The Sentient Beings that could one day have Rights

In Features by Critical Eye

It was Charles Darwin that said, “Animals, whom we have made our slaves we do not like to consider our equals”.

Recently in Thirsk, a town in the north of England, workers at an abattoir were caught on secret camera abusing and taunting the animals in their care. They were filmed as they kicked them in the face and head, invoking fear in the defenceless animals before being slaughtered. Their fate was already sealed, but the vitriol and enthusiasm with which they tormented and abused the animals could not fail to enrage anyone who observed this. Those involved have since received death threats.

Throughout history we have seen what can transpire when there is any notion of superiority over others, think the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Stolen Generation of Australia and The Holocaust to name just a few. These stains on our history are a continued reminder of this.

holocaust, victims

The Holocaust, a stain on human history


The question is, as the human race progresses and we continue to evolve and hopefully become more enlightened in the centuries to come, could our current view of animals and how we relate to them also change?

In experiments conducted on Crabs, lobsters and other sea life, it has been proven that they do feel pain, as we feel pain, and is not just a reactive reflex action. Within controlled experiments, the Crabs were given electric shocks, and to avoid further shocks remembered the area where the shocks occurred, and avoided returning there, hence evidence of an acknowledgement and recall of pain and a desire to avoid further pain.

This is widely known, and most famously highlighted by David Foster Wallace in his book ‘Consider the Lobster’ (2004).

Indeed, the Atlantic Slave Trade, abolished around 150 years ago, very recently in our evolutionary history, was deemed   acceptable at the time globally, based on the belief that the African slaves were barely human and lesser beings and could therefore be bought and sold as ‘human cargo’.

the Atlantic slave trade

Sizing up. A depiction of the Atlantic Slave Trade


When applying this to animals could we see the same shift 150 years from now?

In 2014, Sarah, a 29-year-old Orangutan, was granted rights of a ‘non-human person’ in a landmark case, after spending 20 years in a Buenos Aires Zoo. The animal rights organization, Members of the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada), had long campaigned for this due to her intelligence, and the courts therefore granted Sarah basic human rights and determined that she should not be held in Zoo. Could this be a tipping point when we might see this happening more and more in the coming years?

Dolphins have been long-held up as highly intelligent cetacean mammals, with their behaviour often compared with that of humans, with bullying, promiscuity and calling each other by their names using a distinctive whistle. John C. Lilly a controversial neurophysiologist argued that dolphins represent a non-human form of intelligence on this planet in which we might learn to communicate.


Our view of Dolphins has been elevated over the years, but are they overrated?

However, this has been countered in recent years by others in the field. Justin Gregg, a Zoologist who works for the US Dolphin Communication Project says, “If we could just stop looking at them through the lens of the human condition, then we might open our minds to the idea that many other species have equally wondrous lives” He added, “Dolphins do have a signature whistle, but in terms of intelligence, they are nowhere near as special as portrayed and are less sophisticated than Chickens”.


The Chicken, thought by some experts to be more ‘sophisticated’ than Dolphins

The point is, we have to get away from this idea that just because certain animals are unable to verbalise their pain that somehow they are not able to feel it. On the contrary, these are sensitive, intuitive, sentient beings.

Frustratingly, what our misguided and at times arrogant judicial systems fail to recognise is that those who will wilfully harm animals are highly likely to migrate to harming other people. With such an innate disregard for life and a disconnection of empathic feelings for other beings it should come as no surprise.

According to a New South Wales newspaper, a police study found 100% of sexual homicide offenders had a history of animal cruelty. Moreover, a fascination with animal cruelty was a red flag in the backgrounds of serial killers and rapists. Yet ever more lenient sentences continue to be handed down in animal cruelty cases.

We will have to see what the future brings but these are interesting times. Certainly to prevent the mistreatment of animals and to severely punish offenders would be a great start.