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Feature photo: TheBusyBrain

What constitutes the value of life?

I don’t know how to answer that question.

I know human life is considered more precious than other animal, vegetable, or mineral life. But, how much of that assumption is just based in my culture and ego?  I can give vague explanations for why I think that’s so in tag words like “nuanced communication”, “love”, “spirit”, “art”, “happiness”.

But what is to say animals don’t embody those things in their own way? And where do we place animal intelligence and life on the cosmic value scale when one could argue animals are more in tune to the natural cycles and gifts of the earth?

Scientists are at odds for where the line between human worth vs. animal worth exists. Humans don’t have the biggest brains or biggest brain vs. body ratio in the animal kingdom. And if animals feel the same ratio of pain-how does that shape our choices?

As Jeffrey Kluger writes in his Time Magazine article “Inside the Minds of Animals”:

“…One by one, the berms we’ve built between ourselves and the beasts are being washed away. Humans are the only animals that use tools, we used to say. But what about the birds and apes that we now know do as well? Humans are the only ones who are empathic and generous, then. But what about the monkeys that practice charity and the elephants that mourn their dead? Humans are the only ones who experience joy and a knowledge of the future. But what about the U.K. study just last month showing that pigs raised in comfortable environments exhibit optimism, moving expectantly toward a new sound instead of retreating warily from it? And as for humans as the only beasts with language? Kanzi himself could tell you that’s not true.”

Kanzi, a 29 year old bonobo who knows 384 words, met and communicated with Kluger at the Great Ape Trust, a research center in Iowa.

When Kanzi asks for a ball, the author fetched it for him asking, “Are you ready to play?”

Kanzi responds, pointing to symbols on a sheet, “Past ready.”

Kanzi, a 29 year old bonobo…responds, pointing to symbols on a sheet, “Past ready.”

Recent animal intelligence findings are staggering; no longer do scientists only attribute skills like tool-building and communication–many species have been found to have consciousness, advanced social systems, a wide range of emotions as we know them, and an attention to future planning.

This study of animal cognition is highly important so improvements can be made to the inexcusable ways we treat animals in the world. I believe it’s justified and in balance with the natural world to use animals for survival, but in the 21st century, how often do we truly need animals for survival?

As we become more enlightened about the world through the advancement of science, it’s important to reconsider how we view animals and adjust our treatment of them, accordingly. Just as it’s stupid to contend nowadays that the world is flat, I’m certain generations will look back on the present-day treatment of animals with the same thought, “How could we have been so ignorant?”

What can you do:

The European Union’s animal-welfare policies declare animals as sentient beings. As such, they must be treated humanely, which includes considerate treatment and stunning before killing in slaughterhouses.

The U.S. enforce no such policies. Thankfully, public paradigms are beginning to shift, albeit gradually. A small percentage of the population is demanding humanely-raised, sustainably grown animals for meat, condemning animal-tested cosmetics and an even smaller percentage is practicing vegetarianism and veganism.

There’s still a long way to go, but there are so many ways to help.

1.) Vote with your money. Choose humane food, cosmetics and other products. Consider going meatless on Mondays to significantly lessen your meat footprint.

2.) Volunteer & donate. Volunteer for animal rights organizations in Greece, wolf sanctuaries in Oregon, elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Consider fostering.

3.) Find out more. Read why we shouldn’t feed wild dolphins, reexamine marine mammal amusement, and be aware of the thriving black market ivory trading.

4.) Learn to reconnect with animals. Take 12 steps to healing our relationship with wild animals.

Below our just some of the examples of extraordinary animal intelligence.

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About The Author

Nancy Harder

Nancy Harder is a freelance writer, pianist, singer, and photographer with an affinity for holistic health and observing different cultures. When not capturing paradigms and reflections through different mediums, she is exploring her practice of yoga and meditation. Check out Nancy's blog, Nancy the Gnomette.

  • Kathy

    So many species ripe for Uplift! (I’m re-reading the David Brin scifi series right now so that came to mind immediately.) Very interesting stuff.

    • Nancy Harder

      I haven’t heard of that series. I’ll have to check it out.

  • Hal Amen

    I recently read about that experiment with the crow and the hook. Crazy stuff.

    Great essay, Nancy.

    • Nancy Harder

      Thanks, Hal. :)

  • Amiee

    Funny I was just talking about animal intelligence last night… I am reading Terry Tempest Williams’s Beauty in a Broken World where she discusses the plight of the prairie dogs and how incredibly intelligent they are. They may have the most complex language next to humans yet they are being exterminated at an alarming rate.

    • Nancy Harder

      Ooh-I will definitely be looking for that in the library. Sounds like a great book.

  • Candice

    Everytime I read an article like this written by you, I want to become a vegetarian. That’s a compliment, fyi. ;)

    • Nancy Harder

      I think that’s the best compliment I’ve ever heard.

  • somchai

    Indeed in our modern urbanized world many of us spend a lifetime without observing animals closely whereas every child who grew up on a farm used to work with animals for their entire lives. I especially appreciate wild animals in their wild setting.

    Where I draw the line is at anthropomorphism and the dehumanization of hunters. I’ve read things by animal rights groups that not only attribute intelligence to animals but turn them into some sort of noble kind maternal humans. Some places in the world environmental groups have advocated the extra judicial murder of indigenous peoples by labeling them poachers. The indigenous people are described as cruel and vicious and only the male family members are talked about. Black brown, and yellow people.

    Moral and discursive geographies in the war for biodiversity in Africa Roderick P. Neumann below

    • Nancy Harder

      I couldn’t agree more about modern urbanization alienating us from the natural world and appreciation of animals.

      I also agree that anthropomorphism is something to be careful of when discussing animal intelligence. Sticking to science, research, and conscious, deliberate action is the way to go; otherwise emotions can cloud the work of any type of group, whether environmental, human, or animal rights.

  • Abbie

    This is a great photo esaay, Nancy, – I think it’s so important to educate people about how intelligent animals are, and that we should all think twice about how we treat them!

  • Lynda

    This is great! Thanks for sharing this with the world, the animals have suffered from human abuse for too long.

  • steph

    The Cove is a great documentary about the intelligence (and exploitation) of dolphins, I definitely recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

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