W.’s Story  (1982/1962)

W.’s Story  (1982/1962)

Stevan Harnad

I was seventeen and on a downtown bus headed for my french horn lesson at the conservatory.  It was late afternoon, the bus was crowded, as were the streets, because rush hour was just beginning.  My anxiety was increasing with the traffic because I had, characteristically, not allowed enough leeway for this unpredictable time of day, and it looked as if I might arrive late for my lesson.  As I peered nervously through the windows to gauge the progress of the traffic to see whether I would be better off walking the last eight blocks, I noticed, in the middle of the major intersection where my bus was waiting for the traffic light to change, a small, skinny white dog, running back and forth in panic in the middle of the opposing traffic, which was moving in the irate and unpredictable spurts characteristic of that uncertain hour, hazardous even for beings capable of understanding traffic lights, crosswalks and rights-of-way.

My quick fix on the congestion had told me that things were still moving fast enough to make me better off staying on the bus than trying my luck on foot — particularly with my bulky instrument in one hand and university books in the other.  So my first reaction upon seeing the dog’s situation was irritation, perhaps even resentment.  Not that she was blocking traffic, for in fact all the drivers, particularly aggressive at this hour, seemed completely oblivious to her plight, and were grabbing whatever territorial opportunities opened to them as if not only she, but the laws of the land, did not exist.  No, my resentment was that she had now added a further complication to my prospects for making my lesson in time; I followed her fitful path with as much anxiety for my own welfare as hers:  Would she make it to a corner, out of my sight, and hence out of my necessity to continue to be concerned for her?  Or would I have to get off the bus and try to guide her out of her jam?  I even had time for a self-serving rationalization:  Even if I got her to a corner, this was too dangerous an urban location, no place for a dog, and she would soon be in trouble again after I had rushed off to my lesson.  In other words, she was doomed, and there was no reason for me to be dragged down with her.

One wonders how many potential humanitarian acts end up still-born because of considerations like these.  The thought crossed my mind that if I hadn’t been so late, it would have been different; that it was neurotic to be so late; that it was even more neurotic to consider making myself later.  I think I even had time to reflect, partly out of self-congratulation, partly out of self-flagellation, that I had been involved in this sort of thing before; that no good had ever come of it, either to the one I was trying to help or to myself; that I had probably (insulated by the very reactions I was then undergoing) turned my back on many more situations like this than the few in which I had prided (and upbraided) myself for having acted; that the world contained infinitely more of them than could be encompassed by my imagination, not to mention my actual experience, or anyone else’s.  I even — yes, unrelenting moral memory tells me that even this confession does not exaggerate the momentary resources my mind mobilized to excuse me from action — I even mentally surveyed my current existential plight, and had time to call up some self-pity to try to exorcise whatever pity the dog might force on my psyche:  My horn lessons weren’t going well; I wasn’t practicing seriously; my academic work was also in a mess; I was miserably lonely.

These moral vacillations, powerful and enterprising as they were, were very fleeting, for they were interrupted by the impatient blast of a car’s horn as the lights changed and the dog’s immediate source of peril made a sudden 90 degree shift. The horn’s blast induced a movement of such human-like despair and terror in that little dog, who disappeared from my line of sight, obscured by the new direction of movement of the traffic, that I moved with reflexive resignation to the exit door, now no longer even inclined to leave it to fate whether the bus, just about to proceed on its course across the intersection, would still honor the bus-stop, which was technically at the corner, and had not yet been reached in the stalled traffic, although several passengers — the only ones interested in disembarking here — had already been discharged.

I rang the bell urgently, to make it clear that I was intent on invoking my statutory rights to get off at the official bus stop.  The driver looked as if he wasn’t going to buy that; the bus hurtled forward, but the traffic didn’t give much opportunity for progress.  We came to a stop in the middle of the intersection, and at this point I set up such an incessant series of bell-ringings that the driver, not without a curse that drew even more of the unsympathetic and short-tempered passengers’ attention to me, released the exit door and I leapt off, rushed in front of the bus, caught sight of the dog, who was close to a panic-freeze between the opposing traffic parallel to the bus, and, by turns, coaxed and chased it toward the corner near which I had disembarked, not without holding up the bus’s progress one more time by gesticulating and interposing myself between it and the space that had by now opened up in front of it, until the dog had reached safety.  (More curses from the bus-driver, and incensed murmurs from the passengers, no doubt, once they realized the reason for my urgent exit, and my further negative contribution to their advancement.)

My reflexive series of acts had not settled the problem of the sequel.  In my mind I was still nervously entertaining the idea of rushing on to my lesson, except that it was apparent that the dog was still in great danger.  She was in a kind of daze; she wouldn’t let me approach her, and she several times almost ran into the street again.  My chasing her back from the street did not increase her inclination to allow me to get nearer, but I had already gotten close enough for a remarkable personal transformation to occur in my attitude toward her.

I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I somehow got the kind of feeling you get when you realize that someone you thought or expected to be rather common turns out to give every indication of being from a “good family.”  I had expected a scruffy stray in this part of town, and not a young one; and, for some reason, I also expected it to be a male.  She turned out to be very young (perhaps ten months old), a female, and because she had a collar, perhaps she was not even homeless.  On the other hand, she was pitifully thin, and her collar had no license or identification.  She was of a medium-sized terrier-like mixed breed, with potentially erect ears and tail, but both of which were (understandably) always down low now.  Her hair was longish white and discolored by urban street-life, and — let the reader laugh, I am still inexpressibly moved twenty years later as I write this — some sort of infection made her brown, panic- stricken eyes, partly obscured by tufts of her off-white hair, look inescapably as if she were weeping, or, more accurately, as if she had been weeping a great deal, and that its residue had gathered in the corner of her eyes and had moistened and matted the fur along both sides of her muzzle.

I will not dwell on the necessity of such anthropomorphic cues, sometimes illusory, for the elicitation of compassion.  A hardened street-wise stray who had adopted an adversarial, exploitative attitude, perhaps a menacing one, toward man, would have been in no less need in this situation than she was, and would perhaps provide the real test of the “goodness” of our hearts.  But her human-like startle at the car horn, the tearful look of her eyes, the hint of being (or having been) of a “good family,” her emaciated condition, her plight itself, even, I suspect in retrospect, her being a female — all these conspired to make me incapable, truly incapable, of considering going on to my lesson; and much more than that, for already, I now know, processes had been set in motion — processes that I did not yet consciously recognize at that time, and that were perhaps not yet irreversible — that were to intertwine her fate inextricably with mine.

She wouldn’t let me approach her.  I knew I had to secure her somehow, or else she would be back in the traffic or would disappear in the streets.  Although I couldn’t get near her, I noticed that she had established some sort of contact with me, because she watched when I spoke to her, and didn’t seem about to run off.  I tried to get her to follow me at a distance, and I was partially successful, but when I stopped, she stopped, and if I approached her, she would back away.  I thought she might approach if I offered her some food, but I was afraid that if I went into a grocery story (which was nearby) she would not be there when I came out.  I took the chance, emerging several times during the transaction (I bought a pound of hamburger) to see whether she was still there.  She was.  I came out with the hamburger, removed it from the cellophane so she could smell it, and tried to get closer to her.  She backed away.  I threw a piece of hamburger toward her, she jumped back, then approached to smell it, but did not eat it.  I tried getting her to follow me at a distance again, slowly, and then, still more slowly, I tried to narrow the distance between us, holding the hamburger in front of me all the while.  I had uneasily set down my French horn, whose huge black carrying-case I thought might be frightening her; the rest of my maneuvers were performed with repeated nervous sidelong glances at my instrument, sitting there prominently for any passer-by to grab and run off with.  She finally let me approach her, and after a few false starts, during which my objective was to get her to eat the hamburger so I could get hold of her collar — whereas all she ever did was sniff the hamburger, she never did eat a bite — I succeeded in securing her collar and gently attached to it the leash of my own dog, Lady, a leash which I always carried in my pocket in those days, even though I rarely used it with Lady.

