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What is Animal Welfare and why is it important?

The difference between Animal Rights & Animal Welfare

Some people use the terms animal welfare and animal rights interchangeably, suggesting that they represent the same concerns, principles and practices. But the differences between the two are significant and irreconcilable.

What is Animal Welfare?

In its simplest form, animal welfare refers to the relationships people have with animals and the duty they have to assure that the animals under their care are treated humanely and responsibly.

Ancient Animal Cave Drawings
Ancient Animal Cave Drawings

Despite its current popularity, interest in animal welfare is not a modern phenomenon. Concern for animal care and wellbeing has existed since domestication, which occurred at least 10,000 years ago in Neolithic times. Our appreciation and respect for animals led to their domestication, animal agriculture and animal husbandry, the branch of agriculture that deals with the care and breeding of animals. Many historians consider the development of agriculture to be the most important event in all of human history.

The animal welfare ethic that developed in the Neolithic era is one that obligated people to consider their animals’ welfare in order to achieve their own purposes. It set in place a mutually beneficial arrangement between people and animals that goes like this: “If we take care of the animals, the animals will take care of us.” In this ancient but enduring pact, self-interest demanded that people take good care of their animals. Amazingly, this very fundamental animal welfare ethic survives today, especially in settings where hands-on animal care continues. Today we call this special relationship the human-animal bond.

Dr. Bernard Rollin, an animal science professor at Colorado State University, argues however, that 20th century technology broke this ancient contract when it allowed us to put animals into environments and uses that didn't impair their productivity but harmed their well-being.

That defines the challenge today, the need to provide acceptable levels of animal welfare in a nation that is no longer rural and agricultural, but which in the span of 2 paradigm-shifting centuries has become urbanized and technological. In modern American society only 2% of an ever-increasing population lives on farms and only 1% practices farming as an occupation. This contrasts sharply with the mid 1800’s when 90% of Americans were farmers. If these trends continue, farming will become more concentrated in the future, a situation that makes animal welfare an even more important subject.

Animal Welfare Principles & Policies

Farmers, ranchers, animal trainers, animal scientists, dog and cat breeders, veterinarians, zoo keepers, and others who live and work with animals recognize these challenges and work within their professions, hobbies and businesses to address them. Businesses that work with animals adopt animal welfare policies, practices and programs to assure the availability of wholesome food and fresh water, veterinary care, proper handling, socialization and in recent years many have added environmental enhancements for the animals they keep. They evaluate individual animals for health and welfare indicators such as energy level, appetite, hair coat, brightness of eye and other signs. Some businesses use scientific methods such as measuring cortisol levels in blood to evaluate stress levels. When best practices are in place and the animals appear comfortable and healthy, the level of animal welfare provided is generally deemed acceptable.  Here are some examples of animal care policies and guidelines:

The Five Freedoms:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

There’s broad agreement among animal professionals and the general public that people should treat their animals humanely, but the devil is in the details and debate over how to accomplish that goal rages on. Despite the ability of intensive confinement systems and institutional settings to provide animals with wholesome food and fresh water, and to protect them from predators and extremes in weather, people generally distrust their ability to provide the same level of animal welfare that pastoral life offered in the past. This is the primary animal welfare focus in the US today and it’s one that animal professionals spend considerable resources working to address.

Regardless of the level of care provided and the actual level of wellbeing experienced by the animals, close-confinement housing systems and institutional settings appear unnatural to many onlookers: laboratories where animal studies are conducted; zoos, circuses and marine animal parks where exotic animals can be seen; large farms where thousands of animals may live in close confinement and commercial dog breeding kennels.  Even as these businesses explore new approaches and adopt new and improved practices, however, the optics makes it difficult for critics to believe that animal welfare is being nurtured.

Public concern over substandard care and treatment of animals in large-scale or institutional settings has led to an enormous body of federal, state and local laws governing the treatment and housing of animals in these settings, sometimes creating numerous layers of regulations and requiring multiple agencies to perform inspections of the same entity. At the federal level there are laws governing  the care of zoo, circus and marine animals; the humane slaughter of farm animals, how laboratory animals should be treated, and how dogs raised in commercial dog breeding kennels should be housed and cared for. In addition, there are countless local ordinances regulating the keeping of animals, laws that regulate dog breeding and a host of other activities that formerly were conducted in more rural settings.

