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How Can We Love And Eat Animals? #4 Denial of Animal Mind

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

In my last blog, I explored the denial of animal sentience as a mechanism for dissonance reduction, specifically related to the meat paradox. Another way to make the suffering of farmed animals less bothersome, is to deny that they possess a mind, or at least, one as complex as our own or even that of other special status animals. People convince themselves and others that farmed animals are unintelligent, that they lack the “higher” cognitive capacities that humans’ possess and ignore their potential for emotion.

Indeed, research by Psychologist Brock Bastian, suggests that how tasty we think an animal is, is in part, based on how cognitively complex we perceive them to be. In this research, animals which were considered to be edible were ascribed fewer mental capacities than those inedible animals.

But, is it that we ascribe fewer mental capacities to the animals that we eat, because we are motivated to do so, in order to reduce the dissonance that we experience when we eat them? Or is it that we have selected these animals for consumption, because they truly lack the ability to think and feel?

Brock dug further into this question and found evidence to support the former – that we ascribe fewer mental capacities to the animals that we eat, because we are motivated to do so. Participants in this research project were more likely to deny the minds of food animals when they were placed in a dissonance arousing situation. For example, when they had been explicitly reminded of the link between meat consumption and animal suffering and when they were told they were going to eat meat in a later part of the study.

It seems that, perceiving farmed animals as dissimilar from ourselves and other animals, in terms of their mental capabilities, is another common mechanism for reducing the dissonance aroused by our consumption of meat.

What’s more, research from the field of Animal Behaviour and Cognition, has provided evidence that farmed animals are, in fact, very intelligent, thinking, feeling beings. In a series of papers, former academic turn animal advocate, Lori Marino, explores what we know about the cognitive complexities of cows, pigs and chickens, animals typically farmed for food here in the West. While much of this research is constrained by our human assumption that farmed animals lack complex minds, and conducted within the status quo of animal exploitation, Marino does an excellent job at exploring these unique animals, on their own terms.

In The Psychology of Cows, Marino and colleague Kristin Allen, explore the very social, emotional and playful nature of cows. While many people believe cows to be dopey and unintelligent, Marino highlights the robust research that has evidenced their rapid learning abilities, long-term and spatial memory, perspective taking, as well as object and conspecific discrimination. So sophisticated is their ability to discriminate objects, they are able to recognise members of their own species from those of other species (e.g., dogs, sheep, or horses) as well as pick out and avoid humans who have previously handled roughly.

Cows are deeply emotional beings, capable of complex emotions like fear and frustration, pleasure and excitement. They are incredibly playful characters with evidence of play seen in calves as young as two weeks old. Cows love playing with balls, play-fighting with other members of their herd and running. Social licking is a huge part of their social contact, it is used to show affection and help forge strong social connections. While social play is natural in cows, it is less common in calves who are prematurely weaned from their mothers , and in those who live in poor welfare conditions. And thus, play is not so typical of those cows in the dairy and beef industry. Upon release from confinement, cows so often gallop and buck in relief, as can be seen in countless YouTube videos, just like this one.

Cows are incredibly social creatures, their herds built upon a matrilineal social structure. They find social isolation highly distressing and demonstrate robust social buffering responses when they are together. For example, during pre-slaughter handling, cows seem to evidence lower stress response if they are allowed to see or be in physical contact with other members of their group. And, when exposed to members of their herd who are stressed, cows evidence a pronounced stress response; decreased feeding and increased cortisol release.This research suggests that cows are capable of emotional contagion, the ability to feel the emotional state of another from the other’s perspective.

Just as it is in the human world, the mother-child emotional bond is particularly special in the cow world. A large body of research has confirmed that mother cows and their calves experience a strong emotional bond that forms within the first five minutes of contact after birth. This bond is partly dependent upon the ability of the mother to be able to lick the calf for several hours after birth. Sadly, in conventional dairy farming, calves are often taken from their mothers immediately after birth to preserve her milk for production. When separated, mother cows evidence extreme distress, stress that is only alleviated upon reunion.

In Thinking Pigs, Marino and her colleague Christina Colvin explore the cognitive complexities of the animal that brings people bacon. In this body of research, we learn that pigs share many of the same cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species like dogs, chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins.

Pigs have excellent memory, both long- and short-term, and can prioritise important memories, like the location of food. There is some research evidence to suggest that pigs share some of the more complex perceptual abilities that humans boast, like time perception and self-perception. They are able to comprehend simple symbolic language and understand both gestural and verbal symbols representing known objects (e.g., ball or frisbee) and action commands like sit, fetch and jump. These are skills that we see, not only in our companion animals, but also in human children at around three years old! Don't believe that pigs can sit on command, just like your dog? You can see it for your own eyes in this Youtube video, and many more just like it.

Pigs are socially complex too, and able to discriminate the more familiar members of their group from strangers. The research that we have, seems to suggest that this is an ability that develops in these animals as young as 6-weeks old. Pigs draw on their strong sense of smell and hearing to discriminate known others, even able to identify familiar individuals from the smell of their urine and their unique vocalisations. One research project found that mother pigs were able to identify the calls of their own piglets from other unfamiliar piglets using audio recordings of the piglets voices.

Like cows, and like our pet dogs, pigs are incredibly playful animals. They enjoying playing with balls and sticks, jumping, hopping and flopping on the ground. These incredibly social creatures love to play with their friends, fight, push and chase one-another. In social play, pigs have demonstrated their abilities for perspective-taking, using tactical deception to trick their friends in foraging games. The research on play in pigs suggests that play is critical for normal development. So important that insufficient opportunity to explore leads to behavioural abnormalities. Unfortunately, in industrial farming, pigs have very few opportunity to move around, let alone interact with their friends.

And, last but not least, Thinking Chickens, where Marino explores the animal which takes centre stage in the Sunday Roast Dinner. Chickens possess extremely sophisticated cognitive abilities. As young as two-days-old, chicks are able to master object permanence, the ability to understand that something exists even when it is out of sight. And, as young as five-days-old, chicks evidence numerical understanding, able to perform arithmetic operations with a total of five objects. What’s more, chicks and adult hens have shown evidence of time perception, episodic memory, self-awareness and self-control.

Chickens are incredibly social animals. They are able to recognise members of their group and have a complex language which consists of at least 24 distinct vocalisations and a number of different visual displays. Research has also documented that chickens use referential communication, a type of communication which serves to evoke a mental representation in the mind of the receiver. For example, in one study, when roosters were shown computer-generated animations of natural predators, they emitted distinctive alarm calls for for different predators. A different call for those aerial predators (i.e., those flying overhead) and those terrestrial predators (i.e., those approaching on foot).

In research looking at how mother-hens respond to distress in their chick, there was evidence to suggest that chickens are capable of, not only emotional contagion, but empathy. In this study, thirty-two hens were placed into three conditions, witnessing a mildly aversive air puff either (1) in their own cage, (2) their chicks cage or (3) outside of both cages. Only in condition two did the mother-hens evidence emotional distress, indicated by an increased heart rate, standing alert and maternal clucking. The authors of this paper concluded that the mother-hen had experienced and evidenced an empathic response out of concern for her young.

It is almost impossible to deny that farmed animals: chickens, pigs and cows, possess a mind. Equally as difficult to argue that their minds lack complexity. The animals evidence sophisticated cognitive abilities, comparable to that which we see in our companion animals and in protected animals like chimpanzees and dolphins. Not only that, but abilities that we see in ourselves too.

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