This story is not about my own dog, Lady, but I must make two pertinent asides here, concerning her.  The first is that I loved her very much, and I recall quite distinctly that at the moment I was putting the leash on the white dog (who, since she never did get a name, I will henceforth call “W.”) I felt as if I was somehow being unfaithful.  The second thing is that I was very worried that W. might have a disease, which I was afraid of communicating to Lady, so all my maneuvers were performed with a minimum of bodily contact.  Although W. was very submissive once I got the leash on her (not, I had occasion to reflect at the time, because she seemed used to being on a leash, but on the contrary, because it seemed to frighten her, and her fear was expressed as a kind of dazed submission), I could not reassure her by petting her, because of this fear of contagion.  So it was only with words that I could try to console her in her captivity.

Time was passing; it was getting dark; it was very hard for me to negotiate my instrument, my books, and W.’s leash (especially without unduly frightening her) all at one time; I had jettisoned the hamburger.

I decided to call the SPCA — not, I hasten to add, because I had any intention of allowing her to meet the usual fate of SPCA strays.  But I knew that they had a grace period, during which owners could claim their runaways, and a second grace period in which they could be adopted.  I called the SPCA and confirmed that it was possible for me to leave my name and number and to reclaim custody of W. if the two grace periods elapsed without success.

A truck came to pick her up.  I gave my name and number, and I watched as she, with fateful resignation, was led off with Lady’s leash.  I did not, from the time the SPCA truck arrived, attempt to look at her eyes.

When I reached home, I asked that Lady be locked in a room while I put all my clothes in the laundry hamper and bathed, because of the fears I have mentioned.  Then I called the branch of the SPCA where W. had been taken, confirmed her arrival as well as my intention to reclaim her if the two grace periods passed unsuccessfully.  I called them several times, actually, because I particularly wanted a veterinary report, and to keep them reminded of my intentions.

At this point another round of introspection — like the one to which I subjected my first few instants of reaction upon first seeing W. from the bus — is in order.  I said, and I meant it, that when I sent W. off to the SPCA I had no intention of abandoning her.  I was at that moment under two direct influences:  that of W.’s existence and presence, with which, as I mentioned, my life was already unconsciously becoming intertwined, and that of my own dog, whom I was very afraid of making ill (and toward whom, as I mentioned, I felt vaguely but palpably guilty of a kind of infidelity).  The scenario I feared most, because it coincided so much with my characteristic caprices, was that W. would prove to have had a fatal illness, and that the only consequence of my heroic gesture would turn out to have been that I had missed my horn lesson and communicated the fatal illness to Lady.  In this feared scenario there was no room for concern about W.’s fate:  if anything, it revived that feeling of resentment at interference that I had had when I first saw her, and frustration with myself for having gotten involved, putting a loved one at risk.  If W. was fatally ill, then plucking her out of the traffic hardly justified the effort, and the risk.  I passed a very troubled night, in which W.’s own troubles played no part at all.

The next day, upon inquiry, I was informed by the SPCA that W. had been found to be healthy, though undernourished.  At this point, aside from relief (on Lady’s behalf), my involvement with W.’s fate became mechanical, confined to the periodic telephone inquiries to the SPCA during her grace periods.  It is true that, upon first hearing that she was healthy, and realizing that my own dog was hence safe, I again for a brief time visualized her again, her eyes especially, and I had the feeling that she had had a second reprieve, the first having been from the traffic, the second from a hypothetical illness; and I felt that the second reprieve brought me somehow closer to her.  But this soon subsided, and I went through the pro forma telephone calls hoping, I suppose, for her sake and mine, first, that her “good family” would turn up to reclaim her, and when I had been informed that that had failed to happen, hoping that someone would adopt her.

I say that these periodic inquiries had become mechanical: as time elapsed — I vaguely recall that the first grace period was three days and the second a week, or perhaps vice versa — my inquiries also became less reliable, so that, when about ten days had passed, I suddenly became alarmed that her deadline may have gone by without my intervention and that she had been killed.  I called up in something of a panic and they informed me that her time had indeed elapsed, that it was lucky I had called because there had been no plans to keep her any longer, and that I had better go to get her right away.

As I drove to pick her up my mind kept re-enacting what would have happened if I had dragged it out one more day before calling.  I felt horrified with myself and my negligence; as W. had, since the sudden upsurge of apprehension that had precipitated the phone call, suddenly become real to me again, I felt how despicable my slackness had been, and how, although capable of rising to the occasion of going through the motions of certain humanitarian acts, I was no humanitarian at all, just a contemptibly irresponsible and unreliable human being.  I was also desperately worried that they might not wait until I got to the shelter to do away with her.  I pictured the indifferent bureaucracy that must exist there, as everywhere else, whose main function is dispatching these little creatures as expeditiously as possible to their prescribed fates, and I could not understand how I could have been so complacent as to trust the increasingly lax telephone surveillance I had been exercising to ensure her survival.

She was there, and alive, and this time I had no hesitation about touching her and hugging her and kissing her, and — hadn’t I correctly guessed that she was from a “good family” — she returned my affection at once.  The only thing that worried me was that she was still underweight; but, attributing this to SPCA fare, I felt confident that Mason’s Animal Hospital — my own dog’s veterinarians since her earliest days — where I was taking her to be boarded, would soon bring her weight to normal.

I must explain why there had never been any question of my bringing W. home, even when she proved to be healthy.  The first reason was that I felt (and still feel) that it would have been an act of betrayal to Lady, who did not in any case have the happiest of lives.  (I cannot elaborate on this; it would be a whole other story.)  The second reason was that I was living at home; my father had not been too sympathetic to the acquisition of Lady in the first place, and although he was now reconciled to her presence, another dog would have been out of the question.  A third, though superfluous reason, since the first two were decisive, is that it is in general unpredictable whether two unrelated female dogs can co-exist peacefully.   So I had known all along that boarding at Mason’s would have to be the next step.  My plan had been to place an ad in the paper, offering W. for adoption, and to pay for her boarding out of some savings I had from summer work until she was adopted.

During that trip from the SPCA to Mason’s I must describe another experience I had, because it begins to become a kind of leitmotif of W.’s story.  I mentioned that I was not happy that she was still so underweight.  She still had her eye infection too, and I wondered that the SPCA veterinarian had not treated, or even mentioned it in giving her her clean bill of health.  In the car, though, that tearful look of hers, which had become much more poignant now that I was seeing her not for the first time, and immediately after having feared the worst, brought home to me that this had in fact been her third reprieve:  the first from the streets, the second from the threat of illness, and the third from the SPCA’s gas chamber.  I was at that moment very conscious of the preciousness of her life; but it would not be long before I would withdraw from her again.

We arrived at Dr. Mason’s and his son, the young Dr. Mason examined her as I related her story, her three reprieves, and my intention to board her until she was adopted.  He did not look very enthusiastic.  I told him that there was no problem, I had the money to board her for a month or more, if necessary, and that I was sure that it would be easy to find her a home.  He said that that wasn’t the problem; the fact was that she was not well; that, in fact, she had “hardpad.”  The name did not sound ominous, since I knew that the three chief illnesses to worry about with dogs were rabies, hepatitis, and distemper.  I thought it might have been something that she had gotten from being on the streets too long; but he shook his head and said that it was another expression for an advanced form of distemper, that it was highly contagious, and that it was almost certainly fatal; he advised me to have her destroyed at once.

My spirit colluded at once.  I withdrew my hand and stopped looking at her directly.  It was as if her fate was already sealed.

“But what about Lady?”  My voice was hollow:  “Is she going to catch it through me?”

“Very unlikely.  It’s mainly a disease of very young dogs.”

“Is there no treatment?”

“No.  It’s viral.  All we can do, if we keep her alive at all, is to give her the usual antibiotics against secondary infections and see whether she can somehow pull through.  But I don’t advise it.  She has a cough, which will get worse, and she’s going to suffer.  She hasn’t had an easy life either, in the streets.  Even with home-raised dogs we advise against maintaining them if they contract this.  They have to be kept in quarantine, and, as I mentioned, they hardly ever make it.”

My desertion of her was complete.  It was as if she had already died.

“Are you sure there’s no danger to Lady?”

“She gets her shots every year.  She’s three years old. Bring her for another booster if it’ll settle your mind, but it’s not really necessary.  Just wash your hands before you leave in case you run into any puppies, and don’t worry about it.”

“Do I have to decide — about her — right now?”

“No, we can put her in quarantine and you can let us know by telephone tomorrow what you want done.”

