Helen Lambert (née Proctor), MSc, BSc Hons, is an animal welfare research consultant and a leading animal sentience expert. She has over 16 years of experience working and researching in the animal welfare field and extensive experience in the charity sector at a global level. Helen was formally Sentience Manger at World Animal Protection, where she founded the Sentience Mosaic, an online hub for scientists, academics and students dedicated to animal sentience and animal consciousness.
In this Q&A, the Charter for Animal Compassion asks Helen about the significance of animal sentience science, the risks of anthropomorphism, and priorities for future research.
Charter: One of the core aims of the Charter is to champion the science of animal sentience. In your view, why is the science of animal sentience important?
HL: Animal sentience is fundamental to how we treat and consider animals, it is the reason why the animal welfare and rights movements exist. Animals are sentient, and we therefore need to protect them. Animals can experience pain, pleasure, and even complex emotions such as grief and joy, and these feelings are important, both to them and to us.
Charter: Pain, pleasure and emotion are, in one sense, subjective experiences. Is sentience something that scientists can truly study and measure?
HL: Sentience is often considered to be a subjective, anthropomorphic concept. After all, we cannot ask a dog how he is feeling today in the same way we would ask one another. We can however, use other ways to ask the dog how he is feeling. Fortunately, there has been a significant rise in recent years, in the number of studies exploring animal sentience, and ways to measure animal emotions. In a review my colleagues and I conducted, we found that evidence for sentience is everywhere, and despite a reticence of scientists to believe that it is measurable, sentience is being measured and utilised in practice every day. Scientists are creative, and over the years we have developed numerous ways to measure animal emotions, and to ask animals how they are feeling. We can no longer rest on the excuse that animals don’t speak human. It is not enough. Animals do communicate their feelings, and we have a responsibility to learn how to understand them.
Charter: When we talk of animal sentience, is there not a risk of anthropomorphising animals, assuming they are simply like us?
Having worked for years as a scientist in the charity sector, I have seen both sides of the anthropomorphic coin. Anthropomorphism is defined as “assigning human traits or emotions to animals”. I would add to that definition the words; “without supportive evidence”. We are only being anthropomorphic if we do not have the evidence to show the animal can feel that emotion, or experience. There is nothing wrong with using the same words as we use to describe human emotions and feelings. Why do we need to invent a new vocabulary? We are not suggesting that a cat’s experience of grief is the same as mine, in the same way that I could not say that my grief is the same as yours. What we can say however, is that feeling grief and loss is a negative experience, and something that I, you, and the cat wish to avoid. It hurts us emotionally, but we may all deal with it differently.
In terms of making changes for animals, using unfamiliar, meaningless jargon to describe feelings, just alienates our audience. The average person does not know what a ‘subjective state’ is, or what ‘cognitive dissonance’ means. They do know however, what emotions are, and how it feels to be pessimistic or optimistic. They can relate to these words, they can relate because they can feel them too. This helps them to see non-human animals as ‘just like me’, which is a valuable perspective in changing their behaviour. I always recommend that we avoid true anthropomorphism, as we are fighting a legacy of cynicism when it comes to animal sentience, and so we do not want add fuel to the fire by making claims about animals without the evidence. Fortunately, the evidence is already there for so much of sentience, so we do not need to be as cautious as we think.
Charter: Given that there is a good deal of evidence for animal sentience already established, what would you say are the priority areas for future research ?
HL: To date, much of the research into sentience is focussed on negative emotions and experiences. This has been critical for making improvements in animal welfare, as many practices involving animals still cause immense suffering. Animal welfare however, is about more than just freedom from negative emotions and feelings. Good animal welfare is concerned with animals being able to experience positive feelings too. The science of animal welfare has seen a shift towards this concept in recent years, and with it has come an increase in studies seeking to promote positive experiences. Measuring emotions is still a difficult task, and measuring positive emotions is often considered to be even harder. It is not impossible though, myself and my colleague Gemma Carder, and other scientists in the field, have all made steps forwards in finding ways to measure the positive emotions in animals. Much more still needs to be done in this area, and in doing so, there needs to be a consideration for the animal’s wellbeing. A lot of research causes distress and suffering to the animals involved, in order to demonstrate that they can suffer. Future research needs to find more creative ways to prove sentience, without causing this suffering.
A great deal of what we know about sentience is focussed on the vertebrate species, particularly the mammals. We use invertebrates for food, entertainment, research, and also consider them as pests. We slaughter them in their billions every year. There is little legislation protecting them, and little known about exactly what they can feel. What research does exist is often disregarded, as people are just unwilling to accept that invertebrates can feel. Future research needs to be conducted on invertebrates, but also fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. We need to know as much as we can about their emotional lives, in order to best protect their welfare.
Charter: Is public awareness of animal sentience high, or do you think there is still some way to go before its significance is realised?
HL: As I mentioned before, we scientists often shoot ourselves in the foot by talking about sentience using jargon, and being afraid to use meaningful language, in the fear of being called anthropomorphic. As a result, the general public don’t know as much as they should. Having had the title of Sentience Manager for years, I know first-hand how little people understand the term sentience. I would invariably state my title, and then have to provide a definition as I recognised the look of confusion on my acquaintances face. Things are changing though. Years ago, the word sentience was rarely mentioned, even in animal welfare conferences, and I have even heard the word consciousness being referred to as the ‘C word’. These days, there are whole conferences being held on the subject, with numerous researchers presenting their work in the field. We still need to do more to get this into the public consciousness, and use it to change human behaviour. Movements such as the Charter for Animal Compassion are exactly what we need to bring animal sentience to the forefront of the discussion.
Find out more:
Visit Helen’s website at: http://www.animalwelfareconsultancy.co.uk/
Read Helen’s research:
‘Searching for Animal Sentience: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature’, Helen Proctor, Gemma Carder and Amelia R. Cornish, Animals 2013, 3(3), 882-906 (Link)
‘Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading?’, Helen Proctor, Animals 2012, 2(4), 628-639 (Link)
Further papers are available on Helen’s website.