The role of animal welfare in dealing with animal abuse, cruelty and neglect

In addition to the many programs and policies developed to improve standards of care and wellbeing for animals, animal welfare proponents also work to end animal abuse. 

Animal abuse comes in many forms, but for purposes of simplification, can be separated into two major categories: abuse that occurs as a result of negligence (failure to act properly) or harm that results from deliberate acts.  The lines are sometimes blurred between what is intentional and what is not, and cases are decided on the basis of case-specific facts.  Every state now has felony laws against animal cruelty, but they vary tremendously from state to state in the acts they designate as felonies, and in the punishment they impose for those crimes.

In the case of neglect, abuse can be the result of ignorance, such as when a pet owner didn’t recognize that a pet needed veterinary treatment; or when it is the result of behavior that a person should have known would cause harm to animals but allowed to continue.

Abuse can also be the result of overt cruelty to animals.  Deliberate acts of cruelty include torture, beating or maiming animals as well as activities such as dog fighting, which result in severe pain, injury and death to the animals involved.  Deliberate acts of abuse warrant the most severe penalties, not only because of their shocking nature and the immediate harm they inflict, but also because there are well known connections between abuse to animals and violence against people.

Animal Welfare and Animal Rights ARE NOT THE SAME

Many animal welfare proponents call themselves animal rights advocates because that term seems to represent what they believe, but animal welfare and animal rights are based in entirely different beliefs and use different tactics to achieve their goals. Unlike animal welfare principles, which inherently support the humane and responsible use of animals, animal rights tenets oppose all use of animals no matter how humane, or how responsible. PETA’s motto articulates the animal rights position very well, and demonstrates that in this belief system, animal use and animal abuse are synonymous: “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.” 

Animal rights campaigns use animal welfare issues to promote their agenda

Although packaged for maximum appeal, animal rights beliefs conflict with the views of at least 94% of Americans, the number who eat meat.  And an additional portion, omnivores and vegetarians alike, benefit from medical advances, go to circuses and zoos, keep pets, hunt or fish, ride horses or otherwise use animals.  Americans are generally unaware of the true animal rights agenda.  And that makes sense: Although animal rights leaders state their positions clearly when speaking to their followers, many of them hide their true beliefs under a mantle of animal welfare rhetoric when speaking to the public, misleading their audiences about their true agenda.  Animal rights campaigns frequently use strategic deceptions against animal owners and businesses. Many people who view themselves as animal rights advocates are simply people who love animals and want to do something to improve their lives.  They are unaware of radical path charted by the animal rights leadership.

Peta President - Interview on violent animal rights activities

For the animal rights movement, the ends justify the means

It is also important to recognize that the animal rights movement is the only social movement in the US with a history of working with underground criminals, which the FBI has named single issue terrorists. Notably, many in the animal rights leadership do not condemn violence when it is committed in the name of their cause, a hallmark of unethical and radical movements. Many animal rights groups do little more than exploit animal welfare problems for their own fundraising purposes. Sometimes the fundraising campaign amounts to no more than raising concerns about an industry or pastime that utilizes animals, labeling them as cruel in order to position themselves on the high moral ground and raise money. The ASPCA and HSUS recently paid $9.3 million and $15.75 million respectively to the company that owns Ringling Bros circus to settle, among other things, a Racketeering Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) lawsuit in which they were defendants because they (or their affiliates) improperly paid someone to be a witness against the company with testimony that was not found to be credible.

Another area of disagreement between animal welfare and animal rights proponents is over the legal status of animals. Animal welfare advocates call for animal protection laws. Animal rights supporters push for legal rights for animals, something that requires a change in the legal status of animals and mandates a new class of government administrators to make decisions on behalf of animals. Fundamentally, the animal rights approach to animals is less about improving their care than it is about politics. It’s about power.  Specifically it’s about who decides how animals will be treated including whether they should remain in private ownership at all, or be placed in sanctuaries created to provide animals refuge from human ownership and use. Animal rights ideology works to separate people from animals and if achieved would sever the human-animal bond.

The ethical framework that supports animal welfare principles springs from the Western ethical tradition, one that embraces tolerance for diversity and minority views and uses knowledge and education rather than coercion to advance its objectives. The willingness of the animal rights leadership to misrepresent their beliefs and motives and to work with illegal factions indicates that their views arise from different roots.

