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FISH CAN’T CRY: How silently suffering animals mirror humanity’s moral failings

In the history of research on emotions, feelings have usually been denied to anyone who cannot speak. And that's a very strange position because, of course, feelings don't require language. It's not as if you cannot feel if you don't know the language.

MONISHA RAVISETTI: There was a time when doctors performed surgery on infants without anesthesia. And I don’t mean centuries ago. This happened in the 1980s, and it wasn’t rare. Somehow, despite babies crying or screaming, the medical community had convinced itself they couldn’t feel pain.

A lot of the reasoning had to do with the belief that infant brain pathways were too immature to register the sensation… Then in 1987, the American Academy of Pediatrics finally deemed the practice we’d now consider barbaric to be unethical. Study after study showed that infants do feel pain like us. And I know I’m not alone in my shock that this practice wasn’t remedied sooner.

But what if humanity is unknowingly falling into a similar trap all over again? What about the emotions of animals? Like infants, animals can’t say: “I’m in a lot of pain. Please help.” And many can’t even cry, yet there’s a growing abundance of research to suggest that animals across the spectrum — from octopuses to fish to bees — experience emotional and physical pain, and sometimes even anxiety.

In 2011, for instance, researchers conducted a study on honeybees that involved agitating them by shaking them around. After analyzing the bees, the team saw they exhibited brain chemistry changes, like lowered serotonin, that are directly associated with anxiety, depression and other negative psychological states.

“For animals, we’ve gone through the same sort of stages, in the sense that, since animals don’t talk, their feelings were denied,” Frans B. M. de Waal tells me. He’s a biologist, primatologist and professor emeritus at Emory University, who’s also the author of best-selling books like Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? “It’s very strange that people have denied pain in fish for so long, and that’s because fish don’t call out when they are in pain.”

In a new review, published Thursday in the journal Science, de Waal lays out what we know so far about animal emotions — and what this knowledge might ask us to change in our moral framework as the humans who live among them, test them for science and even eat them.

“Although we are used to thinking about how our actions affect other humans, recognizing widespread animal sentience requires us to also notice — and consider — our impact on other species,” de Waal and fellow author Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University and York Research Chair in Animal Minds, write in their paper. “This way, animal sentience is bound to complicate an already complex moral world”…

Dogs, dolphins and cows can yell when they’re being hurt, making it much easier for us to empathize with them… But when it comes to species that appear insensitive to painful sensations, like fish, or those that might require complex mechanisms for more-than-baseline comfort, like farm animals, we might have work to do.

“We can do a lot better,” de Waal says. “I’ve worked all my life with primates in captivity, and it’s a rule that primates need to be kept socially … they have to be kept in a small group. And I think for primates, that’s a good rule. But I also know that, in practice, many labs still keep monkeys in single cages.”

De Waal also calls out the total lack of laws surrounding ethical treatment for invertebrates. “We have all sorts of rules for rats and mice — how you need to treat them, and how you need to kill them, and so on,” de Waal says. But despite indications that invertebrates experience sensation too, “we don’t have that for them.”

Lobsters are invertebrates, and chefs boil these animals alive. This situation might be different if lobsters could look us in the eye and say something like, “I’m in pain.” “In the history of research on emotions, feelings have usually been denied to anyone who cannot speak,” de Waal says. “And that’s a very strange position because, of course, feelings don’t require language. It’s not as if you cannot feel if you don’t know the language”…

Knowing that animals feel emotions gives rise to a glaring question: Is it unethical to eat them? One extreme might be to say we shouldn’t do anything to harm animals at all, ever. No eating, testing or anything else. The other might be to say that what you do to animals doesn’t matter…

In the end, thinking about how to navigate animal emotions might bring up more moral questions than are answered. Regardless, de Waal says, something needs to change, especially with regard to farm animals. And it’s our responsibility to figure it out. “We’re basically treating them as if you can do anything you want,” de Waal says. “I don’t think that’s the right attitude”. SOURCE…


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