Animal Sentience and Consciousness: How Do Humans Need to Change?


Animal Sentience and Consciousness: How Do Humans Need to Change?

By Kari Hagstrom

Do you have this challenge?  My spell check on the computer wants to perpetually change “who” to “that” in a document referring to a horse, whom I refer to as a “who.”  I do not consider a horse a “that,” but a “who.”  A “who” who is a living, breathing presence, who very much feels, thinks, experiences, reacts, responds, and executes complex  self-motivated actions.   A “who” who often offers unexpected and surprising responses that are highly individuated; a “who” who continually and consistently demonstrates choice.  I have, and want, a relationship with a “who,” not a “that;” a “who” who happens to reside in an equine form.

Many of you may be familiar with the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which came out on July 7, 2012 [read the entire document at].              You may have seen it quoted in the Introduction in Linda Kohanov’s book, “The Power of the Herd,” or in various publications at the time. The Cambridge Declaration states:

“We declare the following:  ‘The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states.  Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.  Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.  Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.’”

Basically, because it is now recognized that animals share similar neurological structures with humans, the animals have been invited at last to the “Country Club of Consciousness and Sentience.”

Sentience is “the capacity to feel.”  A sentient being is one “that can feel” [“Thorndike-Barnhart Student Dictionary,” © 1993].  However, a longer description comes from the 1963 version of Funk & Wagnalls’ “Standard College Dictionary” which states:  “n. 1. The state of being sentient or conscious. 2.  Capacity for sensation or sense perception.  3.  Sensation as immediate experience, distinguished from thought or perception.  Sentient adj.  Possessing powers of sense or sense perception; having sensation or feeling.  — n. 1. A sentient person or thing.  2. The mind.”  It derives from the Latin, “to feel.”

I find it interesting that what once originated with the meaning, “to feel,” has now become associated with the mind.

Consciousness n., according to the 1993 Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary, is “1 the condition of being conscious; awareness.  People and animals have consciousness; plants and stones do not.”  Conscious adj., however, according to Thorndike-Barnhart, means, “1 having experience; aware; knowing.  2 able to feel or perceive; awake.  3 known to oneself; felt.”   By contrast, the 1963 Funk & Wagnalls dictionary states:  “Conscious adj. 1. Aware of one’s own existence, feelings or thoughts, or of external objects and conditions; mentally awake.  Consciousness n. 1. The state of being conscious; awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings.”  Conscious comes from the Latin for “knowing inwardly” or “to know together.”

You may think I’m belaboring the point of definitions and etymology, but I find that older dictionaries often give a fuller description, and one is able to see the way language has changed.  The way our language changes shows the way our thoughts, perceptions and world view changes—what we “allow” into our human world.  Which, honestly, is why I often feel frustrated by reading such pronouncements by science—declaring it safe to acknowledge consciously that which so many of us already know deep in our hearts, bones and experience.  But whatever it takes to move us forward.  If it helps skeptics to move more comfortably into recognizing animals, plants, yes, even the Earth and the stones and the waters as living, sentient, conscious beings who may function differently from our human selves, but do indeed possess those capabilities, then so be it.  And if that helps to move our treatment of animals, plants, waters and the Earth onto more equal and respected footing, how can I object?  However, please note that in the 1963 dictionary, there was no mention of any distinction between who has consciousness.  But by 1993, humans and animals were deemed to have consciousness, but not plants or stones.  You see how our definitions, perceptions, and allowable limits change over time.  Maybe in another 20 years the definitions will be even more inclusive.  After all, we are all made of the same elements, the same star stuff, so why wouldn’t the entirety of the known world have consciousness and be sentient?

Perhaps the writers of dictionaries could consider reading “The Secret Life of Plants,” written in 1973 by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins.  In it, it was discovered and described that plants do indeed have consciousness (and by inference, are sentient).  When electrodes were attached to a plant and a person near it thought threatening thoughts, such as “I’m going to cut off your branches,” the plant “fainted”—the readings from the electrodes dropped off.  Likewise, I’ve seen broken plants heal when loving, encouraging thoughts and energy are sent to them—they thrive.

You may also be familiar with Dr. Masaru Emoto’s “The Hidden Messages in Water.”  Dr. Emoto’s experiments with water revealed that water records and reflects negative or positive emotion directed toward it, and that affects the quality and condition of the water itself.  Remember that we are composed mainly of water and we reside on a planet that is largely water:  what kind of feedback are we giving ourselves and the planet with our intentions and emotions?  Water is what we ARE.  From Howard Perlman of the U.S. Geological Survey Water page, “The Water in You”
[]:   Water is of major importance to all living things; in some organisms, up to 90% of their body weight comes from water. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water.