Animal Welfare - The middle ground between two extremes

Aristotle's Golden Mean

The great philosopher Aristotle espoused an ideal he termed the "golden mean" the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. His ethical framework is outlined in this chart.  Though sometimes difficult to achieve, these are the principles that mainstream animal welfare organizations like the National Animal Interest Alliance strive to achieve, making steady progress without compromising other important values like honesty, integrity, lawful conduct and love for our fellow man. Here is an explanatory poster which provides an Overview of Animal Related Philosophies & Organizations that may enable you to visualize the interplay between these concepts and competing values.

If we can’t defend animal rights, we don’t deserve to call ourselves progressives

It's time for a revolution in thinking about the world's most pervasive form of exploitation


The world’s most pervasive form of exploitation, along with its resultant environmental harm, can’t be laid at the feet of Republicans, conservatives or those we define as bigots in our society. That’s because both sides of the aisle participate in the needless consumption of animals.

Consumers are increasingly made aware that countless sentient beings, just like companion dogs and cats, are abused and slaughtered for products we don’t really need. Marketers convince the public that animal exploitation is necessary to sustain human life. But it’s not true.

This profiteering is a byproduct of unchecked capitalism, producing food products that cause cancer, contribute to obesity and exacerbate the diabetes crisis.

Public consciousness is sorely lagging on the issue. Standing against the exploitation of sentient beings outside our own species is often considered superfluous by progressives who embrace radical thought in other areas. It’s not uncommon to hear a supposed liberal accuse vegans of not caring enough about humans.

The evasive rhetoric is familiar: a class of beings is rendered invisible by others who view their bodies as a means to an end. This is the same thinking that propagated a system of human slavery in the U.S., a system that continues today as mass incarceration. In fact, the economy of animal agriculture runs directly parallel to the prison-industrial complex. Sentient life is com-modified, stripped of person hood and traded as property for a ruling class.

The exploitation of animals by humans is a stunning example of progressive deference to the normalcy of oppression. Even staunch conservative Charles Krauthammer is ahead of most progressives on animal rights. We need a consumption revolution.

Some progressives are starting to take notice and acknowledge that the systemic exploitation of billions of animals a year for profit is a disgraceful problem. A Salon editorial by Steven Stankevicius outlined the reasons New Atheists are engaging in overt hypocrisy when they knowingly contribute to atrocity while decrying the beliefs of others as contributors to this atrocity.

Dr. Melanie Joy, a social psychologist and author who serves as a professor at University of Massachusetts Boston, developed a hypothesis to explain why humans seem to hit a moral brick wall when confronted with their treatment of other species. Joy compares the normalization of animal exploitation to patriarchy; both represent ideologies that aren’t often recognized because they’re so dominant. This comparison should probably be credited to Carol Adams, whose groundbreaking 1990 book “The Sexual Politics of Meat” remains an influential text of both feminist and animal rights literature.

A study released by Lancaster University confirms the observations made by Joy and Adams. The collaborative efforts of U.S. and Australian researchers found that people who consume animals are more likely to support social inequality.

Many well-meaning people believe that giving up meat addresses the entire issue. But the treatment of animals as property for any reason is the real problem.

Some of the most egregious animal welfare violations occur in the production of dairy products and eggs. Our consumption of dairy milk requires a cycle of brutality in which the cow is repeatedly forcibly impregnated, her calves taken from her, and eventually, when her milk production dwindles, she suffers a violent death. Chickens farmed for eggs are among the most abused animals on the planet.

Beyond the animal abuses associated with the production of food, clothing and other products, animal agriculture, including the resources used to sustain it, is a leading cause of global climate change. The atmosphere doesn’t distinguish between meat, dairy or leather. Farmed animals increase greenhouse gas emissions just by being bred into existence.

The United Nations is finally conceding that what started as an ethical problem has metastasized into an existential threat to human beings. A U.N. report states that moving away from animal consumption is imperative to avoid the worst-case scenario for global poverty, hunger and climate change-related impacts.

We progressives are faced with a choice between living our stated ideology or upholding the status quo each time we sit down to a meal. A serious anti-oppression movement can’t have the bodies and byproducts of exploited beings on its plate while claiming moral superiority. If we continue to exploit animals while protesting oppression, then the conservatives are right about us — we’re a movement of hypocrites.

