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30 January 2013
Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology
of Animal-Human Encounters
experiencing animal minds

Edited by Julie A. Smith & Robert W. Mitchell
Columbia University Press, 2012

Review by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

Voices of the Living

I thought he was dumb,
I said he was dumb,
Yet I’ve heard him cry. – D.H. Lawrence, “Tortoise Shout”

A recurring theme in academic discussions of animals’ minds is the lack of verbal language in other species. Lack of verbal language is typically shorthanded as “lack of language,” suggesting that the only true “language” on earth is ours. In such discourse, language means human speech and only human speech, whereby our particular cerebral processes issue forth in articulate utterances that simultaneously manifest and predispose our minds in ways that set us high above and apart from all other forms of animal life, whether by degrees or in essence.

Experiencing Animal Minds presents a range of interdisciplinary viewpoints designed “to shed light on the nature of animal experience and the moral status of animals in ways that overcome the limitations of traditional approaches to animals.” Contributors consider whether other animals merely vocalize and make noises, whereas humans verbalize and make sense, and whether the inability of other animals to verbalize their experiences, linguistically in human terms, creates an unbridgeable gap between them and us. It follows (psychologically though by no means necessarily) that if human speech is the sine qua non for determining an animal’s value, and other animals lack this trait, then their experience of being alive in the flesh cannot possibly live up to ours, and the desire to believe that morality does not apply, or need only minimally apply, in our dealings with them is strengthened.

Responding to these notions, contributors argue that nonverbal forms of expression, including touch, movement, voice and a host of ineffable resonances and reciprocities, described by Julia Schlosser, myself and others in this book, are every bit as important, advanced, and informative ways of communicating and connecting with one another as verbalization is, even more so in many instances. Privileging human verbal language as the signifier for the “superior” human brain over Voice, kinesthetic empathy, and countless other forms of expression has more to do with prejudice than with an open-minded interest in the world’s teeming varieties of life.

Experiencing Animal Minds argues for the fact and the importance of the fact that brains are biologically situated and embodied organs, as opposed to the view prevailing in much of conventional science of “our bodies as mere stumps or pedestals for the head and the brain.” In “Brains, Bodies, and Minds: Against a Hierarchy of Animal Faculties,” David Dillard-Wright topples the “decapitation” theory of consciousness as “a static entity or essence in-residence,” observing, rather, the intricate processes and intelligences of the body and the continuity of body and brain, the brain itself being a body part as much as our blood, lungs and kidneys are. Biological situation of brains within and as constituents of bodies which are themselves environmentally situated and interactive with their surroundings integrates with all of the evidence we have of evolutionary continuity among animal species and a reasoned belief that other animals’ minds are not mere precursors of human ways of knowing but parallel ways of being mentally active and alive in the world.

A question the book raises concerns the approach most likely to gain public sympathy and respect for other animals: whether emphasizing their similarities to humans works best, as in Grey Owl’s belief that the beavers he once trapped before becoming a conservationist have humanlike language, and thus to a certain extent humanlike “reasoning powers”; or whether emphasizing that other animals have their own evolved ways of being in the world, which may or may not be like ours, is most effective. In fact, the either/or approach is a needless worry since both approaches must incorporate the paradoxical reality that sharable experience coexists with unsharable experience among sentient beings. What matters in educating public consciousness, says Brian Lowe in his chapter, “Perceiving the Minds of Animals,” is Evocative information: “presenting factually correct data in an emotionally compelling manner.”

A problematic fact is that we can never fully apprehend another’s experience, whether that other is human or nonhuman, with or without verbal language. As much as we may be able to suffer and rejoice vicariously with others, we cannot know for sure whether our sense of their inner experience reproduces their experience. 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.

This was part of an argument about whether alleviating the pain of calves during dehorning matters, if we can’t know exactly what a calf is feeling during and immediately following the unanesthetized procedure. 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.” He concludes his chapter with the suggestion, alluding perhaps to the equivocal poses of concern for epistemological purity that can occur when humans are exploiting animals, that “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.”

In my chapter, “The Mental Life of Chickens as Observed in Their Social Relationships,” I describe my awareness, when I am in the yard with them, that the chickens “are constantly sending, receiving, and responding to many signals that elude me.” Even so, 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.

I once had a rooster named Ruby who would attack me (against his will; it’s a complicated story), until I found an ally in Pola, who was so attentive to me all I had to do was call him and he bolted over from his hens and let me pick him up and hold him, and together we would Crow. Playfully, I got into the habit of yelling, “Pola, help!” whenever Ruby looked ready to strike. Pola would perk up, race over to Ruby, and run him off so cheerfully it was as if he knew this was our little game together. I’d always say, “Thank you, Pola, thank you!” and he acted very pleased with his performance and the praise I lavished on him for “saving” me. He stuck out his chest, stretched up his neck, flapped his wings vigorously, and crowed triumphantly a few times.

