Animal minds, human morals

Last year, a 5-year-old chimpanzee in Kyoto, Japan made headlines when he trounced human subjects in a short-term memory task. When the numbers one to nine flash in a random array across a computer screen for one second before being replaced by white squares, Ayumu casually touches each square in sequence – humans typically fail to get beyond two or three. It turns out that Ayumu is not special – chimpanzees have superb spatial memory, perhaps because the dynamics of chimp society require keen awareness of where other group members are.Chimpanzees were thought to have poor face recognition until someone had the bright idea of testing them on chimp faces instead of humans. They recognize chimp faces at least as well as we recognize human faces.And if you’ve seen chimps hanging from branches, you can guess why they exceed us in recognizing upside-down faces.In September, a new study found that chimps can match the faces of familiar chimps to photos of their rear – ends – demonstrating what psychologists call “whole – body integration.”Sheep, too, excel at face-recognition. One study found that sheep could recognize – from just a single photograph – fifty of their former flock-mates two years after they last saw them.Even if we lived with that flock 24/7, I doubt we could match that feat. Our brains just aren’t evolved for it.Sheep also prefer the face of a happy – just-fed) – sheep to a stressed – hungry – one, and a smiling human face to a frowning one.I doubt we could match that feat. Our brains just aren’t evolved for it.We now know, for example, that chickens use a vocabulary of over 30 call types, mice show empathy towards familiar mice who are in pain and fish have preferred shoal-mates. Discoveries like this expose the prejudices that belie chimps as mere shadows of humans, or sheep as dim-witted followers. Animals are smarter, more perceptive than we thought. But does it even matter how smart other animals are? After all, we don’t deny basic rights and privileges to people of lower intellect. Two leading American neuroscientists have suggested that other animals may actually experience feelings more intensely than we do. This shouldn’t surprise, considering many animals have keener senses than us.Surely, what matters is that an individual feels.Unfortunately, our knowledge of animal sentience doesn’t translate into better treatment. We kill tens of billions of animals yearly for food, clothing and experiments, and the toll is rising. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, a thousand chickens will have been slaughtered in the United States. Like most factory-farmed animals today, they were deprived of the freedom to move about, fresh air to breathe, and the sun on their backs. Fortunately, the solution is straightforward – the most immediate, profound impact one can have on animals is to stop eating them. The benefits are huge. Less animal suffering, a healthier you – heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity are all linked to eating animal products – and a better environment – animal agriculture is the single leading cause of global warming. The most dangerous weapon in America is the table-fork. The most potent solution is the power of personal choice.Act now – we owe it to the animals, ourselves, and the planet.Jonathan Balcombe, PhD, is an animal behavior expert, Senior Research Scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in Washington, D.C., and author of Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan). He and Erin Williams (co-author of Why Animals Matter) will be speaking and signing books on Monday, Nov. 17, 7pm at the Waterman Memorial Lounge.