glass darkly in this prophetic observation made by Martin Luther King, Jr., "One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them." This is the vision of the Yavapai Humane Society. Join us.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.