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the first wave of an animal rights movement which will see our furry friends elevated to a new status in our society. But it’s true. In the last few years, concern for animal welfare has grown. Even the last week has demonstrated this. Take the fury which greeted the decision of a Japanese ice rink to entomb 5,000 dead fish beneath skaters’ feet. Or the scores who complained about the torture of live insects on ITV’s.
And those upset about the animal-fat loaded £5 note. These isolated events speak volumes about a new moral reality we’re entering.

The animal rights revolution is coming

30 November 2016

4:14 PM

Some will scoff when I say that we are in the first wave of an animal rights movement which will see our furry friends elevated to a new status in our society. But it’s true. In the last few years, concern for animal welfare has grown. Even the last week has demonstrated this. Take the fury which greeted the decision of a Japanese ice rink to entomb 5,000 dead fish beneath skaters’ feet. Or the scores who complained about the torture of live insects on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity. And those upset about the animal-fat loaded £5 note. These isolated events speak volumes about a new moral reality we’re entering.

The animal rights revolution is coming, at a pace the pro-meat lobbyists just can’t get their heads around. When I first gave up meat as a teenager, people laughed and told me I would soon abandon this phase of rebellion. That didn’t happen, though; in fact, many others have since joined the movement. The UK now has 1.68 million vegetarians, and the number of vegans has risen by 360 percent over the last decade.

There are plenty of reasons why people are joining the cause – all of which make total sense, to the annoyance of rabid meat eaters. Yet to relationalize their dietary habits, the carnivorous still rest on the tired arguments of pleasure, tradition and nature. But the truth is that all of these are as outdated as other phenomena they once justified: gladiator games and incest, to name a few.

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Animal Welfare vs Animal Rights

What’s the Difference?

For the last 50 years or more, the debate has raged over the role of animals in human society, with particular reference to the ways in which we use them for our benefit. There are fundamental differences between the Animal Welfare viewpoint and the Animal Rights philosophy. Fueling the debate still further has been the emergence, particularly in the last three decades, of a small, but vociferous group of adherents to the philosophy of animal rights, which views humans and animals as essentially equal and condemns any and all use of animals for human benefit.

Animal Welfare ViewpointThe animal welfare philosophy is fundamentally different from the animal rights philosophy, since it endorses the responsible use of animals to satisfy certain human needs. These range from companionship and sport, to uses which involve the taking of life  for food, clothing and medical research. Animal welfare means ensuring that all animals used by humans have their basic needs fulfilled in terms of food, shelter and health, and that they experience no unnecessary suffering in providing for human needs.

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What is the Animal Protection Index?

The Animal Protection Index is a brand new interactive tool from World Animal Protection. We have ranked 50 countries worldwide on how well their legislation protects animals. Never before has a more comprehensive or ambitious project in animal protection been completed. Visit the Animal Protection Index website and interact with the results - you can access each country’s report and see how they perform on animal protection policy and legislation. 

Supporting global change for animals – a truly long term solution

The index provides the foundations for governments to improve animal protection standards. By reviewing legislation around the world, countries will be able to create a roadmap for change, helping to protect billions of animals worldwide. What’s more, through improving legislation, countries will help their people too. Treating animals well can improve public health, fight poverty, tackle climate change and protect the biodiversity of our planet. Only through strong legislation can this be achieved for the long term.  


(Watch Video for additional knowledge)

Animal Rights

  - is the idea in which some, or all, non-human animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives and that their most basic interests—such as the need to avoid suffering—should be afforded the same consideration as similar interests of human beings.

Advocates oppose the assignment of moral value and fundamental protections on the basis of species membership alone—an idea known since 1970 as speciesism, when the term was coined by Richard D. Ryder—arguing that it is a prejudice as irrational as any other.

They maintain that animals should no longer be viewed as property or used as food, clothing, research subjects, entertainment, or beasts of burden.

Multiple cultural traditions around the world—such as Animism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—also espouse some forms of animal rights.

