The notion that animals think and feel may be rampant among pet owners, but it makes all kinds of scientific types…

Originally shared by rare avis

The notion that animals think and feel may be rampant among pet owners, but it makes all kinds of scientific types uncomfortable.

“If you ask my colleagues whether animals have emotions and thoughts,” says Philip Low, a prominent computational neuroscientist, “many will drop their voices to a whisper or simply change the subject. They don’t want to touch it.” Jaak Panksepp, a professor at Washington State University, has studied the emotional responses of rats. “Once, not very long ago,” he said, “you couldn’t even talk about these things with colleagues.”

That may be changing. A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence.

In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness.

Scientists, as a rule, don’t issue declarations. But Low claims that the new research, and the ripples of unease it has engendered among rank-and-file colleagues, demanded an emphatic gesture. “Afterward, an eminent neuroanatomist came up to me and said, ‘We were all thinking this, but were afraid to say it,’” Low recalled.

It is not the habit of researchers to speculate broadly about the implications of their work; even groundbreaking studies tend to light up grottoes of data without revealing an overall vista. “We’re on the same page in general, but not at all on the specifics,” said Panksepp, who was a signatory of the declaration.

“As far as science is concerned, animal thought remains at the argumentative level.” Low readily admits that scientists have not even been able to agree on a working definition of consciousness. “When we were discussing the declaration, we agreed to shelve that issue for the time being,” he told me.

Though he follows the research, Virga, 56, is not a researcher; his convictions about animal individuality predate the recent science. And while the hypotheses and theories about animal cognition are fascinating to consider, they aren’t always germane to a behaviorist crouching behind a barn door amid a row of trash cans while being charged by a 700-pound takin — a hirsute Tibetan goat-antelope with a not-trivial set of horns — named Chopper.

Zoos contact Virga when animals develop difficulties that vets and keepers cannot address, and he is expected to produce tangible, observable results. Often, the animals suffer from afflictions that haven’t been documented in the wild and appear uncomfortably close to our own: He has treated severely depressed snow leopards, brown bears with obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobic zebras.

“Scientists often say that we don’t know what animals feel because they can’t speak to us and can’t report their inner states,” Virga told me.

“But the thing is, they are reporting their inner states. We’re just not listening.”


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