Human Behavior Toward Animals Hasn’t Caught Up to the Science

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Photo: VisitBritain/Rod Edwards/Getty Images

These days, daily newsfeeds are cram-packed with headlines representing the latest revelations into who animals really are. Chimpanzees rely on their close friends to help them relax. Pigs have something that sure looks like personalities. Elephants mourn their dead; so do whales. Even to a casual reader of headlines like these, it should be abundantly clear that, much like humans, animals have rich inner lives.

Since the 1960s, we’ve seen massive growth in the scientific understanding of what animals think, know, and feel; with that sea change in knowledge, we might expect also to see a profound shift in ethical attitudes toward animals. And yet, we argue in our new book, The Animals’ Agenda, human behavior toward animals is increasingly out of sync with science.

It’s true that there has been some encouraging movement in recent years. Last spring, SeaWorld announced it would end its orca-breeding program; in 2015, the National Institutes of Health ended its support for “invasive research” on chimpanzees; and next month, the 146-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will perform its last-ever show. Each of these decisions may reflect changing attitudes toward animals, especially among younger Americans, who are more likely than their parents and grandparents to say they follow “strictly or mostly” vegan or vegetarian diets, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last December.

But it’s not enough. For many people working in animal advocacy, the failure of science to produce better ethical results has been a bitter disappointment. For us (a scientist and an ethicist), an early feeling of optimism has given way to frustration, even alarm, about what is happening to animals globally. Animals are, by many measures, objectively worse off than ever before. Despite the extensive database on the cognitive and emotional capacities of cows and pigs, burgers and bacon continue to be popular foods. According to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, global meat production and consumption have increased steadily over the past four decades, rising by 20 percent in the last decade alone.

And although captivity is known to cause profound emotional trauma to large mammals such as orcas and elephants, entertainment venues continue to keep these animals on display. SeaWorld has agreed — under intense public pressure — to end captive breeding of orcas and stop using them to entertain the public, and yet the marine park still plans to hold orcas captive. (At the same time, China seems to be embracing orca shows.) And though the NIH took a laudable first step by ending its support of research on chimpanzees, overall, hundreds of millions of monkeys, cats, dogs, and other animals are used in research and testing worldwide. (It’s impossible to know precisely how many, since only a handful of countries track these data and many creatures are excluded from the tallies.)

The pet industry is not helping matters, either. Each year, millions of exotic animals such as geckos, sloths, and fennec foxes continue to be marketed and purchased as “pets,” despite the profound unsuitability of human homes to satisfy their biological needs. Even wild animals, who may rarely or never interact with humans, aren’t immune. Billions of wild animals across the world are losing the freedom to thrive, much less survive, within increasingly unstable and degraded ecosystems. We are destroying them and their homes.

Part of the problem is that some of the regulations we currently have in place are illogical. Consider the 2013 Federal Animal Welfare Act and Regulations “Blue Book” published by the USDA, which holds that rats and mice are not animals. This, despite the research showing that both species display empathy and experience a host of positive emotions: Rats laugh and like to be tickled, and mice can read pain in the face of other mice. According to this act, only “real” animals require some measure of protection from torture; rats and mice are not “real” animals, and are therefore not entitled to such protection. Moreover, being required to offer adequate protections to countless lab rats and mice would be prohibitively expensive and onerous for researchers. Better simply to ignore basic biology.

A blatant disregard for scientific consensus isn’t the most serious problem facing animals, and doesn’t adequately explain why animals have failed to benefit in more meaningful ways from increasing knowledge. Indeed, the overarching problem may come from the very idea of “animal welfare” itself, something that may come as a surprise to many readers. Much of the research into animal cognition and emotions neatly blends industry needs with so-called “welfare” improvements. Simply put, the appeal to “animal welfare” has become a form of moral justification for continuing human exploitation of animals. The basic premise of “welfare” is this: “We’re doing the best we can for the animals but we have to use them for human benefits.”

The core concept around which animal welfare builds is called the Five Freedoms, a set of guiding welfare principles articulated in the U.K. during the 1960s in response to increasing public concern about animal suffering caused by industrial-farming methods, such as battery cages for chickens and gestation crates for pigs. The Five Freedoms included freedom from fear, hunger, distress, and pain, and the freedom to engage in at least some species-specific behavior (for example, birds must be able to stretch their wings). These freedoms were suggested as ideals toward which to strive, with the built-in assumption that the things to which we expose animals under our “care” make achieving the freedoms difficult, if not impossible. The most striking thing about the Five Freedoms formulation is the cruel irony that what animals used in human industry most lack is freedom. Their lives are not their own.

The Five Freedoms were forward-thinking and could remain a crucial moral guide for our interactions with animals, if we were to take the freedoms seriously. Abundant scientific research shows that animals need to feel in control of their own lives and choices, and that they suffer from the loss of self-determination. Early work on learned helplessness demonstrated that animals who are exposed to repeated and inescapable “stressors” (that is, “aversive” experiences such as electric shocks or forced swimming in a smooth-sided tank of water) suffer psychologically, and efforts to escape the aversive stimuli gave way to deep despair. Captivity, social isolation, and chronic exposure to stress, the fate of millions upon millions of animals, lead to measurable physiological changes in the brain, including the loss of neural plasticity. The loss of freedom also manifests in observable behaviors. Captive animals often display abnormal behavior patterns called stereotypies, such as polar bears endlessly pacing back and forth in a zoo enclosure, rats chiseling down their teeth by obsessively biting the bars of their laboratory cage, and pet parrots plucking out their own feathers. These animals are telling us in no uncertain terms that the conditions in which they live are driving them mad.

The bottom line is that even “good” welfare is not good enough. Rather than being used to enhance the freedoms of animals, welfare science has been put into the service of human interests. In The Animals’ Agenda, we offer a new paradigm we call the science of animal well-being, in which the life of every individual animal matters, and which commits to radically improved freedoms for animals, especially freedom from human captivity and exploitation. This means phasing animals and animal products out of meal plans. It means putting an end to captive breeding in land and water zoos and halting the practice of shipping animals here and there as breeding machines. It means phasing out the use of animals in biomedical and other invasive research. And it also means, on the part of potential consumers of exotic pets, a broad-minded consideration of what captivity means for these animals.

As we write in the book, animals want to be able “to mingle socially, roam about, eat, drink, sleep, pee, poop, have sex, make choices, play, relax, and get away from us.” They want to live in peace and safety, just like we do.

Science can undoubtedly help other animals. We can objectively measure and observe animal suffering. But rather than responding with small welfare improvements such as a few inches of additional space for battery-caged mink on a fur farm or a curved rather than a straight chute up to the slaughterhouse killing floor for cattle, all of which are ultimately self-serving, we could instead diligently put science into the service of animals themselves. Not only must we seriously address sources of human-induced suffering, but we must also work to create a world in which animals are free to live their own lives and make their own choices. After all, humans aren’t the only intelligent beings on Earth.

Jessica Pierce is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. Their book, The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, is out this week.

Our Behavior Toward Animals Hasn’t Caught Up to the Science