According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%.
Nature, plants, animals, water, air, the Earth, the whole of the universe, seems to be a watchful and responsive place, not unlike a “Star Trek:  Next Generation” holodeck, where what we program into it becomes the “reality” we get to experience.
Animals think, feel, are conscious.  I find it chilling that one of the primary criteria for sentience is the capacity to suffer.  Other emotions are included:  joy, happiness, sadness, etc.  But basing the capacity to feel, and judging it on whether one feels suffering—given what we know of how animals have been treated through the centuries, and how they are still treated today—not just physical suffering, but emotional suffering, as well, seems rather barbaric on the human end of the equation.

Recently, on May 12, 2015, New Zealand changed its laws to reflect that animals are indeed sentient beings in its Animal Welfare Amendment Bill.  In recognizing animals as sentient beings it seeks to improve the welfare of animals and increase the level of responsibility of those persons responsible for the care of the animals.  This has stirred-up a debate about the care and treatment of livestock animals.

Given that the recognition of animal consciousness and sentience is now on the table and being given credence, and is being acted upon legally, there should be cause for celebration.  And there is, there is.  But like the slow change in language and definitions, the social perspectives on animal sentience and consciousness can be slow to change.

Curiously, in my research on what other people are thinking and saying about animal consciousness and sentience, it’s that there isn’t as much discussion as you might expect on the crux of the matter:  How do we humans need to change our own behaviors in response to this awareness and recognition of animal sentience and consciousness?

In looking at animal consciousness, centered around the Cambridge Declaration, I found mostly psychological articles that primarily discussed the quality of the science of the research:  Was it a good experiment or a poorly done experiment to reach that determination?  Animal welfare was touched on in the articles.  But it seems to me to be a dancing around the subject, or part of the subject.  Many other articles exist regarding animal behavior, animal welfare, etc., centered around animal sentience and consciousness.  However, to me, the main question is still:  How do we as humans, who think so highly of ourselves that we dare to look down on other forms of intelligence and experience, change ourselves to accommodate, embrace and live the perspective of recognizing sentience and consciousness in other forms of life, other species, other beings?  The problem being that we don’t always want to change, no matter how much we say we do.

I don’t know about you, but I want my horses to be horses, my dogs to be dogs, my cats to be cats, as much as they are able, given that they are living in human-dominated circumstances.  As much as they can be, given the confines and limitations of life with a human, I want them to live as fully themselves as possible.  In having animals in our care, we are ultimately responsible for their well-being, as they are not able to provide conditions for themselves that are conducive to them living to their fullest as they are.  But many seem to experience very good lives living with humans; as do humans benefit intrinsically from being with and around them, as well as in utilitarian ways.  There seems to be a third way that has evolved out of our interactions with each other, that often can be much greater than purely animal-as-animal and human-as-human.  Many of us know this already.

But how do we actually have to live in a manner that reflects that humans recognize, know, accept, and are willing to act on animals being sentient and conscious.  By rights, we should experience a massive social overhaul to readjust conditions and usage of animals.  To acknowledge and change our use and abuse of them, which has been a trudging sort of evolution, because it still happens– rescues and shelters are full of animals who have been abused or abandoned, and horses are still sent to slaughter—would be a useful first step.  We are responsible for them:  they live with us, we propagate them, the onus of responsibility is on our shoulders, and quick and easy disposal of another living being is usually considered murder, war or genocide, isn’t it?

Look.  I’m not trying to get into thorny debates about animal rights, whether they have chosen to be with us, or whether we have robbed them of their opportunities to be free and fully themselves.  I’m looking at the here and now, which is better than it used to be, but still isn’t as great as it could be.  I am acknowledging and pointing out what hasn’t been pointed out:  Ahem.  WE need to change.

Changing laws helps, declarations of consciousness and recognizing same brain structures helps, as does Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical.  But unless we fundamentally change our outlook, attitudes and actions, it will be another long trudge over another tiring hill toward our growth.  If animals are helpful and beneficial to us when they are considered lesser beings, just think how good things could be if we began looking at them and treating them as they are:  beings who think and function differently, but who are deserving of our respect, our good will and our good intentions.  Because as we better their lives, we can only better our own.

In Pope Francis’ May 24, 2015 Encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” he comments that humanity needs to wake up and be aware of the Earth, especially in light of global warming—we are endangering our home by our reckless behavior.  He comments on how the Mother Earth has been mistreated and we have forgotten that she gives us life and nourishment; we are causing ourselves calamity by abusing the Earth.  I find interesting parallels between what Pope Francis says about the Earth, and what Native Americans have been saying for centuries:  The Earth is our mother, the animals are our brothers and sisters.   Pope Francis reminds us that we are stewards, not here to dominate, rape and abuse nature.  I found articles 66-69 of particular interest as they relate to nature and animals.

