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Why human suffering and animal welfare are the one issue

This week we were again warned by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer that we are rapidly approaching a time when antibiotics will be largely ineffective. We are at risk of returning to a pre-antibiotic age…

Compassionate people tend to care about other humans and animals, but our linked welfare goes beyond that. Bungalow.Brian/Flickr

This week we were again warned by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer that we are rapidly approaching a time when antibiotics will be largely ineffective. We are at risk of returning to a pre-antibiotic age in which simple infections and minor surgical procedures will become increasingly fatal.

Upon hearing this news my mind immediately went to the plight of future generations. But the announcement also served to remind me of the extent to which the fortunes of humans and non-human animals rise and fall together.

The movie Amazing Grace tells the true story of the abolition of the human slave trade into Britain. In the opening scene the movie’s protagonist William Wilberforce stops his horse and cart, disembarks, and reprimands a fellow-traveller who is beating his downed horse.

Empathy towards horses, especially urban working horses, was fundamental to the establishment of the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in 1824. To this day, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) uses as its seal the image of an angel intervening on behalf of a downed cart-horse who is being beaten with a rod.

As ‘Amazing Grace’ showed, the same people often fight for animal and human rights.

The reason Amazing Grace opens in that way is that it was the very same people who fought for the rights of humans to own property in their own person – that is, the right not to be a slave – who also created animal welfare laws intended to protect animals against the worst excesses of human brutality.

Wilberforce was a remarkable figure. He championed both the abolition of human slavery and animal welfare. Yet while Wilberforce was remarkable because of the historical role he played in alleviating suffering he is not unique in extending compassion to both humans and animals.

As the welfare state emerged so to did animal welfare principles. More often than not those who are predisposed towards compassion extend that compassion to all those with the capacity to suffer – both human and nonhuman.

Despite the shared history many contemporary commentators do not make the link. The western concept and practice of human welfare and human rights has progressed steadily from its humble beginning in Victorian England. The same cannot be said of animal welfare or animal rights.

The notion that animals might have inherent rights remains little more than an abstract notion agreed upon by a very small number of people. Contemporary animal welfare laws are virtually structurally indistinguishable from Britain’s first animal welfare act of 1822.

Yet despite the historical deviation it nonetheless remains the case that the well being of humans and animals rises and falls together.

As traditional farms have been replaced by factory farms, antibiotics are needed to keep animals alive. brainware3000/Flickr

One of the most important causes of antibiotic resistance is that antibiotics are routinely feed to animals raised under intensive conditions – commonly referred to as factory farming.

Some 500 million animals are raised for food in factory farms in Australia each year. In the UK alone, factory farmed animals are fed between 350-400 tonnes of antibiotics annually. More than half of all antibiotics produced are fed to animals.

Antibiotics are not added to animal feed for therapeutic reasons; that is, to treat them when they are ill. Rather, they are fed to animals routinely merely to keep them alive under extraordinarily cramped conditions.

In that sense the looming antibiotic resistance crisis serves as a timely reminder that we - humans and animals - are in this together. We feed antibiotics to animals to keep them alive under conditions in which many would otherwise be dead. By doing so we are creating a future in which humans will die from infections that are currently treatable. When humans suffer animals suffer by their side. And vice versa.

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby will launch the University of Melbourne’s Human Rights and Animal Ethics (HRAE) Research Network, which will be studying the connection between animal and human suffering, at 4.00pm on Friday March 15 in the Melbourne Law School.

Join the conversation

53 Comments sorted by

  1. Joe Gartner

    Eating Cake

    This is a fascinating issue but i feel that there is some discrimination that needs to be made in respect to animal rights. The author, as I understand it, has asserted that animals deserve rights because of their capacity to suffer.
    I am not convinced that this is a sufficient basis for full autonomy as an individual, personhood, as it were. UNfortunately the article doesn't state how many rights a non-human animal should have.
    If an animal is to be accorded full autonomy as an individual i am not convinced that capacity to suffer is sufficient a basis. We certainly don't accord autonomy and rights to humans based upon capacity to suffer and we allow or create suffering in humans despite their autonomy.