I didn’t look at her directly as the attendant came to lead her away, still wearing Lady’s leash.  0 0  Despite Dr. Mason’s reassurances, I went through the same laundry and bath ritual when I got home as I had done ten days earlier, and returned immediately afterward for Lady’s booster shot.  But that troubled night I didn’t think about Lady, because W. came back to me, and this time for good.  I saw her, as clearly as I see her now, scurrying distractedly back and forth in the intersection, cowering, crouching low, looking over her shoulder, ears down, panic in her eyes, then the horn blast, and that all too human movement of despair; then the chasing and coaxing until I could put the leash on her, keeping her always at arm’s length; her departure, morally alone, for the SPCA, my sudden upsurge of anxiety, only that same day, for her neglected fate; then the reunion, and bodily contact at last, only to be abruptly withdrawn soon after, for her second departure, morally alone again.

But most of all, I recalled her face, her sad, moist eyes: Why hadn’t I asked about her eye infection?  Because, if she was doomed, what difference does it make?  Well it does make a difference.  I want it treated.  Even if she dies, I want her eye infection treated, because I want to see her face again without tears.  I want her to feel what it’s like to be without tears, even for a little while.

The next day, I phoned Dr. Mason Jr. to tell him that I wanted her to be kept alive and treated.  I asked about the eye infection.  He said the antibiotics would help clear that up.  I said that I would be responsible for her expenses and that I would be inquiring regularly about her condition, and I just wanted to be told if she deteriorated to a point that they felt she was suffering too much to justify keeping her alive.

She got steadily worse.  The cough, which I had not even noticed, with each of my visits grew stronger.  Her temperature was high.  She was losing her hair, and she seemed to be getting even thinner.  Her eyes were not improving.  The veterinarians were remote and unencouraging.  They seemed to be treating it as a pig-headed layman’s disregard of sound professional judgment. Only the quarantine attendants seemed to have taken some interest in her fate.  It seems the tearful, coughing, emaciated little creature had somehow won them over, despite the many others in their charge, and despite the inevitable hardening of the attitude toward individual cases that such work brings.  I think it was a combination of her brave little fight against her increasingly powerful adversary and the manifestations of that personality that had made me so quickly conclude that she came from a good family.  I cannot say much about this personality, alas, because I was never to know W. as well as they got to know her then.  But gradually — laugh again, reader, but I cannot call it anything other than what it was — her courage and character even began winning over the veterinarians, one in particular, who used to spend a lot of time with her, and eventually became the one I always asked for when I called in for a report.  He spoke, though not optimistically, as if it was not entirely absurd of me to be pursuing this option.

And then the day came when they thought she might have a chance of pulling through.  Her cough, though still very persistent, had lost that alarming, cavernous quality.  It seemed dryer and more superficial.  She gained some weight.  Her temperature went down.  Her hair stopped falling out and began to show some lustre.  Her eye infection seemed to improve too, but here the effect was the slightest.  Her eyes seemed to be there to remind you that there was still something very wrong.  Then the day came when they announced that, in their judgment, she had passed the critical phase, and had a good chance of making it. She was no longer contagious.  She was taken out of quarantine. I was allowed to hold her again.  She was the pride of the animal hospital.  Even the most hardened of the vets admired her for her victory.

The search for an adoptive home was less successful.  As soon as I was informed that she had rallied, I placed the ad, but no one responded.  I wish I could remember the text.  It must have been something like “Good-natured young white female dog available for good family.”

I say that after that first night at Mason’s I never abandoned her again.  But perhaps that’s not entirely true. Who knows whether greater personal efforts on my part might not have succeeded in finding her a home?  I had no intention of letting anything happen to her, but perhaps I was a little too complacent with the optimistic outcome of her illness and the secure (while my money lasted) boarding conditions at Mason’s. At any rate, I do recall that there was a friend of my mother’s who was expressing some interest in W. at that time, and may even have gone to see her; but nothing had come of it.

Meanwhile, I was having problems at home.  That too would be another story.  Let me say only that I have a tendency to be overvoluble, verbally, about both my adventures and my avatarres. My summer money was beginning to run out, and that worried me. The adoption search was not turning out to be an easy matter either.  The family as a whole was having financial problems.  My father, as I had mentioned, was not too well-disposed toward dogs, or what he viewed as senseless expenditures; there were difficulties between my parents, and I was at that age, and my father of the sort of difficult nature, that combine to make father/son conflicts very likely.  The actual precipitating agent was a loose word from me to my grandmother (my mother knew about my protegee, my father did not), a word repeated by her, with no evil intent, to my father on a day (a Friday) when he experienced some particularly alarming business losses, a word to the effect that I had been supporting for some time, a stray dog.  It was my mother who called me to tell me that my father was angry and had called Mason’s.  She didn’t seem to know the details, and she seemed to have delayed somewhat in telling me, because my father had warned her not to interfere, and he seemed in general to be very upset.

My memory becomes somewhat confused about when, precisely, I acted that day.  I know I was furious with my mother for not having told me at once.  But I could not swear that I myself acted instantly when I got the information; there is something of the aura of my delay with the SPCA that also surrounds this event.  Besides, I wasn’t sure, precisely, what my father had said to Mason’s.  As I thought about it, though, I know that my apprehensions grew.  And I clearly recall that when I did pick up the phone to call Mason’s it was with immense agitation and a sense of great urgency.  And yet I felt some confidence — or, if not confidence, a sense of defiant expectation — that even if the worst had happened, even if my father had ordered them to destroy W., they would not have done it, at least not yet, because of the wide support system I knew she had there.

I tried to get the veterinarian I usually talked to about her progress, but I got Dr. Mason Jr. instead.

“Did my father call you today?”

“Yes.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that he was your father, that you were a minor, that he had just learned that you had been supporting a dog here for some time, that you were not in a financial position to do so, that he would send a check for the expenses to date but that, as of today, financial support would be discontinued.”

“And what did you do?”

“We had the dog destroyed.”

(I was no longer speaking with the voice of a seventeen-year old near adult, but with that of a dismayed, breathless child, fighting back his tears.)  “When?”

“At once, as soon as we had received your father’s call.”

I can remember some very distracted attempts at recrimination, and Dr. Mason’s attempting to soothe me as one would a child, but against a background attitude that I clearly felt to be a primary allegiance to bureaucracy, authority, business.  I think I asked to speak to the other veterinarian, the one that had shown the special interest.  I don’t remember whether they said he was off that day or whether he actually came to the phone and told me he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do.  I hope it was the first.  I know that next day I wrote a letter to Dr. Mason Jr. with a very melodramatic title, something like “To the murderers of. . .,” in which I, aside from expressing recriminations, enclosed a signed, blank check for W.’s expenses to date and requested that they return to my father any money he had sent them.  They returned my check to me.

My relationship with my father was never again the same.  I more-or-less “ran away from home” for a day, if one can speak of doing such things at the advanced age of seventeen.  I was at that time mixed up with a Yoga Center (something which very much distressed my father), and spent the night there, after walking to its downtown location on foot.  I remember that I mentally composed what I thought was a remarkably good poem during that three hour walk, but I cannot remember its contents at all.  I know that, although it did not originate then, a general tendency I had toward suspicion and lack of confidence in the written word was consolidated at that time by somehow becoming infused with the strong sense of betrayal that was in the air; and I have not written any poetry, before or since.  I told some garbled version of the whole affair to the Swami, who, in retrospect, was probably only humoring me in pretending to take it at all seriously.  I must have sensed this, because I did not stay at the Yoga center, but returned home the next day.  I wrote my father a letter — a very bitter letter, to the effect that what he had done was an unfeeling  mockery of the scruples underlying my vegetarianism (then of six months’ standing, now of twenty years’) and that, if there had been any object lesson about financial responsibility intended, it had had the opposite effect, for, whatever my prior tendencies, I would now never, never, hold money to be a greater consideration than the welfare of an innocent creature, that our relationship was irreparably damaged, etc., etc. — and did not speak to him again for a long time, which, I know, hurt him very much, for he was not to live that many more years himself, and somehow the breach was never mended.

I could not, for a long time, assimilate the fact that she was dead, and especially that they had let her die.  I obsessed over the fact that she had had five reprieves (the fourth was from the initial veterinary verdict to destroy her and the fifth was from the distemper itself) in order to be killed by my father and her doctors. But far greater than my desire to lay blame and make reproaches was an unfathomable sorrow that I felt that she was gone; that I, and life, had had nothing more to offer her than that; that she had never even had the chance to gain the freedom to romp and play, far away from traffic; that people never got a chance to reward her for her wonderful little personality or her brave little spirit; that she never had the chance to return to the “good family” where she belonged; that never, in her short life, did her tearful little eyes have the chance to dry.