In parallel to the debate about moral rights, animal law is now widely taught in law schools in North America, and several prominent legal scholars support the extension of basic legal rights and person hood to at least some animals. The animals most often considered in arguments for person hood are bonobos and chimpanzees. This is supported by some animal rights academics because it would break through the species barrier, but opposed by others because it predicates moral value on mental complexity, rather than on sentience alone.

Critics of animal rights argue that animals are unable to enter into a social contract, and thus cannot be possessors of rights, a view summed up by the philosopher Roger Scruton, who writes that only humans have duties, and therefore only humans have rights.

A parallel argument, known as the utilitarian position, is that animals may be used as resources so long as there is no unnecessary suffering; they may have some moral standing, but they are inferior in status to human beings, and insofar as they have interests, those interests may be overridden, though what counts as necessary suffering or a legitimate sacrifice of interests varies considerably.

Certain forms of animal rights activism, such as the destruction of fur farms and animal laboratories by the Animal Liberation Front, have also attracted criticism, including from within the animal rights movement itself, as well as prompted reaction from the U.S. Congress with the enactment of the "Animal Enterprise Protection Act" (amended in 2006 by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act).

Moral status and animals in the ancient world

Aristotle argued that animals lacked reason (logos), and placed humans at the top of the natural world, yet the respect for animals in ancient Greece was very high. Some animals were considered divine e.g.:dolphins. The 21st-century debates about animals can be traced back to the ancient world, and the idea of a divine hierarchy. In the Book of Genesis 1:26 (5th or 6th century BCE), Adam is given "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeper upon the earth." Dominion need not entail property rights, but it has been interpreted, by some, over the centuries to imply ownership.

Contemporary philosopher Bernard Rollin writes that "dominion does not entail or allow abuse any more than does dominion a parent enjoys over a child.

Rollin further states that the Biblical Sabbath requirement promulgated in the Ten Commandments "required that animals be granted a day of rest along with humans. Cor relatively, the Bible forbids 'plowing with an ox and an ass together' (Deut. 22:10–11). According to the rabbinical tradition, this prohibition stems from the hardship that an ass would suffer by being compelled to keep up with an ox, which is, of course, far more powerful. Similarly, one finds the prohibition against 'muzzling an ox when it treads out the grain' (Deut. 25:4–5), and even an environmental prohibition against destroying trees when besieging a city (Deut. 20:19–20). These ancient regulations, virtually forgotten, bespeak of an eloquent awareness of the status of animals as ends in themselves", a point also corroborated by Norm Phelps.

The philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 BCE), urged respect for animals, believing that human and nonhuman souls were reincarnated from human to animal, and vice versa.[14] Against this, Aristotle (384–322 BCE), student to the philosopher Plato, argued that nonhuman animals had no interests of their own, ranking them far below humans in the Great Chain of Being. He was the first to create a taxonomy of animals; he perceived some similarities between humans and other species, but argued for the most part that animals lacked reason (logos), reasoning (logismos), thought (dianoia, nous), and belief (doxa).

Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BCE), one of Aristotle's pupils, argued that animals also had reasoning (logismos), he opposed eating meat on the grounds that it robbed them of life and was therefore unjust.

Theophrastus did not prevail; Richard Sorabji writes that current attitudes to animals can be traced to the heirs of the Western Christian tradition selecting the hierarchy that Aristotle sought to preserve.

Plutarch (1 C. A.D.) in his Life of Cato the Elder comments that while law and justice are applicable strictly to men only, beneficence and charity towards beasts is characteristic of a gentle heart. This is intended as a correction and advance over the merely utilitarian treatment of animals and slaves by Cato himself.

Tom Beauchamp (2011) writes that the most extensive account in antiquity of how animals should be treated was written by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry (234–c. 305 CE), in his On Abstinence from Animal Food, and On Abstinence from Killing Animals.

Should Animals Have The Same Rights As People?

In December 2013, four captive chimpanzees in the state of New York became the first nonhuman primates in history to sue their human captors in an attempt to gain their freedom. The chimps’ lawyers, members of a recently formed organization known as the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), were asking a judge to grant their clients the basic right to not be imprisoned illegally. The NhRP could soon file similar lawsuits on behalf of other great apes (bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas) and elephants—beings that have all been shown to possess highly developed cognitive capabilities.