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    1. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      How many rights should should a non-human animals have? Probably not that many. But they should have some - the right not be made to suffer and not to be killed come to mind. These two alone would eliminate most of our use and abuse of animals.

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    2. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      typos sorry

      How many rights should non-human animals have? Probably not that many. But they should have some - the right not to be made to suffer and not to be killed come to mind. These two alone would eliminate most of our use and abuse of animals

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    3. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      I totally agree that an organism that has the capacity to suffer ought not suffer but how do we know what is animal suffering?
      I think that it is obvious when an animal is in pain and distress and there are objective signs that would suggest that the inner states of an animal suffering is analagous to the same states in humans.
      How far do we take this?
      Do we define suffering as the presence of pain and objective signs of distress (ie elevated heart rate, agitation, flight behaviours) only? or do we extend htis to other forms of suffering (anxiety from caging, inability to experience ranging and pack behaviours etc).
      There are difficulties in the application of animal rights just based upon the capacity to suffer, i think the wider context is what are our obligations to animals, and what are their obligations to us.

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    4. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Suffering by a sentient being takes many forms from pain and distress, to anxiety and the deprivation caused by being unable to exhibit natural behaviours. This is true for humans, as well as true for many animals, in particular most, if not all animals, that are raised for food and experimented on by science.
      If it is prima facie wrong to cause a person to suffer in any of the ways mentioned, it is prima facie wrong to cause an animal to similarly suffer and for the same reasons.

      I doubt that animals could be said to have obligations.

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    5. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      The ability to suffer is the main basis for the establishment of human and animal rights. In respect to humans everything else concerning rights are embellishments in other areas of human activity and interest[eg] civil and political rights.
      Suffering can be experienced by any animal that has the ability to think and feel and this applies to most non-human animals that share a similar nervous system to our own, which includes all vertebrates.
      Like us, animals experience pain and hunger, and share…

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    6. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Don't be silly. None deserves 'concentration camps', neither humans nor animals. If there is something we're all born to then it has the the right to be free, allowed to exist. And old farms didn't have this 'only meat' attitude to other animals, although they used them for that too. A lot of what we do today would make a old time farmer too lok at us in horror.

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    7. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      The ability to suffer is not the basis for all human rights. it is the moral autonomy of humans. if you establish that capacity to suffer is the basis for rights and that suffering is an ill that must be prevented you are in a bind. How does one prevent suffering in animals, let alone humans?
      A better step is to acknowledge that animals sense pain and distress and limiting pain and distress in animals is a sensible aim.
      To strate that animals have rights commensurate with humans would mean thta we should foster the aims, wants and wishes of the animal along with our own. Why should we do that?

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    8. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Yoron, see comment above. I'll believe what you say when you can acknowledge that if this is true than animals have obligations towards us as well. Otherwise it is arrogant to assert that we, as morally autonomous and rational individuals, have obligations towards animals. But animals, as rational morally autonomous individuals, have no obligations towards us.

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    9. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Well, you need to differentiuate what suffering is, then. Suffering is a natural corequisite of existence. How are we to limit suffering in animals, let alone fellow humans?
      You might like to start with: 'what is the natural level of suffering in a herbivore in its primeval state' and work from there. perhaps domestic animals suffer less than the antelope in Africa... i don't know, it's difficult to tell without being priveleged with special access into their wants, hopes, desires and emotional pain; if indeed their emotional states have these correlates with ours. If you think thta a trip to an abbatoir, or a halal killing entails more suffering than being pulled down by wolves than i suggest you think about this some more.

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    10. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      I don't know Joe, the thing is that we are predators, we eat meat, as a lot of other animals on this planet. But the difference is that those other hunt, we found another way in where we lock them in and use them as food. To ask animals to consider our rights might then be a equivalence, in some worst cases, to asking inmates in a concentration camp to please consider the feelings of the guards. Not a easily done thing for any inmate.

      We eat them, but we could still give some consideration to their lives, when alive. They're animals, we're animals too.