My love for W. was added to my love for Lady, whom I already loved very much.  Indeed, it often happened that when I saw scenes of animals, children, indeed any feeling organism helplessly suffering, in life or in films such as Mondo Cane, Lady, and her own expressive eyes, would touch me as the silent, all-comprehending witness and representative of this collective martyrdom, and I would feel all the closer to her.  Strangely enough, however, it was not until Lady’s death many years later that I ceased to experience any trace of the occasional pangs of “infidelity” of which I spoke earlier.  And I never “replaced” Lady.  I think I understand all this better now, but it too is part of another story, Lady’s story.

When Lady died, and I requested her veterinary records from Mason’s Animal Hospital (to which I had stopped taking her for several years after W.’s death, but to which I eventually returned) it was the critical dates in Lady’s life that I primarily wanted to see and relive through the clinical chronology for which I had no counterpart but my own memories. And yet, even then, in formally requesting Lady’s records, I know that I must have alluded to W.’s case, too, for here is Dr. Mason Jr.’s brief reply, and some extracts from the records themselves:

(1975 August 22):

“Enclosed please find our history cards for Lady’s medical records since the first time we saw her in December, 1959.  Time slips by very quickly.

The incident that you referred to can be found on the entry for November 27, 1962, and I can recall the circumstances reasonably well.  I think the entry will be self-explanatory.

We are returning your check of $5.00 since no charges are being made for this service. Trusting you will find the records interesting, I am,

yours truly,

Baxter Mason (Jr.) D.V.M.

 1959, Dec. 22, “Lady,” terrier-like mixed breed, female, two months, thin, warned re. distemper… . . . 1962, Nov. 12, Exam white female dog, susp. hardpad, acute conjunctivit. and tonsilit.

1962, Nov. 12, Booster for Lady (was exposed to white female)…

1962, Nov. 20, white female, going home (will be picked up by a friend of Mrs. Hesslein’s)…(They were here but found the dog too big.  Didn’t want it.)…

1962, Nov. 27, euthanasia (on Mrs. Hesslein’s request.  Mr. Hesslein, Sr. had no knowledge of this situation), $4.00…

1962, Nov. 28, 15 days @ $3 = $45…

1963, Jan. 9 (has another dog but goes to another vet)…

1966, June 2, Exam. Robin, broken leg and damage to muscles (do not do any work without permission of owner)…

1966, June 3, r.d., notified…

1966, Sept. 15, Lady, allergy injection… . . .

1971. Dec. 28, Lady (old dog)… . . .

1975, April 12… [last entry for Lady — she died next day.]

 In 1975, I added, alongside the entry for November 27, 1962, in Hungarian, “Anyám, csak nem te voltál az?” (“Mother, surely you weren’t the one?”), but I now realize that it makes little difference whether she had been intimidated into doing it herself, or my father had simply used the conventional idiom “My wife feels…”  The fact is that many more sad events had followed in the wake of this one, among them the deaths of most of the individuals involved.  Laying blame restores nothing, and it is only toward the future that one can turn to make reparations.  I for my part have taken refuge in my vegetarianism, which is, at best, a quietistic and futile gesture, I know, parodied these days on all sides by look-alikes motivated by food-faddism, health obsessions, ennui in ecological guise, pseudomorality, or just plain cultishness, practiced by self-obsessed individuals freely commuting — on what I have informally reckoned to be about a nine-monthly basis — from one superficial preoccupation to another.  I even have the sinking feeling that the only ones who will profess any “empathy” with this tale are the enthusiasts of those revolting “Meow-meow-meow” cat-food commercials.  That doesn’t matter either.  I had here something to evoke and expiate, and if it is only for myself that it resonates with those universal features of the irremediable suffering of sentient creatures and our own impotent inertia in its face, then that will be resonance enough.

These last words are for you, little W.  Toward whatever “literary” ends I may turn your story, you are unable to object, but even if you could, I know you would not, because it is not in your nature.  And yet I apologize to you, because *I* cannot deny the sense of pose and imposture that pervades what I have attempted to chronicle here.  Perhaps that feeling is none other than the sense of the “unfaithfulness” — to reality, to life — of all art.  And is there not already an element of artifice, of breach of faith, once one seeks to express any impression whatever, be it in speech, writing, painting or any other expressive medium?  Perhaps not even the impression itself — the point in time and space when the outside world, especially in the form of another being, touches us — is unadulterated, as we appropriate it, assimilate it to other impressions, and to ourselves.  We are not, after all, the blank slates some philosophers thought us, but diverse constellations, all, against which life’s cumulating imprints are merely juxtaposed, not faithfully recorded.  The outcome is no more likely to be in conformity with reality than with our own wills.  And yet, as futile as it seems to aspire to fix anything in this experiential flux, let words at least do their formal duty and close this tale by devolving again upon the nameless little creature that has inspired them: You have found a safe haven, in my heart, for as long as I shall live; and perhaps, after all, this story will grant your memory a few more reprieves, in the hearts of others, dear little W.

The other-minds problem in other species

Wood-Gush Memorial Lecture, delivered at International Society of Applied Ethology (ISAE) 2018 Charlottetown Prince Edward Island, July 31 2018. 

The other-minds problem in other species

Stevan Harnad
Université du Québec à Montréal & University of Southampton

 

Long Summary:  Both ethology and comparative psychology have long been focused on behavior. The ethogram, like the reinforcement schedule, is based on what organisms do rather than what they feel, because what they do can be observed and what they feel cannot. 

In philosophy, this is called the “Other-Minds Problem”: The only feelings you can feel are your own. The rest is just behavior, and inference.  Our own species does have one special behavior that can penetrate the other-minds barrier directly (if we are to be believed): We can say what’s on our mind, including what we feel. No other species has language. Many can communicate non-verbally, but that’s showing, not telling.    

In trying to make do with inferences from behavior, the behavioral sciences have been at pains to avoid “anthropomorphism,” which is attributing feelings and knowledge to other species by analogy with how we would be feeling if we were doing what they were doing under analogous conditions.  Along with Lloyd Morgan’s Canon – that we should not make a mentalistic inference when a behavioral one will do – deliberately abstaining from anthropomorphism has further narrowed inroads on the other-minds problem. We seek “operational measures” to serve as proxies for what our own native mammalian mind-reading capacities tell us is love, hunger, fear.    

Yet our human mind-reading capacities – biologically evolved for care-giving to our own progeny as well as for social interactions with our kin and kind – are really quite acute. That (and not just language) is why we do not rely on ethograms or inferences from operational measures in our relations with one another.    

But what about other species? And whose problem is the “Other-Minds Problem”? Philosophers think of it as our problem, in making inferences about the minds of our own conspecifics. But when it comes to other species, and in particular our interactions with them, surely it is their problem if we misinterpret or fail to detect what or whether they are feeling.    

We no longer think, as Descartes did, that all nonhuman species are insentient zombies, to do with as we please – at least not in the case of mammals and birds. But, as I will show, we are still not sure in the case of fish, other lower vertebrates, and invertebrates. Debates rage; and if we are wrong, and they do feel, the ones suffering a monumental problem are trillions and trillions of fish (and other marine species). Ethologists have been using ingenious means to demonstrate (operationally) what to any human who has seen a fish struggling on a hook (or a lobster in a boiling pot) is already patently obvious. For such extreme cases some have urged inverting Morgan’s Canon and instead adopting the ‘Precautionary Principle”: giving the other minds the benefit of the doubt unless there is proof to the contrary.    

Yet even with mammals, whose sentience is no longer in doubt, there are problematic cases. Applied Ethology is concerned with balancing the needs of other species with the needs of our own. Everyone agrees that sentient species should not be hurt needlessly.    

Most people today consider using animals for food or science a matter of vital necessity for our species. (It is not clear how right they are in the case of food, at least in developed economies, and we all know that not everything done in the name of science is vitally necessary — but I won’t call into question either of these premises on this occasion.)    

