I’m taking the lead from Nathan Winograd who sent me a thoughtful email. He’s that kind of person. I think he was/is a lawyer. He is the world’s smartest animal lover and advocate. His incredibly precise and he pins down the argument. As a lawyer you have to pin down the argument to stop the other side wriggling free. I’m digressing. But it’s a useful introduction because Mr Winograd queries why we should think that domestic cats are not fearful of death. And in that vein why can’t they enjoy love, an emotion somewhere at the other end of the spectrum?
The point he makes is this. Domestic cats and humans have very similar anatomy. There are some differences but at a fundamental level we are the same. If taken holistically our anatomy is the same so why do humans say with such confidence that our brains are so different? I’ll quote Mr Winograd if I may:
“How can it be that every body part of an animal functions the way it functions for us, except the brain?”
And he says (I believe in quoting Dr Berns – see below): “We share biological histories and physiologies – DNA, eyes, muscles, nerves, neurons, hormones – with other animals, and these may lead to similar behaviors, thought processes, and emotions – even about death.”
Winograd refers to Dr. Gregory Berns who, using non-invasive MRI scans of brains showed “how consciousness and self-awareness and similar subjective experiences are not exclusive to humans or even unique among a select few species in the animal kingdom”.
Winograd argues that Dr. Berns offers scientific proof about what we already intuitively know but wish to ignore namely that the structures in the brains of animals are “organised in the same way as the corresponding parts of our brains”. And these parts look and function in the same way. On that basis, we can argue that “the subjective experiences are the same or at least similar”. In other words, domestic cats can experience the same sort of emotions as we do in the face of death and when in a deeply affectionate relationship with another sentient being.
One of the big questions about domestic cats is self-awareness. We should know for sure whether domestic cats are self-aware or not. This is still an unanswered question. But Winograd and Berns believe they are self-aware and if that is true there is no barrier to understanding the concept of death. This is a very big issue because humans, in general, like to think that cats don’t experience the concept of death. It is convenient for humans to think like that because it allows humankind to abuse animals without being upset. It allows, for instance, the slaughtering of animals under halal principles, namely without stunning the animals first before their throats are slit.
And it allows extensive animal testing, in the past, to test cosmetics and nowadays to test for medical procedures and products. Winograd asks what is it like for a dog to be experimented on in a laboratory or for a cat in the kill room of an animal shelter? He thinks we should open our eyes and start believing that they feel something similar to what we would feel if we were in that situation. He criticises PETA for saying that euthanasia is just like going to sleep but never waking up. Do you think cats know that they are about to be killed in a veterinary clinic? We don’t know the answer to that question. It’s surprising because we should know.
Winograd says that if you want to know what a cat feels when they are in a kill room at an animal shelter, we should ask how we would feel. He argues that cats experience: “Terror. The same thing we would feel”. Dr Berns said:
“An animal who is aware of his or her own pain and suffering may well experience the existential fear associated with imminent death. And awareness of other animals’ fear can only heighten such terror.”
The ‘awareness of other animals’ fear’ seems to be a reference to killing animals together or in the presence of other animals. This has happened to race horses in the UK and gas chambers were once used in US animal shelters. They’ve been almost entirely phased out.
It makes you think, doesn’t it? Humankind has got itself into a nice habit of ignoring that thought. We just don’t connect with it. Of course, many people do have that kind of empathy for animals but in general it is clear that humankind doesn’t. Perhaps it’s time that we changed our attitude on this?
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