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    11. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Joe
      So humans who are not autonomous e.g. infants, the insane, the comatose -do not have rights e.g. not to be to made to suffer and not to be killed?
      There is big debate on the question of autonomy and rights. I think it is fair to say that the modern view has largely moved on from the claim that moral autonomy is necessary for the basic rights. You may be in agreement with this when you say that the ability to suffer is not the basis for all human rights although I think you mean the ability…

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    12. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Rob,
      I don't have a disagreement with the broad thrust of your argument, except to say that I feel that you are approaching some sort of equivalence between human rights (the rights of a person) and animal rights.
      I have no argument tha animals should be accorded SOME rights (sorry for the shout, but no italics available). But this should stem from the animals capacity for physical suffering (a given, I think we can agree), emotional suffering ( can be inferred by stress responses) and moral…

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    13. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Joe,
      First will you please tell what you mean by "..moral autonomy of humans"?
      In your second paragraph you acknowledge that as".. animals sense pain and distress... limiting pain and distress is a sensible aim". I think we should go much further than that and not knowingly submit animals to any situation where distress and pain are inevitable outcomes, as in the live-export trade, rodeos and the caged-hen egg industry for example.
      Third, broadly equating animal rights with human rights is not…

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    14. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      I agree with you, I've never stated that animals should not be subject to consideration. My point is that a blanket statement - 'animnal rights' is quite meaningless; we need to define what type of rights and why animals should have them. Some commentators, I feel, wish to assert full personhood to animals - this is a mistake, I think.

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    15. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Hi Joe I haven't had time to read through all of your post carefully but at one point you ask again what rights animals should have, given we agree that they can have some rights.

      My answer is that animals have the right not to be caused suffering (in its myriad forms) and the right not to be killed. Let' s call those rights, the basic rights. Humans have the basic rights, as well as arguably many other rights that animals don't - the right to free speech, freedom of assembly, to an education…

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    16. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      Peter,
      An explanation of moral autonomy:
      http://philosophy.la.psu.edu/jchristman/autonomy/Waldron.PDF
      there is nothing in what you say that i disagree with, except where you state: "and not knowingly submit animals to any situation where distress and pain are inevitable outcomes".
      I agree with "live-export trade, rodeos and the caged-hen egg industry" as examples where humans transgress the principle of causing undue suffering; but where do we draw the line?
      i personally subject animals to…

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    17. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Rob,
      I see your point and agree broadly, except that suffering is a natural corequisite of existence and to state that an animal (or a human) should (or can) be free from suffering is a conceit.
      If an animal has less rights than a human (in which I agree with you) I don't see that that right should extend to the right for life. We already use animals for our own ends, not theirs, I see no ethical dilemma with using an animal for our ends even if that should mean killing and eating it.
      on that…

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    18. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Of course I did not say that all animals can be made free from suffering, just that they should not be made to suffer by us (humans). My view also does not imply that we should intervene in Nature and stop the lion taking the antelope. The lion needs to eat. The same is true for wild animals in general (I am not sure what you mean by saying they are under “our purview’). I think you overestimate the difficulties with claiming the right not to suffer for animals and the extent to which it leads to…

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    19. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Rob,
      I think you have misinterpreted what i was saying. My point was that we use animals for our ends because we view them as having less rights than us. We keep pets to further our ends, not theirs. essentially animals are subordinate to our desires. Whether the desires we have is worth the suffering of the animal is the question.
      You state that bear bile is unethical exploitation of an animal. I agree, because there is no utilitarian benefit to the suffering of the animal. You state that…

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    20. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      You ask why I think keeping a bear for bile and factory farming is wrong. I thought my answer was clear - because they cause suffering for no benefit comparable to the harm done If you have to ask what is wrong with suffering then I guess we can debate no more. I would not concede, however, that my position (that causing suffering is wrong except for strong reasons, much stronger than you allow) ) is merely emotion, more that if suffering and welfare are not what morality is about then I don't…

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    21. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Hi Rob,
      I'll try and reframe my argument as I think we are circling around the same issue without making ourselves completely understood.
      1. We have mutually agreed that animals should have rights and that those rights are less than that of humans.
      2. The basis of those rights is the animals' capacity to suffer.
      3. Broadly, the rights an animal should have are that an animal should not have suffering inflicted by humans. You assert among these rights that this includes right to life. I reject…

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    22. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Well, we can all identify with our pets. Ever had a dog? We are as prone to empathy when it comes to animals as when it comes to human, assuming we have a relation to it. And they feel pain, just as we do, although they don't describe it the way we do, or show it.