Entertainment, however, is clearly not a matter of vital necessity. Yet some forms of entertainment entail hurting other species that are known to be sentient. The rodeo is a prominent example. I will close by describing the results of the analysis of a unique and remarkable database gathered in order to test rodeo practices in Quebec in light of a new law that accords animals the status of “sentient beings with biological needs” who may no longer be “subjected to abuse or mistreatment that may affect their health” (except in the food industry and in scientific research).

I invite applied ethologists and veterinarians who wish to help protect animals from this to contact me at harnad@uqam.ca about helping to analyze this unprecedented database of 3 x 45 hours of continuous video evidence on the 20 rodeos in light of the new sentience law.

It is an honor to be here at the University of Prince Edward Island to give the Wood-Gush Memorial Lecture. I did not know David Wood-Gush, but by all accounts he was a remarkable person, for his personal courage, his productivity, and the affection and admiration he inspired in all. The following words — from one of his last writings before his untimely death in 1992 — go to the heart of the problem that I will be talking to you about today:

 “In the late 50s and early 60s profound changes took place in the structure of the poultry industry in the USA: … The age of ‘Big is Beautiful’ had arrived… Sociologically it was not pretty and from the animal welfare point of view it was disastrous.”

 

Disastrous for them, not for us. And it applied and applies to many, many other species besides chickens. I think David Wood-Gush would have been appalled to see what is documented in Dominion, which has just been released, and which I urge all who care about the well-being of the creatures under our dominion to see, and then to proclaim from the rooftops.

 Ethology prides itself on being a behavioral science: the science that tries to predict and explain what organisms can and do do. My own field, cognitive science, is also a behavioral science. But behavior is what goes on outside the organism, and cognition is what goes on inside. This does not mean that cognitive science is just neuroscience – although there is indeed cognitive neuroscience, and what is going on inside the organism is indeed neural activity. But cognitive science is wider than neuroscience in that it is trying to discover the internal causal mechanisms that generate organisms’ behavior, and their behavioral capacity: what they do, and how they manage to do it. 

 Those causal mechanisms are undoubtedly neural, but that doesn’t mean that by just peeking and poking in the brain, even with today’s remarkable tools for neuroimaging, we will simply be able to read off the causal mechanisms from the neural data, as we were able to do with the other organs of the body, like the heart, the kidneys or the liver. This is because the brain does, and can do, everything that we can do. That is how the computer found its way into cognitive science (thanks to Alan Turing). We use the computer to design and test causal models to see whether they can indeed do what the brain can do, and if so, how. That is the method underlying what has been dubbed the “Turing Test.”

 This pursuit of causal explanation has come to be called the “easy problem” of cognitive science, although it is anything but easy, and its solution is still countless years and Nobel Prizes away. —- But if finding the causal mechanisms that generate our behavioral capacity is the “easy problem” of cognitive science, what is the “hard problem”?

 To answer this we first have to remind ourselves that behaving is not the only thing that organisms do. They also feel, they are sentient – or at least some of them are. We can observe their behavior, but we can only infer their feelings. In fact, determining whether an organism feels – and if so, what it feels – is another problem of cognitive science, not the “easy” problem of discovering the causal mechanisms that generate behavior, but not yet the hard problem either:  Determining which organisms feel, and if so, what they feel, is called the “other-minds problem.” The other-minds problem is inherited from Philosophy, but it is anything but a merely “philosophical problem” (whatever that means). 

The other-minds problem is about the only things that really matter in the universe, either materially or morally. 

 That was quite a mouthful.

 This talk is about the other-minds problem.

 But first let me dispel the mystery about what is the “hard problem” – the problem that is not going to be addressed in this talk. If the easy problem of cognitive science is the problem of explaining, causally, how and why organisms are able to do all the things they are able to do, the hard problem is to explain, causally, how and why organisms are able to feel, rather than just do whatever they are able to do. —- I am sure many of you feel that you have a simple and obvious solution to the hard problem. Let me defer that to the question/answer period after this talk with just the suggestion that it’s not called the hard problem for nothing. So your solution almost certainly does not work. And the reason for that is, in fact, the “easy problem,” whose solution looks as if it will make feeling causally superfluous. For once we have fully explained the causal mechanism that generates organisms’ behavioral capacities — their capacity to do all the things they can do (move, sense, remember, learn — even speak) there are no causal degrees of freedom left to explain how and why organisms feel, rather than just do whatever needs doing (in order to survive and reproduce). 

 Which brings us back to the other-minds problem. Behavior — doing — is observable, measurable. Feeling is not. So how can we know whether and what another organism feels? —- 

 Let’s start with our own species: The obvious answer is that if we want to find out whether another person is feeling something, and what they are feeling, we ask. But what about all the species that cannot speak? Or even human infants, or handicapped people who cannot speak or understand? The answer is that with our own species humans have a powerful biological capacity, which has lately been dubbed “mind-reading” — a capacity which might or might not be grounded in the activity of what have lately been dubbed “mirror neurons.” 

 Mind-reading is the capacity to detect what others are thinking and feeling without having to ask. Mirror neurons are active both when I perform a movement and when you perform that same movement. The link is between my seeing you do something, and my knowing what it feels like to do that same thing, to the point of being able to imitate it. No one knows yet how mirror neurons manage to do this, but, if you think about it, we already knew that our brains could imitate movements, somehow, because we can do it. 

So can other animals that imitate, such as songbirds and parrots, as well as the apes, elephants, dolphins and magpies who can recognize themselves in the mirror. 

 The obvious link between mirroring doings and mirroring feelings is the link between an observable behavior by another body and the internal state which generates that behavior in my own body. 

 Some have even tried to relate the capacity for empathy to mirror neurons. Empathy is not unique to humans either, as we see across many mammalian and avian species, in the parental care of their young, in pair-bonding and in social behavior. It also makes little difference – insofar as mind-reading capacity is concerned – whether social perception is inborn or learned. The critical thing is the link between what the observed animal is doing and what the observing animal is feeling (and eventually doing). In the case of prosocial behaviors, the link is positive; I want to help. In the case of aggression or fear, the link is negative; I want to attack, or flee.  Humans are capable of perceiving the emotions underlying the facial expressions, vocalizations and movements of other humans; they are also capable of feigning them, when they’re not feeling them. That may be unique to humans. But the ability to detect and respond to the other’s internal state is not unique to humans.

 At this point the notion of “anthropomorphism” of course immediately comes to mind: Both ethologists and comparative psychologists have been firmly taught to refrain from projecting their own mental states onto nonhuman animals: Abide by Lloyd-Morgan’s Canon. Never mind the mind-reading; stick to behavior-reading. Forget about whether or what the animal might be feeling or thinking. Just observe and predict what the animal is doing, with the help of the ecological context, the ethogram, and evolutionary theory. In other words, forget about the other-minds problem and treat animals as if they were highly skilled biorobotic zombies — even though you know they aren’t.

 Do we know they aren’t? Of course we do. We know it of our own family animals as surely as we know it of our own preverbal infants. No one invokes Lloyd Morgan’s Canon when it comes to their own babies (although it’s not been that long since surgeons [cf. Derbyshire] dutifully suppressed their anthropomorphism and operated on babies without anesthesia, just as if they had been hewing to Descartes’ assurances, three centuries earlier, that the howls and struggles of the dog tied to the vivisecting table can be safely ignored, because all non-human creatures are just bio-robotic zombies.)

 I will return to this. But, thankfully, pediatric surgeons have set aside their compunctions about anthropomorphism in favor of their compunctions about hurting sentient babies; the veterinary profession has done likewise when it comes to operating on mammals and birds. But when it comes to “lower vertebrates” such as reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates, we – or rather they (the victims) – are still living in Cartesian times.

 Let’s go back to language for a moment. Language is unique to the human species (although communication certainly isn’t). Human language is clearly the most powerful mind-reading tool of all. It’s close to omnipotent. Any thought a human can think – and just about any object a human can observe or any experience a human can have – can be verbalized:  described in words, in any language. Not described exactly, because, like a picture, an experience is always worth more than a thousand words; but close enough. Language is grounded in the experiences we all share, and name. 

 Now the important thing to note is that the relation between words and the objects and experiences to which they refer is also a kind of mirror-neuron function. I could never talk to you about what “red” means if we had not both seen and named red things red. Then, when you talk about something that’s red, I know what you have in mind — as surely as I know what you’re doing when you reach for an out-of-reach apple – or when you scowl at me. And preverbal infants know some of these things too. It’s those adept mirror-neurons again. — What about nonhuman species?

