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To Be A Non-Human Animal

Sharing a home with pets quickly reveals their unique personalities and quirks—what they love, dislike, get excited about and cower from. Through our time together, we develop ways of communicating despite not sharing a spoken language. While we often believe we teach our pets to communicate through gestures and commands, it's truly a reciprocal learning process. If we are paying attention, our pets also teach us to interpret their facial expressions, sounds and body language. If we are open to it, this mutual understanding can foster relationships that are rooted in trust, love and respect.

Experiencing this bond makes it undeniable that non-human animals are sentient beings with consciousness and spirit, just like us. They lead complex lives, and our relationships with them can be profoundly beautiful. The heartbreak of losing a pet, or seeing a pet mourn their human, underscores the depth of these connections.

When we don't interact with animals on this personal level, as is the case with most wild and farm animals, we tend to perceive them as generic populations or mere objects. Our language reflects this sense of separation. In "Braiding Sweetgrass," Robin Wall Kimmerer contrasts Potawatomi with English, highlighting their different uses of nouns and verbs. Potawatomi, an Indigenous language, uses verbs more frequently and richly than English, portraying entities that English treats as nouns as living, dynamic beings. For instance, in English, we say "the squirrel," treating it as a static object. In Potawatomi, one might say "bwaabic," which translates to "to be a squirrel," emphasizing its living, active essence. This linguistic structure fosters a worldview where the natural world is full of life and agency, encouraging a deeper connection and respect for the environment. Conversely, English, with its noun-heavy structure, often leads to a more static and objectified view of nature.

Kimmerer stresses that viewing animals as objects devalues their intrinsic worth, reducing them to resources for human use or expendable entities. This objectification disconnects us from nature and undermines the reciprocal relationship we have with nature. She advocates for recognizing animals as sentient beings with their own agency and roles within the ecosystem. By doing so, we can foster a respectful and sustainable relationship with the natural world, acknowledging our interdependence and the need to care for all living beings.

After years of studying environmental issues and working on conservation policy, I feel called to understand more animals on a personal level and recognize them as subjects of their own stories. Each week, I will research a different species, exploring their world and getting to know their traits and gifts. We will explore biological and ecological facts to understand how they feel, think, problem solve and contribute to ecosystem health and biodiversity. In addition, different cultural perspectives will be examined to help us broaden our viewpoint and recognize the worth of all animals regardless of their traits. Finally, individuals will be introduced so we can identify with them and begin to shift our paradigm from objectifying animals to respecting them as neighbors with a shared goal: living a rich and meaningful life.

Do you have an animal you'd like to know more about or one you would like to showcase? Let me know. Next week I’ll kick things off with the incredible octopus.

In case you want to dive a little deeper into environmental ethics and philosophy, below is a summary of the major arguments generally given for animal rights and welfare.

Sentience and Consciousness


Argument: Many animals exhibit signs of sentience and consciousness, meaning they have the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, as well as other subjective states.


Supporting Points: Neuroscientific evidence suggests that many animals have nervous systems and brain structures similar to humans, supporting the idea that they can have similar experiences. The argument from analogy posits that because animals exhibit behaviors and responses similar to humans in similar situations, it is reasonable to infer that their internal experiences are similar as well.


Cognitive Abilities


Argument: Some animals possess advanced cognitive abilities that are comparable to those of humans, such as problem-solving, tool use, and communication.


Supporting Points: Studies on primates, dolphins, elephants, and certain bird species show complex behaviors and cognitive skills, indicating a level of intelligence that challenges the strict human-animal divide. These cognitive capabilities suggest a continuity of mental capacities between humans and animals rather than a categorical difference.


Moral Consideration


Argument: If animals can suffer and have interests, they deserve moral consideration similar to humans.


Supporting Points: Utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham argue that the capacity to suffer, not the capacity to reason, should be the basis for moral consideration. Bentham famously stated, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"


Rights-based theories, like those proposed by Tom Regan, argue that certain animals possess inherent value as "subjects-of-a-life" and thus have moral rights similar to humans.


Equality Principle: Extending the principle of equality to animals means considering their interests equally with human interests, as advocated by Peter Singer.


Evolutionary Continuity


Argument: The theory of evolution provides a biological basis for the similarity between humans and animals.


Supporting Points: Evolutionary biology shows that humans and other animals share common ancestors and thus many physical and behavioral traits. The concept of evolutionary continuity suggests that the differences between humans and animals are of degree rather than kind, reinforcing the idea that humans are not fundamentally separate from other animals.


Intrinsic Value and Respect for Nature


Argument: Many philosophical traditions argue that all living beings have intrinsic value and deserve respect.


Supporting Points: Environmental ethics, such as those proposed by Aldo Leopold in his land ethic, extend moral consideration to all living beings and ecosystems, emphasizing the interconnectedness of life. Some interpretations of non-Western philosophies, like Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, advocate for non-harm (ahimsa) and compassion towards all sentient beings, further blurring the distinction between humans and animals. Some argue that all classical religious traditions, including Christianity, had this as a core belief when they originated.


Environmental Arguments


Ecosystem Health & Biodiversity: Protecting animal rights helps maintain biodiversity, which is crucial for ecosystem stability and resilience.


Keystone Species: Some animals are keystone species, playing essential roles in their ecosystems. Their protection can have wide-ranging ecological benefits.


Sustainable Practices


Agricultural Impact: Intensive farming and animal exploitation have significant environmental impacts, including habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change. Promoting animal rights can lead to more sustainable practices.


Social and Legal Arguments


Social Justice & Intersectionality: Animal rights intersect with other social justice issues, such as workers' rights and environmental justice. Addressing animal rights can contribute to broader societal improvements.


Legal Precedents & Recognition: Increasing legal recognition of animal rights, as seen in various countries' animal welfare laws, reflects and reinforces their moral and social status. Protections for animals can set precedents for recognizing and addressing other ethical concerns, such as the rights of future generations.


These arguments collectively support the idea that recognizing and respecting animal rights is not only a moral imperative but also beneficial for humans, other animals and the planet as a whole.

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