      They are as worthy of respect and care as we are. If not, we lose sight of ourselves, because we're just a part of the animal kingdom, even if we are the rulers at the moment. In the end it's a question of ethics, our ethics, and to be honest, would anyone suffer eating a steak from a animal that has been decently treated in its life? But as always, the 'market' decide, although it's quite possible to make regulations defining the treatment.

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  2. Gary Cassidy

    Monash University

    Sorry, I don't really get the article. Animal rights, or antibiotic resistance? Factory farms in Australia or animal antibiotic use in the UK?

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  3. Monika Merkes

    Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

    Thank you Siobhan for an important contribution, pointing out how closely linked human and non-human welfare and well-being are. And as Rob added, the environment is in this equation as well.
    “As traditional farms have been replaced by factory farms, antibiotics are needed to keep animals alive” – I think it would be more accurate to say “… antibiotics are needed to keep profits alive”. Antibiotics are used to promote growth and compensate for the unhygienic conditions in which factory farm animals are raised. If animals had more space, opportunity to move and exercise, a clean environment and some sunlight, factory farms could operate without routine administration of antibiotics. But they might not be as profitable.

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  4. john tons

    post graduate student

    There is another aspect to this story that warrants closer examination: the extent to which our capacity to show compassion towards non-humans translates into compassion for humans. Societies in which cruelty towards animals is tolerated tend to have a poor record when it comes to human rights - it may well be that in order to respect humans we also need to respect animals.

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  5. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Just speaking with an industry vet about this topic to confirm some points.

    Poultry are the main users of antibiotics and that is mainly about disease spread.
    Pigs also use a fair bit, once again the primary use is disease spread.
    Other animals aren't raised in feedlots, they are normally only finished/fattened in feedlots, so antibiotics are only used when needed.

    So when the primary use is for disease control with a carry-over benefit of protection and improved production, it is hard to…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Grant Burfield

      Thanks Grant.

      Any time you see "industrial agriculture" used as a term instead of the more accurate term "feedlotting", you know that someone is pushing an agenda.

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    2. Monika Merkes

      Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Tim, so England's chief medical officer got it wrong? The Guardian reports "She wants action across government departments – involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in particular – because of the use of antibiotics in farming."
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/11/superbugs-antibiotics-bacterial-diseases-infections
      I don't think anyone is denying that the extent of the use of antibiotics in the medical system is of great concern, too.

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Monika Merkes

      That's just a strawman, Monika.

      I quite clearly said that the antibiotic resistance issue in agriculture is being overstated. Agriculture has already proposed "...improved management practices, wider use of vaccines, and introduction of probiotics. Monitoring programs, prudent use guidelines, and educational campaigns provide approaches to minimize the further development of antimicrobial resistance." as the methods to decrease the rate of resistance build up. Yet at the same time households and pharma have increased usage of antibiotics for frivolous uses. http://mmbr.asm.org/content/74/3/417.full

      So, as my original argument states, this article is not really about antibiotics resistance because it fails to discuss the salient points in favour of emotive rhetoric.

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    4. Monika Merkes

      Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Let me re-phrase then: Do you think England’s chief medical officer would ask for action across government departments, involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in particular, because of the use of antibiotics in farming, if she considered this a “minor contribution from livestock industries, … [which] is being majorly overstated” as you claim?
      Also, the WHO in its 2012 report “The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance. Options for action” targets 5 domains for antimicrobial…

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    5. Robert Hewitt

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      You need to be careful when you compare "factory farming" as practiced in Australia compared to the US, Eastern Europe or much of the developed world, especially when it comes to antibiotic usage.