 Some of you may be familiar with the “Sally/Anne” “mind-reading” experiments that are now widely used in human developmental psychological research on children. 

 You may be surprised to learn that the Sally/Anne experiments were inspired by an article written 40 years ago, entitled “Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?” by a former behaviorist called David Premack. Premack’s article was published in 1978 in the inaugural volume of a new journal called Behavioral and Brain Sciences (or BBS), of which I happened to be the editor at the time. 

 BBS is a rather influential, multidisciplinary journal specializing in so-called “target articles” that have broad implications across multiple fields. The target articles are accepted only on condition that the referees and editor judge them to be important enough to be accorded “Open Peer Commentary,” which means that as many as a dozen or even two dozen specialists from across disciplines and around the world each write a 1000-word commentary – a mini-article, really – supplementing, criticizing or elaborating on the content of the target article.  Premack’s target article drew a good deal of attention across disciplines and around the world. It elicited 43 commentaries followed by the author’s Response. Premack’s clever series of experiments was the first behavioral evidence that apes can and do infer what other apes — as well as humans – have in mind. 

 So if apes can and do do mind-reading when they are studying one another, or studying us, why would we feel we have to deny and ignore our own mind-reading capacity as “unscientific anthropomorphism” when we are studying them? Owing to our extremely long period of parental dependency, our extreme sociality and social interdependency, and probably also our long period of co-evolution with domesticated animals, our species is probably the mind-reading champion of the biosphere. And not just because of the unique language capacity that we use to mind-read one another verbally. More likely, our language capacity itself is somehow built on the pre-verbal mind-reading capacity and mirror neurons that we share with other species.

 So this is a good time to ask ourselves – especially if we are applied ethologists – why, when it comes to the minds of other species, we self-impose a methodological agnosticism on the dictates of our evolved mind-reading gifts, ignoring them as unscientific anthropomorphism? 

 It’s not that the other-minds problem is not a real problem. There is no way to know for sure whether any other organism on the planet, including my own conspecifics, feels at all. As already mentioned, they could all be insentient biorobotic zombies, doing but not feeling. There’s no way to prove – either mathematically or experimentally – that others feel, rather than just do, any more than there is any way to prove, mathematically, that apples fall to earth because of the pull of the inverse square law of gravity (or, for that matter, whether they will keep falling down rather than up – or even whether apples or the earth exist at all). But in science we don’t demand that unobservable truths should be provable as necessarily true, on pain of contradiction, as in mathematics. We demand only that they should be highly probable given the available observational and experimental evidence.

 Each individual does know (with the help of Descartes’s Cogito) that it is not just probable but certain that they are feeling, even though I cannot be sure that any other organism feels. I know I am not a zombie. But it would be colossally improbable that I am the only individual on the planet who feels. Hence we accept the dictates of our mind-reading capacity when it comes to our own species. 

 So we know that other people feel too – and we often have a pretty good idea of what they are feeling. We also know that our mind-reading skills are far from infallible, even if we are the world champions at mind-reading, not only because people can feign feelings nonverbally or lie about their feelings verbally, but because even in the best of times, our mirror neurons can lead us astray about what’s actually going on in another’s mind. And when it’s people we are mind-reading, we certainly can’t hardly blame our mind-reading failures on anthropomorphism, even when we fail! (Think about it.)

 So with other humans, when words cannot be trusted, our mind-reading intuitions do need to be tested behaviorally, and sometimes even physiologically (think of lie-detectors, and neural imaging), when the question is about what it is, exactly, that another person is feeling. 

 But when it comes to the question of whether other people are feeling at all, rather than just what they are feeling, the only uncertainty is in cases of complete paralysis, coma or general anesthesia, where there is neither behavioral nor verbal evidence to go by. Then we rely on physiological and neurophysiological correlates of feeling, which have themselves been validated against behavior, including verbal behavior.

 But we are the only verbal species. What about all the other species? As our test case, let’s focus on a feeling that really matters – not warm/cool, light/dark, loud/soft, smooth/bumpy, sweet/sour, itches or tickles, but hurts — in other words: pain. But bear in mind also that what I am about to say about pain also applies to any other feeling. There is a distinction made in pain theory between “nociception” and “pain.” Nociception is defined as detecting and responding to tissue damage, and pain is defined as what is felt when something hurts. The very same distinction can be made about thermoception versus feeling warmth or photodetection versus seeing light. There is a difference between just responding physiologically to stimulation and feeling something. One is doing, the other is feeling.

 I’ve already noted that when it comes to mammals and birds we are no longer living in Cartesian times. I don’t know whether it’s really true that Descartes insisted it was fine to operate on conscious animals because they were just reflex robots and their struggles did not mean a thing: they were just doing, not feeling. But he did invoke the other-minds problem – the genuine uncertainty about whether anything other than oneself feels. The fact is that we cannot know whether anyone else feels: we cannot feel their feelings. We can just see their doings. Descartes was ready to allow human language and reasoning to resolve that uncertainty, with the help of some theology and some pseudo-physiology about the pineal gland. So humans were granted the benefit of the doubt. 

 It has taken centuries more to accord the benefit of the doubt to nonhuman animals. No doubt Darwin had a good deal to do with the change, showing that we too are animals, sharing common lines of descent. But there’s no doubt that anthropomorphism – our powerful, evolved mind-reading capacity – played a big role too. Other mammals are just too obviously like us to fail to excite the same mirror neurons that our own young do, for example. And the effect applies to other species too, as we see in the many interspecies adoptions burgeoning on youtube. Birds seem to fall Within the “receptive fields” Of those same neurons too; and indeed there are many cases of bird/mammal and mammal/bird cross-adoptions.

 But when it comes to the “lower vertebrates” – reptiles and amphibians, and especially fish – the Cartesian doubt is still there; and it becomes even more pronounced with invertebrates such as insects, shellfish, snails and clams, despite the celebrated anthropomorphic blip in the special case of the octopus.

 This is the point to ask ourselves: Why does it matter? What difference does it make whether or not fish feel? The answer is instructive. Why does anything at all matter? Would anything matter in an insentient world of only stars and planets and electrons and photons? Matter to whom?  Or, for that matter, would anything matter in a world of bio-zombies? Darwinian survival machines who only do, but do not feel? Again, matter to whom? 

 (This may sound fluffy to you, But I ask you to think about it. It really is the essence of the other-minds problem in other species — and of welfare “science” itself.)

 In a world with people, we know the answer: what matters is what matters to us. And we do feel.

 But in the biosphere, where we are not the only sentient species, it matters to them – to the other species, to the other minds – if we think they don’t feel, when in reality they do. The reason I didn’t choose the feeling of warmth or light or itch or tickle as the test case but the feeling of pain was to set the right intuition for our mirror neurons, about what matters and why. 

 Where all other species were in Cartesian times, is where fish still are today. Is it because our anthropomorphism, our mirror neurons, have failed us completely in their case? I don’t think so, any more than I think they failed Descartes in the seventeenth century for mammals and birds. Descartes saw animals’ struggles and felt their suffering, just as we do today. But alongside mind-reading and language, our species has another powerful capacity, and that is the capacity to over-ride our feelings with reasons. And that includes philosophers and scientists: 

 In the seventeenth century, Descartes was in the grip of a theory, his own theory, according to which only human beings could reason, and that reasoning was a god-given gift, along with an immaterial, immortal soul, delivered by god via the pineal gland. And all of that somehow implied – for reasons that I personally find rather obscure – that therefore only human beings could feel and that all other animals were just reflexive robots: zombies, despite appearances. That “despite appearances” clause was the denial of the dictates of our mirror neurons, in favor of the dictates of “reason,” or rather, in this case, Descartes’ reasoning. 

 Reasoning, however, is a two-edged sword: Only in formal mathematics is reasoning logical deduction, with formal proofs verifiable by all. In other fields it is more like the reasoning that goes on in law courts, where there is the question of the burden of proof (which means the burden of evidence). In criminal law, people are assumed innocent until proven guilty; the burden of proof is on those who seek to reject the hypothesis of innocence, not the hypothesis of guilt. We will come back to this. 

