The Concise Oxford dictionary defines sentience as 'the power of perception by the senses'. Quite succinct!
Sentience taken in a broader context, can be defined as the ability to feel, to be aware of emotions such as joy, love, happiness etc. To experience sensations and feelings such as pain and suffering, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. Sentience applies to humans and non-human beings alike.
In a more spiritual way, if an animal is alive and living on this planet, the animal is sentient, even if humans (the dominant species) seem to struggle to comprehend this.
In recent years, it has been debated (and continues to be), amongst the scientific community to determine if animals are capable of consciousness and emotions similar to our own.
For centuries, the consensus has been that animals are mere automata, machines that do not feel, thanks to French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who claimed that animals do not feel "Pain in the strictest sense since they lack understanding or a mind, and are not aware of anything". In other words, animals are automatic biological machines, with no self-awareness or emotions, no capacity to reason and therefore, not able to feel pain.
If science has given very little thought to animals up to the time of Descartes, the position of different religious movements in regard to animals have existed for centuries.
The blessings of some religious movements and Descartes’ philosophy meant that humans have been exploiting animals for centuries without feeling guilty or a sense of responsibility toward them. The advance of science and philosophy from around 1650 to now has seen very little shift in these attitudes and beliefs (Descartes' ideas are still taught in many universities around the world).
Animal exploitation is operating on an even greater scale than ever before with the increasing human population worldwide, forcing higher demands for cheap meat, therefore pushing the farming industry into producing more food in an increasingly smaller amount of time. Creating misery for animals, condemned to live in unnaturly crampt conditions, to be then transported for slaughter, sometimes across oceans. These sentient beings are leading a totally miserable existence, deprived of even basic rights like keeping their babies or freedom of movement.
The fur industry, the cosmetic industry, the entertainment industry (such as circuses and marine parks), the pet industry with puppy farms, the exotic pet trade, the trophy hunting trade, ivory trade and trafficking of wildlife for monetary gains etc. are creating misery on earth for billions of sentient animal beings. Many of the people who work in these industries and who torture legally or illegally these animals, do not see them as sentient living entities, but rather as a piece of furniture that need to be shifted or disposed of. They are Descartes’ followers.
Science still sacrifices animals for 'research' and all above board and legal (even in the face of evidence provided through scientific studies conducted in recent years on the sentience of animals, have concluded that animals do indeed have emotions and feelings.
For example, in 2013 scientists concluded that lobsters feel pain.
Although science needs to demonstrate points in a clinical manner, conducting painful experiments to conclude that animals feel pain (in this instance lobsters) raises the question of how many experiments do science need to do in order to define sentience?
Species such as rats, cats, dogs and chimpanzees are still used in labs and marine mammals such as dolphins are trained by the military.
Many species such as primates (humans included), elephants, cetaceans and corvids are capable of recognising themselves, by demonstrating their self-awareness (as in seeing themselves in mirrors).
Laws differ in many countries regarding the affairs of humans but also regarding non-human beings such as animals. The law is not equal for all animals and distinctions are made between pets, livestock and wild animals, granting less protection to the last two categories of animals. In many countries, law simply does not apply to animals at all.
In Europe for instance, France has had a law to recognise the sentience of animals since 1976.
Although, recent developments have occurred (April 2014). The French 'code civil' (the law), has been amended to recognise that animals are sentient beings and therefore they are not any longer 'moveable or immoveable assets' . A great first step but sadly the law does not apply to animals such as bulls (bull fighting is still permitting in some regions of southern France), geese and ducks used in the production of foie gras and the billions of animals used for food or in labs, etc. These creatures simply are not seen as sentient in the eyes of the law. Not all are equal under the rule of law!
In the UK, Brambell's 5 freedoms have been in existence since 1965.
The 5 Freedoms are:
They were originally for captive animals with strong emphasis on farm animals. The 5 Freedoms have been replaced by a more robust legislation called the animal welfare Act 2006
New Zealand has recognised the sentience of animals recently and has passed an Animal Welfare Amendment Bill in that respect.
If laws apply to selective animals on land, what about marine animals and in particular, cetaceans?
In 2013, the Indian Government recognised that "Dolphins should be regarded as non-human persons with their own rights and therefore it is morally unacceptable to keep them in captivity".
The minister of environment advised state governments to reject any proposal to establish a dolphinarium "By any person/persons, organizations, government agencies, private or public enterprises that involves import, capture of cetacean species to establish for commercial entertainment, private or public exhibition and interaction purposes whatsoever".
In Toshima, Japan, dolphins have been granted citizenship by the Mayor which is such a breath of fresh air, as sadly another town in Japan (Taiji) is infamous for their hunting of dolphins.
Many marine organisations and people would like to see a declaration of cetaceans rights to give the cetaceans’ nation rights to live peacefully and to combat captivity. Many of us at Mermaids 4 Cetaceans have signed the declaration.
Cetaceans, particularly dolphins have been seen as magical beings in many tales, legends and folklore. If you like mythology, folklore, tales and legends, you can immerse yourself in Jason Cressey's book 'Deep Voices' and learn more about how whales and dolphins were and are seen all over the world. Fascinating stories.
Apart from myths and folklore, there are numerous stories in modern times from people saying that dolphins have helped humans from drowning, or from being attacked by sharks. Many newspapers have reported these stories which demonstrate that dolphins are capable of empathy towards other species such as ours.
One of these stories was experienced first-hand by wildlife film maker Hardy Jones from Bluevoice
Whilst diving, Hardy encountered a hammerhead shark who displayed some aggressive behaviour. A pod of 4 dolphins intervened and protected Hardy from the shark.
If dolphins are capable of empathy towards other species, this displays evidence of sentience.
*Some passengers said “This poor grieving mother dolphin takes us, without words, to a place where humans and dolphins are not so different".
Another passenger said “The last thing I expected to see today was a funeral procession. It was pretty profound for me to think about emotions that animals feel".
Interspecies interaction and empathy of cetaceans has been documented as well.
Researchers observed a deformed dolphin calf interacting with a pod of spermwhales.
It seems that the whales adopted the disabled dolphin. In New Zealand
The story of Kiwi and Pee Wee, a mother bottlenose dolphin and her adopted common dolphin calf is a heart-warming one, showing that cetaceans are capable of empathy. In Hawaii
Back in 2009, a picture and a video showing a dolphin hitching a ride on the back of a whale emerged on the internet. It looks like both species were interacting playfully and were just having a good time, again showing the sentience of cetaceans.
Finally, there are lots of documented stories of cetaceans being rescued by humans and afterwards showing their appreciation.
Of course the question of sentience of animals and cetaceans raise fundamental questions about what captivity is doing to these creatures.
Stories of depression, self-harm, aggression are sadly a common occurrence for cetaceans in captivity. Many organisations and individuals are fighting to stop the incarceration of cetaceans for the entertainment of humans. As education and awareness with documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove are slowly shifting consciousness.
Human desire to imprison these creatures raise questions of our own ability as human beings to be empathic to non-human beings. We seem to struggle in our own world, not understanding ourselves and not caring.
Before we can even address the non human sentient level, we seriously need to rediscover what we have left behind in our 'scientific march towards progress'. The lack of simple human compassion is staggering, so how on earth are we supposed to reach out to anything else?
So who in actuality is the automata in this world?