Living Earth

Freeing the Human-Animal Relationship

“The Commons refers to a wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone. These range from clean air to wildlife preserves; from the judicial system to the Internet . . . . It’s an inheritance shared by all humans, which increases in value as people draw upon its riches . . . . As the market economy becomes the yardstick for measuring the worth of everything, more people are grabbing portions of the Commons as their private property. Many essential elements of society—from ecosystems to scientific knowledge to public services—are slipping through our hands and into the pockets of the rich and powerful.” 1

Let us include one further notion in the term ‘Commons’: that of the human-animal inter-relation, an ancient relationship evolved over epochs, to which no particular corporation can claim ownership. The human-animal relationship, like many of the other Commons, such as the public ownership of water, electricity and roads, is being violated by two factors: the profit motive and the dark side of human nature. As an example of the latter, the recent decision of the New South Wales (NSW) state government to privatise the State’s electricity could only be reached by coming to a deal with The Shooters Party, who held the balance of power in the Parliament’s Upper House. From March 1, 2013, hunting will be permitted in certain designated National Parks in NSW, much to the outrage of the general public.2 By ‘selling’ the right to kill animals, the Commons principle has been violated at its very core—in this case, the right of all of us to be able to relate to wild animals. This can only happen if the wild creatures do not fear the humans who visit their domains. It is a right, in accordance with the Commons principle, to be able to walk in the bush and to see a wallaby cautiously peering through the trees, rather than fleeing in terror when the human is smelled and heard. Hunters, through generating fear in wild animals, usurp that part of the Commons which is a public right to appreciate, watch, learn and perhaps even approach.

Agribusiness is another example of the violation of the universal inter-relation between humans and farm animals. In order to satisfy the demands of commerce, it is buying and possessing that ancient relationship, manipulating, licensing breeds of animals and dictating the environment in which animals are reared.  The very genetics of farm animals are manipulated and altered; dairy cattle are held in rows of mechanised milking sheds, their udders bursting and aching with an over-production of milk, sows are kept in crates, piglets and chickens are forced to grow at super-normal speed so that their bones collapse with the weight of the flesh, which humans then eat. How can we truly ‘know’ a hen when it is kept in a cage all its life?

Surely, it is a Commons right to see animals on the hills, to know that they are comfortable and loved, and  perhaps even more importantly, to allow an evolution of understanding between the human and animal kingdoms. Although intangible, the human-animal relationship belongs to us all and the natural evolution of this relationship cannot occur when animals are locked in sheds, where their basic behavioural needs are denied and human contact with the creatures is reduced to a minimum.  Fortunately, human attitudes towards animals are undergoing a revolution. In 1976, when I called the first meeting of Animal Liberation in Australia (after having read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation), a vegetarian was considered a ‘crank.’ When I gave speeches at agribusiness, veterinary and rural meetings, I was told that sheep didn’t feel pain. The proof of this was, “look how the lamb starts eating as soon as its released from the cradle (restrainer) after the mules operation.”

In the almost four decades since then, perceptions regarding human responsibilities towards animals have so drastically changed that it is hard to believe that the old set of values existed. Knowledge of animal neurology, behaviour and ethology have burgeoned as a plethora of important academic books have been published in which the ability of animals to feel pain and emotion is scientifically established. It is now openly and readily recognized that lambs do suffer stress and pain when mulesed. Hopefully, an international campaign conducted by PETA will result in new laws prohibiting mulesing in Australia.

One of the most important yet largely unheralded break-throughs has been the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which a prominent group of neuroscientists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists, including Stephen Hawkins, gathered at The University of Cambridge on July 7, 2012, and declared that:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” 3

Scientific evidence indicates that human animals are not unique in being able to think, feel and be conscious—non-human animals share these attributes.

However, despite the evidence, most people do not make the connection between animal sentience and the importance of not eating them and not treating them as commodities. Dr. Gay Bradshaw has coined the expression ‘trans-species psychology’: “Its establishment involves a new way of thinking and behaving towards animals, which says that we are all ‘kin under skin, fin, feather, and fur.’” The ‘trans’ in trans-species psychology signifies that there is no scientific basis for maintaining separate fields and models for animal and human psychology.’ ty In other words, it is not ‘anthropomorphic’ to refer to animals as having feelings, thoughts and sentience. How should humans act as a result of the new findings of animal behaviourists? That mental trench dug between the fact that animals are sentient and the fact that we can use them as commodities and eat their bodies must be filled with lots of digging and shovelling, so that eventually there will be one field of understanding and action.

In the past, it was thought that animals did not speak; they were  ‘dumb beasts.’ Now, it is well-known that animals have language. Professor Daniel Everett studied the language of an isolated Amazonian tribe, the Pirahã, and discovered that they had no past or future tense, nor did they use numbers or have names for numbers, nor did they use the more complex system of recursion in which a number of different subjects are introduced into a complex sentence. They can whistle, sing or speak their language.5 Contrary to Noam Chomsky’s theory that the ability to learn language is hard-wired into the human brain, Everett maintains that language is a result of culture. In the case of the Pirahã, they lived in the present, entirely contented, without needing to anticipate a future. When they needed food they simply went out and caught it or picked it.