A sorrowful echo of the mournful cries of the nearly extinct whooping cranes, evoked by Dillard-Wright in his essay, drifts through Experiencing Animal Minds – the animals’ captivity, our bigotry, their imminent extinction, our indifference, the fact that we require animals to prove their worthiness to be cherished and respected instead of being tortured, degraded, ridiculed, incarcerated, punished and extinguished because they are not us, and because we can get away with it. Yet even when they pass our so often demeaning, stupid, and cruel tests, as Joy Williams wrote poignantly in “The Inhumanity of the Animal People,” in Harper’s Magazine , August 1997, it hardly matters:

“Their mysterious otherness has not saved them, nor have their beautiful songs and coats and skins and shells, nor have their strengths, their skills, their swiftness, the beauty of their flights. We discover the remarkable intelligence of the whale, the wolf, the elephant – it does not save them, nor does our awareness of the complexity of their lives. It matters not, it seems, whether they nurse their young or brood patiently on eggs. If they eat meat, we decry their viciousness; if they eat grasses and seeds, we dismiss them as weak. We know that they care for their young and teach them, that they play and grieve, that they have memories and a sense of the future for which they sometimes plan. We know about their habits, their migrations, that they have a sense of home, of finding, seeking, returning to home. We know that when they face death, they fear it. We know all these things and it has not saved them from us.”

An example of the tragedy of animals inflicted by humans is provided by contributor Traci Warkentin. In “Thinking Like a Whale: Interdisciplinary Methods for the Study of Human-Animal Interactions,” she recalls that the typical marine environment is a concrete prison, dark and murky, in which captive whales, who are believed to have excellent eyesight and are known to be totally unsuited to the acoustics, walls, objectification and tedium of captivity, are immured. “Captive whales are not free to leave or explore beyond the boundaries of the pool walls,” she explains, noting that the common behavior of trapped adult whales is to swim “slowly in circles with their eyes closed . . . holding back from engaging in any way with the humans on the other side of the glass.” (“He waits and waits to be unseen,” wrote the poet Jason Gray of “The Snow Leopard in the MetroToronto Zoo,” tormented by human stares, the hateful color green, his ancestral memories of White and his sickening life as a spectacle.)

The episode Warkentin relates is of an encounter between a young orca named Athena and two small children in the dark underwater viewing area. Unlike the adults visitors, the children don’t just stand there staring inertly through the glass but seek to engage with Athena who, being young, swims toward them. They address her by name and treat her “as a subject and unique individual, creating an intersubjective space of interaction.” Athena’s mother Kiska meanwhile circles the pool repetitively with her eyes closed. Warkentin suggests a connection between the stereotypic behavior of the human adults and the adult orca. For both, spontaneity has succumbed to fixed behavior patterns in this rigged encounter in which free agents have come to stare at prisoner-patients, then go away.

This is a crucial point: The orcas will never get away whereas the humans “move on.” The human mother takes pictures of her cute little children and the cute orca interacting “in playful spontaneity,” photos that like the visit itself will fade into forgottenness as quickly and completely as breakfast at Denny’s. I wondered as I read this account what kind of a relationship Kiska has with her own daughter Athena in the pool and how long they will be allowed to stay together before disease, death, or commercial decisions separate them forever. I thought about the fact that Athena will soon swim in hopeless circles with closed eyes like her mother, which she has already begun doing. Similarly, the children will soon act like their parents. Yet even so, they will have things to do in their lives, whereas the orcas will have nothing to do in their lives, and nothing can correct this but the elimination of our wrongful imprisonments of animals.

A few contributors to Experiencing Animal Minds focus on questions of whether nonhuman animals are self-conscious, whether they recognize their own minds among other minds, whether they can consciously relive a previous experience as opposed to just remembering it, and so on. Gary Steiner argues that whether or not other animals engage in conceptualization like humans – whether for instance they can not only distinguish black from white but recognize that black and white are colors – is morally irrelevant and that we should “stop trying to recreate animals in our own image and begin to let animal beings be the beings they truly are.” Similarly, Jessica Ullrich argues in “Minding the Animal in Contemporary Art” that we need to recognize “that animal experiences are not just pale imitations of our own.”

Poetry and visual arts that reject conventional portraits of animals and their “owners” to provide more radiant, profound and surprising images have the ability to cultivate empathy in people and teach us to appreciate other animals for who they are. Speaking for the whooping cranes, whose “wondrous difference of capacities, both within the family of cranes and between cranes and human beings” including their “wide variety of purposive vocalizations,” David Dillard-Wright implores us to see that “what counts about the crane is its unique mindedness – not the crane’s ability to measure up to an invented and artificial anthropocentric yardstick of intelligence.” A broader theory of mind, he says, “will value the crane’s intelligence per se and not only by comparison to human capabilities.”

Let us hope that this broader theory of mind gains traction in academia and reaches the broader population of human beings to change how we behave and feel toward our fellow creatures. Experiencing Animal Minds is a resource for animal studies programs and related areas of inquiry including philosophy and the arts. In their excellent concluding essay “Animal Ethics and Animals’ Minds,” editors Julie Smith and Robert Mitchell write: “The fact that humans and other animals share vocalizations, mating rituals, bodily processes, perceptual systems, and sociality indicates important mental connections between us and them.” The question is whether human beings have the will and the desire to do something that is truly good, or as they put it, intelligent, with this fact. – Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns


Karen Davis, PhD is president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of books including Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. www.upc-online.org/.

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