 In science, the story is a bit more complicated. In statistics, as most of you will know, when two populations are being compared on some measure, the “null hypothesis” is that any observed difference between the two populations is just due to chance, unless statistical analysis shows that the observed difference is highly improbable on the basis of chance, in which case the null hypothesis can be rejected. The analysis usually consists of comparing the variability within the populations to the variability between the populations. The burden of proof is on those who seek to reject the null hypothesis. (The first thing to reflect on, then, is What is the null hypothesis when it comes to sentience In other species? Is it sentience or insentience? Remember that it was language and our evolved mirror neurons that answered this question in the case of our own species, and in the case of the species most like us, mammals and birds. We are moving into more uncertain territory now, for our mirror neurons, in the case of fish, and lower. Most people are still sceptical about the tortoise in the upper left corner.

 In science in general, as opposed to just statistical inference, it is more a matter of the weight of the evidence: If there are two or more hypotheses, the (provisional) winner is the hypothesis with the most evidence supporting it. But rather as in courts of law, hypotheses have advocates, and besides evidence the advocates can also marshal arguments in their favor. And the arguments often concern what evidence counts, and how much it counts. Methodological arguments; arguments about interpretation, and so on. (It can sometimes remind you of the OJ Simpson Trial or Trump’s Supreme Court.)

 Let me use the case of fish pain as an example, starting on a personal note: In 2016, 38 years after the appearance of David Premack’s 1978 article on mind-reading in chimps in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Brian Key, an Australian neurobiologist wrote an article in the inaugural issue of a new journal called Animal Sentience. In 2003 I had stepped down after a quarter century as editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, swearing I would never edit a journal again. After a quarter century of umpiring papers on behavioral and brain function – both bodily doings, by the way – in animals and humans, I was becoming increasingly concerned about feelings, that is, sentience, especially the feelings of nonhuman animals. 

 I was not alone. The scientific community was becoming increasingly concerned too, and so was the general public. In 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness and its august signatories solemnly declared (if it needed declaring) that mammals and birds — as well as lower vertebrates, including fish, and even invertebrates such as the octopus — possessed the neural machinery for consciousness (in other words, sentience), even though it differed from ours. In exactly the same week as the Cambridge Declaration, to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the greatest contributor to the computational approach to solving the “easy problem,” I organized a summer school in Montreal on the Evolution and Function of Consciousness, at which over 50 cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, ethologists, evolutionary biologists and philosophers addressed the “easy problem,” the “hard problem,” as well as the “other-minds problem.” Among the participants was one of the original commentators on Premack’s paper in 1978, Dan Dennett. [some other notable speakers included: Baron-Cohen, Damasio, Searle, Finlay].

 Two years later, in 2014, the Manifesto “Les animaux ne sont pas des choses” “Animals are not things” was launched in Quebec, and quickly reached over 50,000 signatures, a larger proportion of Quebec’s population than the French petition in France that had successfully induced changing the status of animals to “sentient beings” in France, likewise in 2014. And then in 2015 Quebec too changed its Civil Code, according animals the status of “sentient beings with biological imperatives.”

 

What this entails, no one yet knows. Quebec had till then been Canada’s most backward province insofar as animal welfare was concerned. The Quebec Minister of Agriculture announced that the new law had fast-forwarded the province 200 years. I will be closing my talk with what will be this new law’s first test case: Rodeos.

 But first, let’s note that Quebec’s new law certainly does not afford any protection to fishes, because it explicitly excludes animals from protection, not on the basis of their species, but on the basis of their uses by humans:

 Sections 5 and 6 do not apply in the case of agricultural activities, veterinary medicine activities, teaching activities or scientific research activities… Agricultural activities include, in particular, the slaughter or euthanasia of animals and the use of animals for agricultural purposes…”

 Other such laws were being adopted in other countries as well.

 Then in 2016, a lucky 13 years after I had stepped down from the editorship of BBS and resolved never to edit a journal again, I was invited by a long-time BBS Associate and commentator, the veterinarian Andrew Rowan, President of the Human Society International, to edit a new journal on animal sentience, and I accepted to do it immediately, pro bono, and, I would add, gratefully, because the human mistreatment of nonhuman animals had become, for me, the thing that mattered most – the most fundamental moral problem of our age. 

 And in the inaugural volume of Animal Sentience in 2016 there appeared, 38 years after Premack’s seminal target article on mind-reading by chimpanzees, Brian Key’s target article on fish pain. Except that Key was arguing that there wasn’t any. And his target article, too, elicited over 40 commentaries. But unlike Premack’s article, on which the vast majority of commentaries were positive, most of the commentaries on Key were negative.

 Key’s arguments and evidence were simple And easy to summarize: Fish can’t talk, so they can’t tell us whether they feel pain. The nonverbal behavioral tests of pain are unreliable and open to interpretation. So the only way to decide whether fish can feel pain is on the basis of pain’s neuroanatomical correlates —– in humans, as well in other mammals. And those are lacking in fish. They are lacking in birds too, but for a rather less clear reason, Key was willing to agree that birds can feel pain, and that they do it with a different, but homologous neural substrate.

 The vast majority of the commentators, which included most of the world’s experts on fish behavior, physiology – and, importantly, on evolution – Including Don Broom, who is present at this meeting, disagreed with Key, citing many behavioral tests as well pharmacological evidence, such as the effects of anesthetics. Let me just point out a few other commentators [Don Broom Seth Striedter Baluška Burghardt Derbyshire Godfrey-Smith Panksepp Sneddon Damasio Devor]

 Specialists in brain evolution also pointed out that fish do, indeed, have homologues of the neural substrate of pain in mammals and birds, and that it is not at all rare that convergent evolution finds ways to implement functions in structurally different ways in distantly related taxa, especially for a function as fundamental and widespread as pain. 

 Not only was there stout opposition to Key’s thesis in the first, second, and third wave of commentaries, each round eliciting a Response from Key, defending his negative thesis equally stoutly, but there have since been two further target articles from specialists on fish behavior and brain function who had been commentators on Key’s target article, This time both target articles were supporting the positive thesis that fish do feel pain, and eliciting their own commentaries, most of them likewise positive ones. The first in 2017 was by Michael Woodruff, The second, by a large number of co-authors, Including Don Broom, was led by Lynne Sneddon

 But the issue is not settled; indeed it cannot be settled beyond all possible doubt, because of the other-minds problem. Note especially the name of Jonathan Birch, to whom I will return in a moment.

 

The latest of the commentaries from only a week ago, by Terry Walters cites Sneddon’s 2014 paper in which she reviewed the evidence on seventeen criteria for pain perception in seven broad taxa taxa — Mammals, Birds, Amphibians/reptiles, Fish, Cephalopods, Decapods, Insects – Note that mammals and birds meet all 17 criteria, and fish already meet all but one of them.

 But the other taxa have their champions too, notably insects.  Key is there, as a critic, of course. And Mallett & Feinberg are writing a book on the evolution of sentience that will be appearing soon. A few weeks ago, at a Summer School on the Other-Minds Problem with over 40 speakers, the problem was also extended to plants and microbes. [Berns, Birch, Burghardt, Wise, Balcombe, Kona-Boun, Marino, Baluska, Keld/Mendl, Simmons]

 But lest you conclude that as the potential scope of sentience widens the welfare implications of the other-minds problem become either indeterminate or intractable —- practical principles are also emerging from the debate: In direct response to Key’s target article, the bioethicist Jonathan Birch has proposed adopting a Precautionary Principle, according to which, if one member of a taxon meets the criteria for sentience, the benefit of the doubt should be extended to all members of the taxon, rather than waiting for each species to be tested individually. This is analogous to making the null hypothesis sentience in such cases, which places the burden of proof on those who seek to show that those species are not sentient. There is still much thought to be given to this approach, but Birch has been consulted in the drafting of EU legislation about sentience, especially about extending some of the protections currently accorded to mammals and birds also to fish, as well as to octopus.

 New non-invasive techniques for mind-reading, especially in mammals, are also emerging. These too are being accorded Open Peer Commentary in Animal Sentience. I especially recommend the approach of Greg Berns, who is trying to mind-read dogs, but I also recommend the cautionary remarks of Karen Overall, who is also present at this conference, on the need for many control conditions if we are to mind-read dogs for something as specific as feelings of jealousy. (Note that Peter Singer is, understandably, an enthusiastic commentator at the prospect of non-invasive mind-reading.)

