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Extending Empathy to Non-Human Animals

Written by Jessie Huart Sullivan | Published on May 25, 2015 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2015/05/25/extending-empathy-non-human-animals/
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Costumed cow lying on a bench

Image via Zubin Bharucha/Flickr.

by Jessie Huart Sullivan

The ideologies of slavery that kept human beings classified as property for hundreds of years continue to be used today to oppress non-human animals.

Does this statement make you uncomfortable?

This is the assessment made in the book “The Dreaded Comparison” by Marjorie Spiegel. Although I consider myself a strong animal welfare advocate, this comparison still makes me uncomfortable. Why? Is it the comparison of human suffering to animal suffering? Do I think that by comparing the two I am taking away from the human struggle or deeming it less tragic? Considering humans to be more important than animals is so deeply ingrained in our society that, even for an animal welfare advocate, it becomes nearly impossible to not feel uncomfortable with this comparison.

In the article “Dogs Are People, Too,” researchers discuss the findings of MRI brain scans on dogs. The researchers found an area of the dog brain, the caudate, which is similarly activated in both humans and dogs when they are presented with objects and situations that would generally be associated with positive emotions. This discovery led the researchers to conclude that dogs likely experience emotions in a manner similar to humans.

I studied biology as an undergraduate and was consistently warned about anthropomorphism and anecdotal evidence. Scientists should not assign human characteristics to non-human animals and anecdotes are not evidence, but maybe there’s an advantage to anthropomorphism. When we anthropomorphize our pets, it’s usually to try and make sense of their actions, and by trying to understand them, we can better realize their needs and emotions.

What would happen if we began to anthropomorphize animals who aren’t typically our pets, like cows and pigs? As a different species, it may be impossible for humans to determine with absolute certainty how another animal is experiencing a particular emotion. But does that mean we shouldn’t try? And is absolute certainty really necessary?

There are diverse ideals and cultures that influence opinions on animals, and it is unlikely that speciesism is an issue that will be resolved anytime soon. But is this an issue that truly needs to be resolved to determine how humans should treat other animals?

When the differences between humans and other animals are emphasized, there is a tendency to prioritize who is more important, which is the foundation of the argument that is used to support oppression (humans or animals) to begin with. However, if we look for the connections among various forms of oppression, then we are looking for the common, shared aspects in order to better address the issue and work to change it.

From this perspective, it is legitimate to compare the oppression of people with the oppression of animals, if only to realize the interconnections. It is not a matter of determining who suffered more or whether humans are more important than animals; it is instead a matter of finding the commonalities of oppression so that we can find a more effective solution.

As humans, we can only directly relate to what it’s like to be human – and sometimes even that is incredibly difficult — but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Our ability to empathize allows us to have compassion for people who are suffering; extending that compassion to non-human animals, whether we have definitive proof of their emotions or not, is the more humane choice.