Article 66 discusses how humans have misinterpreted the idea of “dominion over” the earth (Genesis 1:28), how this has created a break within us and without in our “three vital relationships” between the Creator, our neighbors and creation.  This formerly harmonious relationship has become “conflictual” (Gen. 3:17-19), a “rupture.”  The Encyclical states, “It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture.”  It goes on to say that such a “universal reconciliation” is needed to heal the current situation on the planet, which is full of the “destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”

Article 67 states:  We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.  …This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

Article 68 states:  This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created; and he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6). The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings. “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and withhold your help…
It goes on to remind us to not take the mother with the young if we find a bird with a nest of eggs or young.  And we are reminded that rest is not just for humans, that work animals are to rest on the seventh day, too. We are reminded to respect these relationships. “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”

In Article 69, Pope Francis states:  Together with our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes: “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory”,[41] and indeed, “the Lord rejoices in all his works” (Ps 104:31). By virtue of our unique dignity and our gift of intelligence, we are called to respect creation and its inherent laws, for “the Lord by wisdom founded the earth” (Prov. 3:19). In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish. The German bishops have taught that, where other creatures are concerned, “we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful”.[42] The Catechism clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things”.[43]

Respect.  Compassion.  Intelligence.  Pope Francis reminds us all to express these qualities for ourselves, each other, animals, nature, and our mutual home, Mother Earth.  If the Pope is recognizing that so much is out of whack in our present situation, doesn’t it make sense to reconsider our position?  Humans are not at the top of the food chain.  We just think we are.  We are weak and flimsy beings with opposable thumbs and good brains, when we choose to use them.  Doesn’t it make sense to begin to accommodate a different world view that not only recognizes, but acts like animals are sentient and conscious?

In my opinion, we have a way to go yet, toward accepting animals as our different, but equal partners on this Earth.  We are made from the same matter, the same materials, just in differing arrangements.  Science, religion, and the law are recognizing animals as aware, feeling beings.  Isn’t it about time we universally accorded them the respect and kindness they deserve?

We have used and abused animals for centuries, millennia. I think there is a big difference between the use of an animal and an animal having a job where his or her talents and skills are valued and the opportunity is there for the animal to do what he or she is uniquely suited to do:  not unlike having a job you dislike or hate, where you feel used, versus doing a job that suits you, where you are valued and appreciated, and you can joyfully use your skills.  I think, knowing what we know, that if we continue on this path of non-acknowledgement of animals as beings like ourselves, that we are hurting them by our not caring or willful use or misuse, that we are slaughtering them for our convenience, that we are removing animals from their natural habitats and driving them toward extinction because they are “in our way,” I think by continuing as we are now, that we will have a reckoning down the road.  And it may be sooner than we think.  This is an opportunity to change our course; I hope we don’t bypass it and miss this opportunity for growth.

There is a lot of emerging discussion about the horse as partner, where we acknowledge the horse’s wants and needs, where we listen to their expression, their subtle voice.  By asking about and acknowledging their wants and needs, we improve and deepen our relationship with horses. The emerging view of working with a horse, asking for a certain action or response, rather than demanding it, is taking us humans in a new and different direction.  Why shouldn’t we look at partnering with our horses, our dogs, with nature herself?  Why shouldn’t we accord the respect for another’s view point by asking, not demanding or forcing?  Do you work better when you are asked, or when you are forced and dominated?  Further, in which situation do you prefer to function in—the slave-driving boss, or the respectful partnership?

Animals have much to teach us.  I for one, have the utmost respect for animals because of what they don’t need.  They are not reliant on technology or tools the way humans are.  They know what foods to eat to keep themselves healthy (in a natural environment), and how to find them, whether through instinct or intuition.  They move together as a group with often silent communication through body language and telepathy. They don’t have to rely on someone else to tell them how to live, how to survive:  They know, and they listen to that knowing.  Yes, humans have different needs and usually require more tools. But wouldn’t it be nice to be liberated from technology that can be rendered useless by a lack of power or poor reception, or lack of fuel.  Animals, horses in particular, seem to have mastered the art of Zen-like being, something we humans strive to learn.  Animals carry within themselves the tools they need to live, and partnering with humans who use external tools along with our creativity, creates some interesting possibilities for both parties.

Once humans start to fully regard animals as “who,” rather than “that,” we will start to see significant shifts in our world.  If you embrace the idea of “treat others as you would be treated,” and include animals, the paradigm shift from “that” to “who” is an easy next step, and the obstacles in thinking fall away.  Instead of “can’t do that” thinking, you move into “how?” thinking:  How can this be better, how can this work for all of us together?