Brain Researchers Acknowlege Animal Consciousness

Chickens remain in their cages in a farm under quarantine in Tepatitlan, Jalisco State, Mexico on July 04, 2012. Mexican gove
Chickens remain in their cages in a farm under quarantine in Tepatitlan, Jalisco State, Mexico on July 04, 2012. Mexican government declared a national animal health emergency on Monday in the face of an aggressive bird flu epidemic that has infected nearly 1.7 million poultry. The emergency declaration included provisions for quarantine, slaughter, vaccination, and the destruction of infected products. AFP PHOTO/Hector Guerrero (Photo credit should read HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/GettyImages)

Last week, an international group of brain researchers released the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. The document declared the group's data-driven consensus that most animals are conscious and aware in the same way that humans are, and confirmed that virtually all animals have at least some degree of sentience -- even bees, according to Christof Koch in his Huffington Post blog, "Consciousness is Everywhere."

It boggles my mind that this stuff isn't headline news. Here's what's headline-worthy: 1) why science is so far behind the rest of us 2) how human animals treat non-human animals, given that plenty of us know that human or non-human, animals are essentially the same in ways that matter.

What would the world's reaction be if the New York Times' lead story tomorrow were "Chickens Understand That Their Throats are About to Be Slit" or "Horrific Confinement and Deprivation Feels Same to Pigs as It Does to Humans"?

Take a look at what we witness at Catskill Animal Sanctuary:

1) It was time to euthanize an old steer named Samson. I had rescued him from a horrid hoarding situation; he and I had been special friends; he was no longer able to stand. Many of the humans who had loved him surrounded him, rubbing his massive body, singing. I sat at his head, and as he was falling asleep from the tranquilizer (the first step in a two-part process), Samson licked my face over and over -- thirty times, perhaps? -- until he could no longer hold his head up. My unscientific view? He was saying goodbye, saying thank you, and saying he loved me.

2) A hen named Barbie and a sheep named Rambo had a special relationship. Barbie loved to rest on top of Rambo's back or cuddle up next to him in a pile of hay. When Barbie returned to the barn after a 2-week illness-related isolation period, she walked out into the long barn aisle, glanced around, walked past the free-range chickens, past the humans, right up to Rambo, who was resting in the aisle, and pressed her big bird body right up against his. He turned his head, and gently nuzzled her back. There were dozens of moments like this between Rambo and Barbie. For me, that single one was "proof" of their affection.

3) A former cockfighting rooster named Paulie nearly always chose to eat lunch with staff. A staffer named Alex always brought a small bag of sunflower seeds, and after he shared some once or twice with Paulie, the bird began walking immediately to Alex. If Alex didn't immediately produce the seeds, Paulie pecked Alex's leg, looked up at Alex, pecked again. If Alex STILL didn't deliver the goods, Paulie became irate, squawking and flapping his wings, unwilling to accept no for an answer.

4) My back deck affords a wonderful view of the sunrise. I go out frequently to enjoy the experience -- and so does Franklin the pig. Just as the sun is about to come over the cliff, Franklin walks out of his barn, faces the spot where the sun will momentarily rise, and waits. His peaceful anticipation feels identical to mine.

5) Lambert the sheep is new among our free-range crew. The other day, he was trying to befriend Lucy the cat. He approached slowly, lowered his head to hers. She whacked at him, hissed, and moved a few steps away. Lambert patiently persisted. "I want to be your friend," is what I felt him offering her -- but Lucy wasn't interested, and eventually gouged him on the nose. Lambert walked immediately to me and buried his face in my chest.

6) Every June, CAS hosts and event called The Shindig. Hundreds of folks attend; consequently, many witnessed Ethel the turkey walk purposefully out to the stage and sing for most of the day with the band. What was most striking was that when they weren't playing music, she didn't sing. But every time the lead vocalist began a new song, Ethel was about two feet in front of him, singing along.

7) I was in one of our pig fields and honestly can't remember what I witnessed, but will never forget that Franklin the pig and I appeared to be laughing simultaneously. A "PAY ATTENTION TO THIS MOMENT RIGHT NOW" space opened up in my gut the way it always does when I'm witnessing something that challenges an assumption I hold. I high-tailed it to the break room where the staff was having lunch.

"Do you guys think pigs laugh?" I asked.

They might as well have said, "Do you live in a HOLE?" In fact, one of them said something like, "That's like asking if we think pigs eat. OF COURSE THEY LAUGH!"

We humans know that dogs and cats are sentient not because science has "proven" so, but because we live with them and understand the subtleties of their behavior in the same way a parent knows those of her child. The same holds true, of course, for humans and farmed animals, wildlife, reptiles, marine animals and exotics: those few of us whose job it is to encourage them to thrive know who they are, with their individual quirks, their rich emotional lives, their yearning to experience joy. When we read that brain researchers have finally acknowledged what is blatantly obvious, questions about politics, agendas, problems with methodology, who funds the research and the like come to mind. More to the point, however, is the question of why we need science at all for the purpose of "proving" animal awareness. People around the world tell stories like those above. We need a means for anecdotal evidence to drive policy and practice.

My fervent hope is that one day soon, using the term "animal" to justify virtually any horror humans want to inflict non-humans will be as unacceptable as using race, religion or gender. In the meantime, I take some small solace in the fact that science may be catching up with the rest of us. Why? In the case of the animals in Catskill Animal Sanctuary's care, we already have three compelling reasons to invite our guests to consider a plant-based diet: 1) the suffering, deprivation, and torture from birth to death of 10 billion animals per year -- just to feed Americans 2) the health crisis -- we're sick and fat due to our meat and dairy-based diet 3) animal agriculture leads the pack in destroying the planet. The fact that science now acknowledges the sentience of nearly every animal is one more tool in our belt when we entreat or visitors not to eat our friends.

P.S. In the time that it took me to write this article, the USDA reports that almost 1 million chickens, 28,526 turkeys, 23,027 pigs and many thousands more animals -- animals brain scientists have just said are conscious and aware, just like humans -- were killed to feed us.