Everett’s theory supports the use of language in animals. Animals, depending on the species and culture to which they belong, use a language that is adapted to suit their own kind. For example, we now know that poultry use language and can even be deliberately deceptive. A rooster will signal to a hen that he has found food, in order to win her approval, but the hen quickly learns whether or not to trust that particular rooster’s declaration. The communications between hens are subtle enough to be able to describe whether a predator is approaching by air or by land.6 Until recently, these communications have not been labeled ‘language.’

Shared relationships between humans and animals belong to everyone and should not be misdirected and usurped for commercial reasons. I believe that I have a right not to see pigs in sheds, standing squashed together on wire floors with their tails cut so they don’t nibble them out of utter boredom. I have a right and a vested interest in seeing the human relationship with pigs evolve and develop. Pigs locked away in stinking sheds cannot tell us about the mystery of their own minds. So long as they are bred to produce bodies that can grow fast for quick killing and eating, we will not have an opportunity to learn from them by interaction, affection and humility. We know that pigs have senses that are far more developed than human senses; for example, scientists have found that pigs might be able to tell what other pigs are thinking.7

An increasing amount of evidence is surfacing that dogs and cows co-evolved with humans. In the case of dogs, the relationship has not been short and instrumental, according to Dr. David Paxton. He argues in his book, Why it’s Okay to Talk to your Dog, that co-evolution of dogs and humans has led to a special relationship in which we can understand each others’ languages. In a recent article on dog evolution in Nature, Kirstin Linblad-Toh et al. showed that this mutual co-evolution has even resulted in dogs and humans developing the enzyme amylase so they can digest starches, something that neither the ancestor of the dog (the wolf) nor human ancestors (the apes) could do.

Maybe dogs are the ambassadors of the animal kingdom, the key through which non-human and human animals are drawn closer together. Recent research has shown how humans, when played various calls and barks of a dog (without seeing the dog), could understand exactly what the dog intended to say. This joint evolution is a possession of all humans; it belongs to the Commons.

The  act of creating and copyrighting transgenic animals (animals that combine the genes of two species) is the ultimate violation of a common heritage.

Given the sentience of animals, their developed nervous systems, their ability to feel pain and to anticipate fear and danger, their basic right to live, in my opinion, it cannot be ethical to eat them. It is often argued that due to the fact that in the past our ancestors ate meat, we are also meant to eat meat. This is the naturalistic fallacy that argues that if a thing was done in the past, it’s correct to do it now. People also were cannibals in the past but this is no longer considered an ethical or medically advisable practice.

I have often heard farmers say that if nobody ate meat there would be no sheep, cattle or pigs. There are many mini-breeds of animals such as the mini-sheep and the Indian dwarf cow, the Kasargode from Kerala. I suggest that just as humans are evolving, so are animals and such animals will become ‘pets’ in the future.

Furthermore, it is possible to have an agriculture in which no animals are killed for their meat. In return for loving affectionate care, they could give back their wool or their milk, but there would be no killing once their use-by date was reached. Instead, like the goshalas of ancient India, the animals would be kept as beloved creatures until their death. Animals have almost all the abilities that human philosophers have claimed make humans special. The old systems of animal killing and animal eating will  have to change if we are to align our knowledge with ethics—if we are to do more than just admit that animals think, feel and reason, and instead treat them with the compassion that such ability and sentience deserve. Humans will also be the beneficiaries, for if we listen intensely to the animals, they can teach us more than we can ever dream of knowing.

Further Reading

Balcombe, Jonathan, Second Nature, The Inner Lives of Animals, Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2010; Broom, D.M. and Fraser, A.F., Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare, 4th Edition, CAB International, USA, 2007; Derrida, Jacques, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Fordham University Press, NY, 2008; Hatkoff, Amy, The Inner World of Farm Animals, Abrams, N.Y., 2009; Jensen, Per, The Ethology of Domestic Animals, 2nd Edition, CAB International, 2009; Paxton, David, Why It’s Okay to Talk to your Dog, David Paxton, Qld., 2011; Sunstein, Cass R, and Nussbaum, Martha C., Animal Rights, Oxford University Press.

1 Walljasper, Jay, “What, Really, Is the Commons?” Kosmos, Fall/Winter 2010; 

2 The commencement of  hunting in NSW national parks has now been delayed due to public concern and pending resolution of safety and conflict of interest issues;



5 Everett, Daniel,  Endangered Languages, Lost Knowledge and the Future, documentary with Chris Baldwin Director, Shoulder High Projections, DVD; 


7 Hatkoff, Amy, The Inner World of Farm Animals, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, NY, 2009.