BOOKS: Experiencing Animal Minds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2013:

Experiencing Animal Minds:  An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters Edited by Julie A. Smith & Robert W. Mitchell Columbia University Press (61 West 62nd St.,  New York,  NY  10023),  2012.   380 pages.  $19.24/Kindle,   $105.00 hardcover,   $35.00 paperback.

Experiencing Animal Minds is a fascinating collection of 21 essays by animal researchers and academic scholars. Many of the authors discuss how animals interact with each other and with humans,  including United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis.   Davis’ contribution anticipated and rebutts a study published in February 2013 by British Royal Veterinary College researcher Siobhan Abeyesinghe.  Concluded Abeyesinghe,  “We found no evidence to suggest that modern hens reared in commercial conditions form  friendships,  even when they are housed in small groups where it is possible to know every other bird.  This suggests that,  at present,  fostering of friendships cannot be used as a way to improve the welfare of chickens.”

Writes Davis,  “My experiences with chickens for more than 20 years has shown me that chickens are conscious and emotional beings with adaptable sociability and a range of intentions and personalities,”  who “are constantly sending, receiving,  and responding to many signals that elude me.”

Yet,  Davis summarizes on the UPC web site,  “The fact that the chickens have their own vocabularies,  social discourse,  and dramas amongst themselves does not prevent me from interpreting much of their chicken talk,  and I know that they accurately interpret much of mine.” Davis then cites several examples of how she has responded to chickens and how they,  in turn,  have responded to her,  in ways which certainly sound a lot like friendship as humans know and express it.

Chickens are also capable of expressing ideas and pursuing goals that clearly do not originate entirely from their own previous conditioning.

Sarah,  for example,  rescued from a cramped windowless barn shared with thousands of other chickens at a commercial egg farm,  arrived at the UPC sanctuary with health issues.   As she recovered,  she fought to climb the stairs leading into the main house,  apparently seeking a peaceful and comfortable environment unlike any she had ever known.   Once inside,   she laid her eggs in the second floor bathroom.

“We can never fully apprehend another’s experience,  whether that other is human or nonhuman,  with or without verbal language,”  Davis continues in her own discussion of Experiencing Animal Minds.  “In ‘Inner Experience as Perception (like) with Attitude,’  Robert Mitchell describes hearing a biologist argue that we cannot know if an immobilized calf having a hot iron attached to his head for several seconds to remove his horns feels the same pain as a human being would feel under similar circumstances.  Mitchell replies that ‘unless you assume that calves have no pain experience during the administration of painful stimuli,  lack of knowledge of exactly how pain feels to the calf,  or whether it is like that of humans, is irrelevant.’”

Writes Mitchell,  “In our attempts to understand an animal’s inner experience,  we may be asking for more information than we can obtain even about other humans who speak the same language.”

Mount Royal University psychology professor Alain Morin in a chapter entitled “What Are Animal Conscious Of?” asserts that “Wild animals have never been observed worrying and do not seem to experience sleeping difficulties as a result.”

This contradicts at least 50 years worth of ethological observations,  including some very famous findings by primatologists Jane Goodall,  studying wild chimpanzees,  and Robert Sapolsky,  studying wild baboons.  Morin acknowledges,  however,  that laboratory animals show evidence of anxiety “when asked to perform extremely difficult discriminatory tasks.”

Benjamin and Lynette Hart discuss the unique attributes of the elephant’s mind. Elephants and humans share large brains,  tend to be long-lived,  and have offspring who remain dependent upon their parents for many years.

Elephant memories are “arguably beyond that of humans” say the Harts.  “Older elephants,  particularly long-lived matriarchs,  accumulate and retain memories from a lifetime of varied experiences that have adaptive consequences for their families.”

Elephants using branches to swat away flies and throwing sticks at rodents,  both behaviors mentioned in antiquity, were among the first recorded examples of animal tool use.

Experiencing Animal Minds also includes intriguing essays about the mental attributes and communicative abilities of dolphins,  whales,  chimpanzees,  monkeys,  and beavers. ––Debra J. White

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