For Whom the Bell Tolls

What It’s Like to Be a Dog… or a Pig… or a Cow

Animals have eyes and they see with them, the way we humans see with ours. They have ears and they hear with them (again, just like us). They have legs and they walk with them. They have mouths and they eat with them, and so on. The ideas that the eyes of animals see, that the ears of animals hear, and that the legs of animals walk the way they do for us is so obvious, it seems unworthy of comment. Few would doubt that the anatomical structures we share with animals function for them just as they function for us. This seems obvious, logical.

And yet, we convince ourselves that there’s an exception: the brain. Though animals have brains, they don’t think with them like we do: they have no self-awareness, no concept of death, no ability to love, no mother-baby bond, no understanding of what’s to come. It’s all just instinct.

Why is better for humans to believe this? To pretend that this is true?

If there is no conception of death, a shelter can put them down without any moral repercussions. It’s just like going to sleep, says PETA, except they never wake up.

If there is no mother-baby bond, we can steal a cow’s child, put him in a box, abuse him for weeks, and turn him into veal, while we take her milk for our own children to drink.

If there is no understanding of what’s to come for the animal entering a slaughterhouse—no ability to feel terror at the smell of death in the air, or at the sounds and sights of other animals being brutalized—then killing animals to eat them poses no moral imperative not to.

Intuitively, we know that none of this is true. How can it be that every body part of an animal functions the way it functions for us, except the brain?

Scientifically, we now know so, too. “It is often said that our understanding and knowledge of death separates the human animal from all other animals,” writes Virginia Morell. “We alone know that we will die—that one day, suddenly or slowly, our life, our loves, our dreams will end. Surely this awareness sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, we say, pointing to some of our greatest art, music, and literature—all inspired by what we know: that death awaits every living being. And yet, how very odd it is that we should be the only animal to know what life ultimately has in store for us. 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.”

In fact, they do. And as scientists now admit, death isn’t the only great equalizer among different species; so is the capacity to love —“love may be natural selection’s most compelling force, driving us and our fellow animals to care beyond reason for our families, loved ones, and children.” Pigs, for example, have been found to be optimistic and agreeable, prefer familiar individuals of both the pig and human variety to strangers, are sensitive to the experience of others, make decisions based on empathy, and have unique personality traits that overlap that of humans.

Dr. Gregory Berns’ new book “What It’s Like to Be a Dog” takes it one step further, based on MRI (non-invasive) scans of brains. But the book isn’t only about what it’s like to be a dog. In fact, most of the chapters don’t address dogs; they deal with other species of animals, too. In those chapters, Berns shows 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. They are the rule, not the exception.

In doing so, he provides the proverbial nail on the coffin to contrary opinions based on the latest findings in comparative neurobiology, specifically the new science of connectomics—the study of how different parts of the brain are connected to each other. In other words, he offers unassailable proof of what we already know: when the “structures in the brains of animals” are “organized in the same way as the corresponding parts of our brains,” and “these parts look the same” and “they functioned in the same way,” then the subjective experiences are the same or at least similar.

Specifically, if the animal has a cortex—like dogs, cats, cows, and pigs—it is sentient. And “Beyond sentience lies consciousness and self-awareness.” As such, “its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours”:

With similar brain architectures for the experience of joy, pain, and even social bonds, we can assume that animals experience these things much like we do, albeit without the words for those subjective states…

If you want to know what it’s like to be a dog in a shelter or a cow in a slaughterhouse or a pig on a factory farm, imagine how you might experience those things.

So what does a cow think as she is electrically prodded out of the cramped truck, into the slaughterhouse, and down the chute to her own death?

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.

Terror. The same thing we would feel.

That alone should make us kinder to animals, to be intolerant of their killing or actions which cause them to suffer as we would under the same circumstances. We shouldn’t kill a dog in a pound. We shouldn’t confine a pig in a factory farm. “[L]ogically,” says Dr. Berns, “we shouldn’t eat a cow…”

But deep down, when one strips away the self-serving justifications, all of us already knew that. As does Dr. Berns, who admits—like so many others who choose expediency over what is right—that he tragically continues to do so anyway.

“What It’s Like to Be a Dog” is available on Amazon.

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