Many thanks to Dorinda Troutman for her “Bird Seed” column. It’s a great feature about the natural world written from interesting angles and, for me, one of the highlights of the Bitterroot Star.
Her latest column on magpies touches on the idea that these social animals gather to acknowledge or grieve the passing of one of their own. Elephants and chimpanzees, among others, have been observed grieving and/or holding “funerals” of sorts, and I personally have witnessed wild bison mourning a herdmate’s death (see http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2013/06/wild-bison-in-the-american-west/), even returning to the site of death again and again.
Troutman quotes biologist and ethologist Marc Bekoff, who maintains that the evolutionary continuity is clear—our own human emotions did not spring into being fully formed with the advent of our species, but find their roots in the sentience of our Animal Kingdom forebears. That animals lead emotional lives is no secret to anyone who lives with dog or cat companions, and scientists have observed animals engaging in empathic behavior.
But whether or not animals lead moral lives, we—the large-brained agents of morality—have an ethical obligation to treat them with respect and refrain from causing them to suffer. How ironic is it that on the reverse side of Troutman’s column is an announcement for wolf trapping certification classes?
Scientists have found the foundations of empathy in chickens, who suffer by the billions in factory farms. Yet animals want, basically, what we want: life, and the liberty to pursue their interests. Perhaps once we’re enlightened enough to acknowledge this commonality, we’ll recognize—and eradicate—their suffering in circuses, rodeo arenas, zoos, factory farms, fur farms, slaughter houses—all the myriad ways we commodify their lives and deny their feelings.