The NhRP’s campaign is, not surprisingly, controversial. For many, the very idea of nonhuman personhood is an oxymoron. Others argue that human rights come with societal responsibilities, such as paying taxes and obeying laws, that no nonhuman could ever meet. Still others feel that current animal-protection statutes offer sufficient security without all the legal and philosophical headaches inherent in extending human rights to another species. The judges of the New York lawsuits ultimately dismissed them all on the grounds that the plaintiffs aren’t people. The appeals are ongoing.

Still, the simpler and more profound truth about the NhRP’s arguments is that as recently as 10 years ago, they would have been laughed out of any courtroom, derided for being shamelessly anthropomorphic. But now an ever-expanding body of observational, neurological, and genetic evidence about animal intelligence and behavior is forcing us to reconsider the age-old boundary between ourselves and other creatures.

The question of where we stand in relation to animals has preoccupied humans since the dawn of consciousness. The earliest tales told across cultures, among them the creation myths of the Nuer tribesmen of Sudan and the Old Testament’s story of Adam and Eve, all pivot around the sudden severance of a perceived unity between ourselves and other creatures. And the resulting sense of separation has kept us from viewing animals as anything but lesser versions of ourselves.

11: The number of brain regions found to correspond between humans and macaques (out of 12 total).

Early Western thinkers such as Aristotle—composer of one of the first guides to the animal kingdom—wrote of a “chain of being” in which animals, because they lacked reason, were naturally ranked below us. In medieval times, animals became largely abstracted into allegory. The great apes were depicted as “wild men of the woods,” chasers and rapists of women, and thus the very embodiment of our baser, primal selves. In the ecclesiastical courts of the Middle Ages, meanwhile, animals such as pigs, which roamed freely in villages where they often maimed or killed unattended children, were given full trials and even assigned their own lawyers. The guilty party would then be dressed in human clothing and publicly tortured and put to death in the town square: a symbolic ritual meant to reestablish humankind’s dominance over animals and restore some semblance of order to an otherwise disorderly world.

A more objective view of animals began to emerge during the Renaissance, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the first truly scientific study of animals appeared, authored by none other than Charles Darwin. Although he is known almost exclusively for his theory of evolution, Darwin devoted the better part of his life after the publication of The Origin of Species to researching and writing The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Published in 1872 (the same year as the first issue of Popular Science), the book paved the way for a series of scientific works on animal sentience and emotion. In the absence of modern research techniques, they were, to say the least, often highly speculative. In one book, the author accords dogs the awareness of “indefinite morality” and asserts that reason begins with crustacea. But these manuscripts also laid the groundwork for the field of comparative psychology, the study of animal behavior. For nearly a century, comparative psychologists developed an intuitive understanding of the shared biological and behavioral bonds between species. Now science is confirming those suspicions in remarkable ways.

Some years ago, I found myself standing inside a large walk-in cooler filled with different animal brains, all of them the property of Patrick Hof, a neuroscientist at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. There, adrift in glass containers of formaldehyde was a constellation of cerebrums: human, chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, spider monkey, bison, and bat. On shelves in the back, Hof kept seaborne brains: dolphin, porpoise, orca, and beluga. Beneath them, a sperm-whale brain rested at the base of a Rubbermaid garbage pail. A gooey white disk, it was roughly the size of a café table.

Hof studies all the brains he can get his hands on in order to better understand the organ’s evolution. Along the way he has discovered numerous common features, not just within the human brain and those of our fellow primates, but also in a number of other mammalian species that the NhRP could soon be representing in court.

Not long ago, the different brains in Hof’s cooler were as disparate and inscrutable on a cellular level to scientists as the stars were to early humans. Now there isn’t a brain they can look at without considering the common neuronal matter shared by all mammals. Advanced neuroimaging and tissue analyses of the brains of cetaceans, for example, have revealed a very different cerebral construction than our own (owing to the vastly different environments in which the two brains evolved), and yet they exhibit similarly complex cortices and limbic systems. Those areas in human brains are the very ones involved in emotion processing, thinking and perceiving, and language. Hof has also found in both cetacean and elephant brains the presence of highly specialized neurons known as spindle cells. Once believed to appear only in humans, spindle cells are possibly associated with self-awareness, empathy, and a sense of compassion­­—the kinds of functions long believed to be exclusively our own.

