Animals feel pain. Why do people believe they don't?

The psychological disconnect between humans and other animals puts all forms of life at risk.

  • As part of the EU Withdrawal Bill, British MPs refused to recognize animal sentience.
  • Yet it is well-documented that animals feel a range of feelings, including pain.
  • The delusional idea that only humans experience emotions has lead to a variety of catastrophic problems, such as mass factory farming

As a child I loved Rick Raccoon. He was the only stuffed animal I owned of the Shirt Tales crew. The show was necessary Saturday Morning television before I left the cartoon-watching age.

Many years later, I returned home to my Jersey City studio around 3 a.m. As I was winding down, my cat, Osiris, began hissing at the window sill. I heard a shaking noise, as if someone was trying to break through the screen. I quickly slammed the window shut and turned on the deck light, whereupon I see a large raccoon jump from the fire escape. He tried to rip through the metal grating of the door with his claws and teeth. Unsuccessful, he destroyed the mop perched against the railing.

Rick Raccoon this was not.

From afar, raccoons are cute. Initially classified as dogs and bears, they eventually received their own taxonomy—Procyon means "before the dog." While they generally avoid humans, a rabid raccoon, which is likely what I encountered, has no problem attacking you or anything else.

We've long personified animals. Before gods were depicted as humans they were mythologized as animals or animal-human hybrids. There's a catch in that last phrase, however. Humans are animals. We forget that often, as in the whole "dominion over all animals" part of the Bible, opening the doors for us to treat other species however cruelly we choose.

How do animals experience pain? | Robyn J. Crook

Our relationship with other species has always been fraught. Some animals we domesticate and benefit from in a kind and caring manner. Some we effectively barter with; you do this and I'll feed and shelter you. Some we simply slaughter, for food and sport. Being an apex predator has allowed us to torture other species with little regard for their sentience.

That's in large part thanks to the psychological dominance of behaviorism, a system that assumes all reactions to stimuli are preprogrammed. Strains of this thinking linger when anti-homosexual groups pretend to "cure the gay," as if sexuality can be rewired. When it comes to other animals, few scientists take behaviorism seriously, though its legacy persists.

One recent example occurred in 2017 when British MPs refused to include animal sentience in the EU Withdrawal Bill. Hopes of protecting species as the nation exits from Europe were dashed by anti-science pundits, leaving a nation to speculate that the move by the Tories sets up future insidious legislation.

The notion that animals cannot feel emotions or pain flies in the face of the foundation of evolutionary biology. Humans were not born whole cloth with a unique physiological system. We do have unique characteristics, such as a strong sense of agency and an ability to portend the future, yet pain is a signifier that a problem is occurring. This warning system is encoded into every representation of biological life. As experts argue, affect precedes consciousness. Emotions guide cognition.

This said, then, does our repeat denial that animals can feel pain better enable us, in some way, to hurt them? Do we intentionally disconnect their suffering in order to maim them — or worse?

The science of emotions | Jaak Panksepp at TEDxRainier

How pain manifests is strikingly similar across mammalian groups, including humans. Similarities in behavior include loss of appetite, the cessation of socializing, heart rate increase, and an escalation in vocalizations. Though other animals might not voice their pain in a language we speak, by paying attention to signals you understand exactly what's occurring.

Pain is so deeply woven into the fabric of our being that even psychic pain produces physical symptoms. By activating the cortical regions of pain networks, simply envisioning a dreadful act is liable to send shockwaves of physical sensations throughout your body. The activation of your sympathetic nervous system prepares you to fight, flee, or freeze. The idea that only humans are equipped with this preparatory system is absurd.

And, in the case of British officials, a perfect power play. America is no stranger to anti-science legislation; we battle it daily. From climate change to creation "science" every ideology is backed by groups with a vested interest.

According to one expert, except for "companion animals" (aka pets), every animal is open for exploitation in this new British legislation. Such an atrocity is already occurring in New Zealand, where the government is planning on eradicating all invasive mammalian predators by 2050. Wiping out predatory species is a terrible idea; they need only turn to rabbits in neighboring Australia to understand the ecological disaster ahead. As was reported on this week, insect collapse is signaling a catastrophic planetary crisis.

Maybe our unwillingness to grant other species similar sensations is part of the delusional idea that we're in control. Our quarter-million-year run has been fraught with danger and disastrous consequences. To our credit, we've fought hard the entire way. Yet it seems like we're fighting more and more for the wrong causes, displaying a profound ignorance of the nature of interdependence.

The insatiable ego that devours itself—the history of our animality in a half-dozen words. We carved the world into our own image, never understanding the foolishness of our brazenness. Every animal feels pain. Some just have a wide enough view to recognize it's not only them who are suffering. In the end, every animal is paying the price for our sins.


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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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