 I would like to close with a few words about an important ongoing project – an attempt to put Quebec’s new law on animal sentience and biological imperatives to the test in court on a case that is well on the mammalian end of the spectrum, where there is already consensus on both sentience and the capacity for pain: the rodeo. 

  Section 5. The owner or custodian of an animal must ensure that the animal’s welfare and safety are not compromised. An animal’s welfare or safety is presumed to be compromised if the animal does not receive care that is consistent with its biological imperatives. Such care includes but is not limited to ensuring that the animal is not subjected to abuse or mistreatment that may affect its health.
  Section 6. A person may not, by an act or omission, cause an animal to be in distress.
  Section 7. Sections 5 and 6 do not apply in the case of agricultural activities, veterinary medicine activities, teaching activities or scientific research activities

 In 2017, Professor Alan Roy, a professor of child and animal law at the University of Montreal, together with 20 law students, drew the (I think) very natural conclusion that for activities that do not fall within the exception noted in Section 7, violations of Section 5 or 6 should mean that the activity is henceforth illegal under Quebec’s new sentience law. Professor Roy accordingly went to court to seek an injunction against an “urban rodeo” that had been planned as part of the celebrations of the 375th Anniversary of the City of Montreal. Because of the threat of sizeable financial losses to the Rodeo if the event were to be cancelled, the Rodeo (Festival Western de St-Tite, FWST) and Professor Roy came to a court-certified settlement. In return for not contesting the Montreal centennial rodeo, Professor Roy would be granted the right to appoint three representatives – a veterinarian, an ethologist and a photographer – to witness and film not just the 4 Montreal rodeos, but 16 further rodeos by the same producer (FWST), and the evidence would be presented to a Consultative Committee of the Ministry (MAPAQ) in charge of implementing Quebec’s new  sentience law (AWST) to test the legality of the rodeo under AWST. 

 If the evidence demonstrates that the rodeo contravenes the new sentience law, in whole or in part, and MAPAQ does not act, then MAPAQ will be taken to court. What has resulted so far is an unprecedented database of 3 x 45 hours of close-up rodeo video on the totality of the 20 rodeos. They were analyzed for 3 months at slow motion by Dr. Jean-Jacques Kona-Boun, the appointed veterinarian, in a 600-page report, which has identified evidence that every one of the rodeo’s 8 categories of events violates section 5 or section 6 of Quebec’s new laws. I was appointed one of the members of the consultative committee, along with a veterinarian and an attorney, to represent the interests of the animals; the rodeo also has three members – a FWST producer, supplier and veterinarian and the Ministry has three members. 

  

We are now seeking ethologists and veterinarians the world over to examine this unprecedented database and Dr. Kona-Boun’s analysis, to add their judgment to whether the evidence indicates that the rodeo is illegal under Quebec’s new law. It is obvious how the outcome may influence further tests of this kind. Several distinguished experts have already reacted to the findings.

 I will now show a very brief video showing a sample of the kinds of evidence Dr. Kona-Boun identified repeatedly in the 3 x 45 hours of video across the 30 rodeos.

Let me close with the words of David Wood-Gush (1999, p. 22), as applied to the conditions imposed on countless other sentient species by our own:

from the animal welfare point of view it was disastrous.”

References

Birch, Jonathan (2017) Animal sentience and the precautionary principle. Animal Sentience 16(1) 

Cook, Peter; Prichard, Ashley; Spivak, Mark; and Berns, Gregory S. (2018) Jealousy in dogs? Evidence from brain imaging. Animal Sentience 22(1)

Harnad, Stevan (2016a) Animal sentience: The other-minds problem. Animal Sentience 1(1)

______________(2016b) My orgasms cannot be traded off against others’ agonyAnimal Sentience 7(18)

Key, Brian (2016) Why fish do not feel pain. Animal Sentience 3(1)

Kona-Boun, Jean-Jacques (2018) Analysis. In Roy, Alain, Plaintiff’s Report, Part II.

Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4), 515-526.

Sneddon, Lynne U.; Lopez-Luna, Javier; Wolfenden, David C.C.; Leach, Matthew C.; Valentim, Ana M.; Steenbergen, Peter J.; Bardine, Nabila; Currie, Amanda D.; Broom, Donald M.; and Brown, Culum (2018) Fish sentience denial: Muddying the waters. Animal Sentience 21(1)

Cognitive Dissonance: Defending the Indefensible

Re:  Commuters Blast Vegan Posters For ‘Forcing Opinions On Others’

The absurdity of this indignant and defensive reaction speaks volumes … But unlike smoking and alcoholism, which draw similar reactions when we advise quitting, this is not even a defense of the “freedom of choice” to hurt oneself. It is a defense of the freedom to harm others. This defense of the indefensible against a defense of the defenseless arises from cognitive dissonance: a moral antinomy trying to camouflage itself from itself.

L’absurdité de cette réaction indignée et défensive en dit long … Mais contrairement au tabagisme et à l’alcoolisme, qui suscitent des réactions semblables lorsqu’on conseille l’abstention, ces réactions ne reposent même pas sur la défense de la «liberté du choix» à faire du mal à soi-même. Il s’agit d’une défense de la liberté à faire du mal aux autres. Cette défense de l’indéfendable contre la défense des sans-défense est générée par la dissonance cognitive  :  une antinomie morale qui cherche à se camoufler de soi-même.

On Enlightened Plutocracy

Re:  www.nytimes.com/2018/07/17/magazine/george-soros-democrat-open-society.html

(1) George Soros has done — or tried to do — incomparably more good than harm.

(2) The hatred fomented against him is not only undeserved, but unpardonably shameful and despicable.

It cannot be left unsaid, however, in response to “if he hadn’t gone after the British pound or the Thai baht, someone else would have” that not only can this be used as a justification for humanity’s worst sins, but he could have given the money back (as others would not have done).

As to “the difference between my engagement in the markets, where my only interest is to get it right and make money, and my political engagement, where I stand for what I really believe in” — this is a classical example of cognitive dissonance. Self-deprecating irony — “I was a confirmed egoist but I considered the pursuit of self-interest as too narrow a base for my rather inflated self” — does not resolve the profound contradiction. Neither does centrism; nor theorizing, whether by Karl Popper or by George Soros. Nor does enlightened plutocracy.

But (1) and (2) remain true. In the scheme of things, George Soros is squarely on the side of the angels, or has at least tried to be. The same cannot be said of most people with resources on the Hampton end of the human scale.

Caution about making obligate carnivores vegan

Re: Feeding cats plant-based diet

As a vegan, I am against breeding animals to be pets; companion “domestic” animals should only be rescued ones, and the aim should be to phase out the pet industry and mentality altogether. But the reality is that astronomical numbers of purpose-bred animals are living, and being bred today. The obligate carnivores among them are being fed a small fraction of the body parts of a far more enormous number of animals that are being purpose-bred for human consumption.

By not eating meat, vegans (still well under 2% of the world’s human population today) are, through a “trickle-down” effect, reducing by a tiny amount the total number of animals being bred and slaughtered for consumption. But it is by working to transform the other 98% of the human population by informing them about the enormity of animal suffering and the safety and health of a plant-based diet for humans that vegans are helping animals, especially in the future — not by trying to make their cats vegan.

Both sides of the question agree, as they must, that the long-term health effects of a vegan diet for cats are not certain. Short-term health is no proof that it will not sicken them eventually. And even if it were possible to keep them healthy, it would clearly need life-long blood and urinary testing of the sort that does not scale to all vegan rescuers.

Vegans need to look into their hearts to ask themselves whether they are doing the right thing for animals whose lives and health depend on them in taking risks with their health instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt and working instead to open people’s eyes and hearts to plant-based diets for themselves rather than their obligate-carnivore rescues.

Yes, being vegan is not just about what people eat, but, again, working against animal breeding and selling, and for the adoption of rescued animals only, is far more likely to help far more animals in the long run than taking chances with the health of purpose-bred cats who did not ask to be human pets, and who depend on our judgment and care for their survival.

The same applies to the humane care of large obligate-carnivore rescues (lions, tigers, seals, orcas, alligators) in sanctuaries today. Sterilization is far more merciful to all than putting their health at risk. (But none of this rules out the importance of continuing research efforts to synthesize animal protein without harming animals.)

 

But see also: https://www.facebook.com/harnad1/posts/10211472145830032