Sunday, October 31, 2004

TALKING WITH THE ANIMALS

Animals and human beings have much to gossip about

A FEW years ago I had a conversation that utterly changed my attitude towards animals. The topic of this conversation was not, in itself, particularly fascinating, being concerned mostly with mosquitoes and marshmallows. The discussion did not flow easily, partly because my interlocutor kept scratching her bottom and trying to stick a twig in my ear. What made this conversation extraordinary, however, and unlike any other I have had, was that it took place with a chimpanzee.

Panbanisha, a 14-year-old female bonobo or pygmy chimp, had been taught to “speak” by scientists at the Georgia Primate Centre using a pictorial keypad and voice synthesiser. At the time of our meeting, she had assembled a working vocabulary of 250 words, but an understanding of perhaps 3,000 more. From these, scientitists concluded that Panbanisha understood such concepts as loss and regret, the past and the future, truth and falsehood. She was able to construct quite complex sentences, and knew the difference between “put the water in the orange juice”, and “put the orange juice in the water”; she was, in short, a great deal more coherent that John Prescott.

I left my encounter with Panbanisha convinced that animals do think....

Descartes held that speech and reason set man apart from all other animals, and thus non-human animals were beyond ethical consideration. The slow erosion of this approach is one of the most important societal changes of the past 40 years. While there are still arguments over what a fox feels as it is chased by hounds, almost nobody would now argue that animals are beneath moral consideration. True, we remain deeply confused in our attitudes: the number of animals used for research is sharply down, but the hideously cruel foie gras industry has doubled in size over the past 14 years; few still wear fur, but we choose to ignore the often unspeakable conditions on factory farms. Yet the general trend is undoubtedly towards humane treatment of animals, and greater humility in human beings: less, and less cruel experimentation; food raised without suffering. By 2012, every one of Europe’s 200 million hens will be legally entitled to a perch. A small step up for chickens, but a revolution compared with the way previous generations have approached barnyard animals.

The change springs not from mere sentimentality or anthropomorphism, but a realisation, powered by scientific discovery, that the distance between animal and human being, between us and them, is far smaller than tradition and religion have asserted....