We live in a world that neglects the most fundamental rights — and sometimes even basic decency — to animals.
Cecilia, my family’s St. Bernard, passed away last week.
She was a sweet, kind and gentle animal, and had been with us since she was a puppy.
She suddenly became very ill and was taken to the one and only veterinarian’s office in the small Minnesota city where my family lives. After a few tests she was sent home, as the vet wasn’t sure what the problem was and it was the end of the day and the office was not open all night.
The doctor on staff said to bring her back in the morning. She whined, a sign she was in pain, all night long. She refused to drink and had a high fever. She was not sent home with any type of pain medicine, so we tried to make her as comfortable as we could: petting her, talking to her, and telling her she would be alright in the morning.
However, the gentle soul did not make it through the night. If a sick person went into a hospital, no one would say, ‘Oh, we’re closing, come back tomorrow,’ turned away without any sort of treatment. But as a culture, we think it’s OK to treat animals this way — and worse — just because they are animals.
However, recent scientific research on the brains of dogs suggests that some animals think and feel in very much the same ways that humans do. Could this information lead to humanity rethinking its treatment of animals and the priority our society places on animal rights? I think it should.
Cruel world for animals
In 2008, a Texas couple was pulled over for speeding while rushing their choking dog to an emergency vet clinic. The incident was captured on video.
Michael Gonzalez and his girlfriend Krystal Hernandez were stopped in 2008 as they drove south on Interstate 35 toward the New Braunfels clinic seeking a veterinarian for Missy, their teacup poodle. The dog died as the pair waited 20 minutes for Officer Paul Stephens to issue a ticket.
The couple pleaded with Stephens to allow them to continue on and later turn themselves in to be ticketed, or for Gonzalez to stay behind while Hernandez drove the dog to get the medical attention it desperately needed.
As the video shows, Stephens responds to their pleas by saying, “Chill out, it’s just a dog, you can buy another one.”
“This was not our finest hour,” San Marcos Police Chief Howard Williams told a local television station.
Another recent news item that caught my attention (and in all honesty kept me awake at night because it was such a horrific incident) is the story of Puppy Doe. The puppy, a pitbull mix, was found near a playground in a Boston suburb. “Her tongue had been split. Her joints had been pulled apart. She had been beaten and stabbed, and it appeared she hadn’t eaten in a long while,” the Boston Herald reported. “Dogs can’t call 911. Dogs can’t testify. Dogs can’t identify abusers. Their helplessness seems to whet their abuser’s appetite.”
New research suggests dogs are people, too
New research published in the New York Times regarding dogs who underwent MRI testing shows that they have some very human characteristics, and their brains actually function similar to a human’s. The author of the study, Gregory Berns, is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.” He says that MRIs can tell us a lot about dogs’ internal states. Since dogs can’t talk, researchers have traditionally relied on behavioral observations to try to understand what dogs are thinking.
Berns and his team trained dogs to go into MRI machines. His research was unconventional and perhaps even controversial — many scientists shy away from this type of research because, as he says, “the prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.”
However, as these new findings indicate, we can no longer sidestep these questions. Dogs and perhaps other animals are sentient beings, just as humans are, and should be afforded the same care and dignity humans are afforded.
By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, MRIs can tell us about dogs’ internal states. But MRIs are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal — at least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.
As Berns research showed, dogs’ brains work in a very similar ways as humans. He writes, “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”
This area of the brain is activated by things people — and perhaps even dogs — enjoy. In the tests, the caudate activity increased in the dogs’ response to hand signals indicating food and the smells of familiar humans, and it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped away.
“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs,” says Berns. “Dogs have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering. But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.”
The case for animal rights
As Berns suggests, because dogs and other animals have emotions similar to people’s, we should award a “limited personhood” to animals that show evidence of emotion.
He also suggests that dogs could be afforded “rights of personhood,” which would provide them with protection against exploitation — thus outlawing testing on laboratory dogs as well as puppy mills, which violate canines’ rights.
“I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons,” Berns writes. “However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility.”
In a follow-up story, the Huffington Post ran an article that asked a great question: “For better or worse, corporations are considered to be people in certain ways. So why not dogs?”
In the article, Stacy Wolf, a lawyer with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and senior vice president of the organization’s anti-cruelty group, says she would like to see the law treat animals as more than property. She believes that Berns’ research may be formative to these ends.
“Right now in every state they’re eventually chattel. They’re property. They’re like your couch,” she said. “And so even though there have been some small movements in the direction of recognizing that they’re really not that, the law still looks at them as property.”
Wolf said that the idea that animals have emotions and that “psychological harm is real harm,” as found by the new research, could help advance the law.
Some of the laws that could be passed were ones that would allow law enforcement to remove pets from dangerous situations “before animals have already suffered harm,” she said. “Being able to, in a more widespread way, recognize that endangering them, creating situations where they’re likely to experience harm, pain, suffering, are situations where there should be intervention.”
The ASPCA said in a statement that the group “supports much more expansive legal protection for animals under the law. The precise shape that protection will take is what this exciting conversation recognizing animals as living beings with emotions and the capacity to feel pain and love, is all about.”
We need to rethink how animals are treated and how we as humans relate to them. Dogs and other animals are more than mere property. They are sentient beings, worthy of our love, care, respect and protection.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.