Within the 106-page memorandum filed by the NhRP on behalf of its first nonhuman plaintiffs, nine leading primatologists filed affidavits testifying to the cognitive capacities of chimps, our nearest biological relative. “These include,” the memo states, “their possession of an autobiographical self, episodic memory, self determination, self-consciousness . . . empathy, a working memory . . . their ability to understand cause and effect and the experiences of others, to imagine, to innovate and to make tools. . . . Like humans, chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”

The memo also includes an observational study of a chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo who regularly hides an arsenal of stones within his enclosure—ammunition that he uses to throw at zoo visitors whenever the mood strikes him. Other studies show that chimps consistently outperform humans in computer-symbol recognition tests. Comparative genomic analyses, meanwhile, prove chimps share nearly 99 percent of our DNA. Human and chimp blood is interchangeable, allowing for transfusions in either direction as long as blood types match. And a number of brain studies now indicate, among other common characteristics, an abundance of spindle cells, more than in any other species of great ape besides human.

Shared brain structures and complex behaviors may come as little surprise with regard to other primates. But finding them in creatures so seemingly different from ourselves is revelatory. Elephants and whales, for example, the giants of their respective domains, not only have comparably large and complex brains relative to our own; they also evolved them millions of years before humans came along. Both live in multitiered, largely matriarchal societies in which extended groups of mothers, daughters, aunts, and friendly “allomothers” rear and educate their young. They have their own sophisticated languages and songs and, in the case of certain cetacean species like the sperm whale, separate dialects specific to different clans. Both species use tools and foraging techniques and pass that knowledge to other generations, and both grieve their dead—all characteristics of another phenomenon we have long exclusively reserved for ourselves: culture.

It only follows, then, that these creatures also suffer, as we do, from their culture’s collapse. Elephants that have witnessed the slaughter of their parents by poaching or culling and lost the support of their extended family group exhibit the same erratic and often detached behaviors as African war orphans who’ve suffered the loss of their families and the destruction of their villages. Post-traumatic stress disorder, in other words, cuts across species.

Elephants and whales not only have comparably large and complex brains relative to our own; they also evolved them millions of years before humans came along.

Over the entire arc of human thought on animals, the persistent question has been whether they are really like us—whether they are people too. Even as comparative psychology advanced our understanding of animals, we studied them, in no small part, to better understand ourselves. For many decades, our regard for nonhuman creatures went no further than the B.F. Skinner–inspired behaviorist prohibition of anthropomorphism: We can’t conjecture about what’s happening in their minds for the simple reason that we can’t conjecture that about one another.

The most recent science, however, has freed us from that perspective. It no longer matters whether we can truly know what a chimp’s day is like, or an elephant’s, or a whale’s. All the available evidence proves that they have rich days of their own and minds enough to lose. Especially for those creatures currently on the NhRP’s prospective clients list, it isn’t their likeness to us but their remarkably parallel complexity that must give us pause and command a new regard—certainly a philosophical one and perhaps a legal one as well.

Few cases better reveal the power of science than those put forth by the NhRP on behalf of nonhumans. New instruments and techniques are overturning our understanding of the universe and our place in it. In a sense, we’re discovering that the search for complex beings like ourselves has been forever pointed in the wrong direction. Rather than seeking answers in a distant star system, we can find them in billions of years’ worth of evolutionary biology. As for the intelligent aliens we’ve so longed to meet—they have been right here beside us all along.

This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title "Animals Like Us".

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Chimp Diversity

James Mollison

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Invention Awards: The Katal Landing Pad

Invention Awards: The Katal Landing Pad



The Philippine Animal Welfare Society exists to prevent cruelty, alleviate pain, fear and suffering in animals and to promote a society based on humane principles.


PAWS is a credible nationwide non-profit organization, composed of a network of committed, compassionate and trustworthy individuals and institutions that initiates and leads in the promotion of animal welfare, and the protection of all animals. PAWS envisions a nation that respects animals, practices responsible pet ownership, and protects wildlife. 


  • Compassion and respect for animals
  • Commitment to the vision and mission of PAWS
  • Dedication to the assigned role in the organization
  • Respectful conduct towards each other regardless of position
  • Honesty and trustworthiness
  • Integrity
  • Discipline (faithfulness to norms, standards; compliance to organization’s rules, policies and standards)
  • Loyalty to the organization
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