      In the US a producer can purchase antibiotics and put them into their diets, well more correctly supply them to the feedmill for inclusion. In Australia, antibiotics must be prescribed by a veterinary who has a regular relationship with that farm, ie they must visit at least quarterly. The veterinarian…

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    6. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Monika Merkes

      Monika, thanks for not reading the review paper that I cited.

      Rob, I agree there is a vast difference between Australia (upon which this article is supposedly based and upon which my comments are made) and most other places. The review I posted above does outline an overview for the world, however, so it gives a more balanced view of use of antibiotics and the resistance problems developing from that.

      The points you outlined are also the industry points I made, vaccination being the big one…

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  6. Rob Buttrose

    University of Melbourne

    Tim and Grant

    as usual the ad hominems come flying from these two . Let's have a reasoned debate guys and cut out this undergraduate level talk about ulterior motives, pushing agendas and casting doubt on peoples' views because they are vegetarian.

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    1. Grant Burfield

      Dr

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Rob, I ascribe to Dr Doug Walton's work on ad hominem reasoning who argues in part,

      "ad hominem reasoning is not always fallacious, and that in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue, as when it directly involves hypocrisy."

      Besides, in the finest tradition of Climate Science beclouding, I only rated the connection with a "Possibly".

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Rob, I'd advise you to look up the meaning of ad hominem, because I don't think it means what you think it means. I didn't use one at all. https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/ad-hominem

      But it is great that you don't want to have any discussion with actual industry people and feel the need to insult them for commenting.

      My argument was very clear, the article did not cover the grounds nor facts that should have been discussed. Instead it sought to use emotive language and unrepresentative statements (UK data on antibiotic use straight after Australian animal numbers). It was quite clear that the point was not to discuss, as I did, how to limit usage, but instead talked about banning an industry.

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      Again, no. I called into question the argument made itself, the lack of actual discussion of the topic, in favour of emotive rhetoric. To conclude with a derision in the form of a question to motive (not an appeal), is not a logical fallacy, but actually a counterpoint to argument. See, it is down to the central points and manner of the points made that enable logic and proper discourse.

      May I suggest further work on your logic, Rob.

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    4. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Rob Buttrose

      And again, no. You have made several derisive statements against me on the grounds that I had made an error, and yet it was your error and your lack of understanding. You becoming insulted because you've insulted me under false causes and being called on it is your error, not mine.

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  7. J T....

    professional

    Animal and human welfare follow each other. And they both follow GDP per capita.

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  8. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    The following link illustrates we are not privy to animal behaviour 24/7. Therefore, to make a judgement on only what we as humans observe is far from the full picture of animal characteristics such as intelligence, empathy and sense of self.

    Good science is acknowledging there is always more to learn, even about the very familiar.

    http://www.livescience.com/27959-animal-videos-citizen-science.html

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  9. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    Joe,
    Thank you for the link to the article on personal and moral autonomy. It's basically about self-governance and to what extent our conduct is influenced by what moral[ethical] principles we regard as important. Unfortunately human beings differ in this respect and also in their capacity to empathize with the suffering of others, including non-human animals. and this is the basis for much misery in our troubled world.
    Human beings and animals have similar capacities to suffer significantly…

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  10. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    Thanks for the link Diana. There is much about animal thinking and behaviour that goes unnoticed. The article further illustrates the many similarities we share with other animals and reinforces the case to treat them with respect and care.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      Peter

      On one hand I am inspired as our knowledge of the world around us increases and, correspondingly, becomes more complex and intriguing than we imagined even as little as 100 years ago. That we should have to provide evidence of sentience or even the ability to feel pain before treating other life-forms with dignity and respect is a sad indictment on our species.

      Common sense should be enough to treat other creatures with care; be they domesticated or not.

      Given that we have yet to treat many members of our own species with acceptance and respect, we still have a long way to go.

      I have enjoyed our conversation, thank you.

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