Category Archives: Animals

Non-Human Animals Can Act Ethically: A Response to Richard Polt

Proving that humans are somehow “better” than non-human animals is a priority for some, including philosophy professor Richard Polt. Writing in The New York Times, he takes umbrage at comparisons between human and non-human animals: “wherever I turn,” he writes, “the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m…a beast.” He rejects this idea: “I stubbornly continue to believe that I’m a human being — something more than other animals.” And, he implies, something better, different in kind and not just degree.

Polt shows his hand with his choice of the word “beast” to describe other animals. Synonyms include “brute, savage, ogre, [and] monster,” and the word is also used to denote the Antichrist in Revelations. There can be no doubt that he takes any comparison between himself and other animals as an insult.

For Polt, the dividing line between humans and other animals is ethics. “I have no beef with entomology or evolution,” he states, “but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics.” Polt writes that evolution has endowed humans with both altruism and selfishness, but it cannot tell us which one we ought to choose in any particular situation. Therefore, he writes, “a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.”

What Polt doesn’t explain is how that distinguishes us from other animals. We are not the only ones who have the capacity for both altruistic and selfish behavior and who must choose between them. There are countless examples of dolphins saving humans, and on at least one occasion saving whales. But we needn’t look to the most intelligent species or to those closest to us biologically for examples of altruism, or of the “ethical” choices that we “ought” to make: trans-species adoptive mothers (who not only protect but even suckle babies orphaned or rejected by their own mothers) that we know of include a tiger, sheep, monkey, gorilla, and many dogs and cats.

These animals’ choices to behave in ways that would, if displayed by humans, be considered ethical, do not move Polt. “Any understanding of human good and evil has to deal with phenomena that biology ignores or tries to explain away — such as decency, self-respect, integrity, honor, loyalty or justice. These matters are debatable and uncertain — maybe permanently so. But that’s a far cry from being meaningless.” Perhaps part of their uncertainty is their applicability to other species. What would motivate dolphins to protect humans from sharks, risking their own safety – why not decency or a sense of justice? And who could deny that dogs act out of loyalty? These animals choose between altruism and selfishness. They stand to gain nothing. Polt does not explain why their choice is less ethical than a human’s.

Identifying a significant, universal, and morally relevant distinction between human and non-human animals is the holy grail for many industries and most thinking individuals, because if there is no meaningful difference between us and other species, we have no right to exploit them, much less visit the horrors upon them that are routine in factory farming, science laboratories, and other arenas. Of course, those thinking individuals who are vegan don’t need to “refuse to admit” the facts, because we have already accepted that we have no right to use or abuse non-human animals.

What Doesn’t Separate Us From Animals 6

Pigeons are watching you, and they don’t forget a face.

A new study shows that pigeons can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar human faces, according

to Mat McDermott at The study was published in Avian Biology ResearchResearchers seemed surprised, apparently because they thought pigeons were fairly dumb (or, as they put it in scientist-speak, not “considered highly cognitive”). As usual, people tend to presume animals are stupid until proven intelligent.

This study comes on the heels of one finding that ravens can recognize the voices of friends and foes even after years of separation.

Consider pigeons’ memory and the likelihood that they have cognitive skills we have yet to acknowledge the next time you let your child chase and bully them into flying away: do you really want your kid on their bad side? (More to the point, do you really want your child to learn to abuse her or his power over weaker creatures?)

Photo credit: vpickering


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NYC Renews Ban on New Storefront Slaughterhouses

Originally published on Care2.

Slaughterhouses aren’t supposed to be in cities. We expect them to hide in remote, rural areas where the majority of Americans, urban-dwellers that we are, don’t have to think about how living animals become hamburgers and pork loins. Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” But what if there are no miles, no concealment — what if the slaughterhouse is right next door?

Many city residents could tell you all about it. According to the Humane Society, there are about 80 storefront slaughterhouses, also known as live slaughter markets, in New York City, and they sell 12 to 17 million birds a year. Living near one is unpleasant, to say the least. There is, of course, the potential for spreading avian influenza (see video), but there are more immediate irritants as well. The New York Times described a facility in Brooklyn as emitting “blood, and entrails, and putrid odors,” in addition to the carcasses of birds who arrived very much alive.

Patrick Kwan, New York State Director of The Humane Society of the United States, remembers having to “jump over puddles of blood” when passing the storefront slaughterhouses between his home and his elementary school. He also recalls “garbage bags full of animal guts and entrails on sidewalks, and not to mention the awful smells and cries of the animals.”

Putrid odors and entrails tend to drive down real estate prices and increase constituent complaints, so both houses of the New York legislature passed bipartisan bills (A.9158 and S.6383) that would implement a four-year ban on licensing new live animal slaughter markets within 1,500 feet of a residence in New York City, and Governor Cuomo signed it into law on April 30. The law did not wreak any radical change; it just renewed a 2008 law that is expiring.

The legislation will spare some suffering for both New York City residents and the unfortunate birds who would have ended up in these markets, which are extremely cruel, incredibly gross and without oversight. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “New York City’s live bird markets are infamous for neglecting to adhere to even the most basic animal welfare standards. From the time they arrive from out-of-state producers to the moment of slaughter, these animals receive very little care. Worse, no federal, state or city agency monitors these facilities for potential cruelty, meaning that routine acts of animal cruelty go unreported and undetected.”

The next step is to shut down the live slaughter markets that were grandfathered in and remain open for business in New York City.

Photo credit: brandi666

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