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Consequences of Consciousness: Sy Montgomery on Human Treatment of Other Animals

Author and naturalist Sy Montgomery discusses what we can do to better respect the life course of other sentient beings.

From the cover of The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. As the author says, "The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness said all mammals and birds and octopuses specifically have the neural substrates necessary to generate consciousness — ultimately, the world is far more alive, intelligent, thinking and feeling than we have wanted to admit for a long time." (Image: Atria Books)

From the cover of The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness said all mammals and birds and octopuses specifically have the neural substrates necessary to generate consciousness — ultimately, the world is far more alive, intelligent, thinking and feeling than we have wanted to admit for a long time. (Image: Atria Books) From the cover of The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. As the author says, “The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness said all mammals and birds and octopuses specifically have the neural substrates necessary to generate consciousness — ultimately, the world is far more alive, intelligent, thinking and feeling than we have wanted to admit for a long time.” (Image: Atria Books)

Consideration of other creatures’ agency becomes ever more urgent as we learn more about cognition across species. Now that we absolutely know that lobsters can feel themselves being cooked to death, it seems self-evident to me that we should never put a lobster in a pot of boiling water, but many other people still feel their own pleasure in eating the lobster is more important than the lobster’s suffering — a view grounded in the long history of denial of other animals’ sentience. In other instances, what we do with what we know about animal consciousness seems more complex. The forms our own empathy should take can be deeply at odds with current cultural norms.

“When we look to nature to find answers about how to live, nature may not inform us about how to live more compassionate lives.”

When I read The Soul of an Octopus, the latest book by author, naturalist and student of consciousness Sy Montgomery, the book’s description of an octopus mating extravaganza on Valentine’s Day at a Seattle aquarium called to mind the scene in Spartacus where the titular character objects to surveillance of his lovemaking. And the death of Kali the octopus after she had been transferred to a container she escaped from felt inexcusable. Wholly unpersuaded by the arguments about aquarium octopuses’ extended life spans and opportunities to be ambassadors to humanity (who asked the octopus!), I nonetheless found Temple Grandin’s arguments in Montgomery’s book about her — about why she felt OK about designing slaughterhouses — persuasive:”Many people forget that most farm animals would never have existed at all if people had not bred them”; “I’d rather die in a good slaughterhouse than be eaten alive by a coyote or a lion!” and “food animals deserve a dignified death, free of pain and fear.”

On behalf of Truthout, I asked Montgomery to talk more about what humans can do to better respect the life course of other sentient beings. Before we had settled into our interview, Montgomery told me the issues we were to wrestle with were hard and reminded her of the Book of Job.

(Image: Atria Books)(Image: Atria Books)Sy Montgomery: If you’ve ever read the Book of Job and struggled with the questions posed there — bad things happening to good people trying to do their best in a bad world — I think these are the things we’re addressing today. You try to tread lightly in this world, but no one has all the answers about how, and the kind of human society we have makes it impossible not to do some destructive things. What we really will do is what counts the most because it’s hard to make good decisions. We live in a world in which we eat each other — I mean other animals: How do we really behave? When vegetarian prairie dogs kill baby ground squirrels, I think of the passage in Job where God says, “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you know so much,” in other words, “Who are you to question me?” When we look to nature to find answers about how to live, nature may not inform us about how to live more compassionate lives.

Leslie Thatcher: Sy, your life and work have been devoted to fostering human awareness and empathy for other forms of consciousness, so The Soul of an Octopus continues that work by considering consciousness in a well-known invertebrate. I know it’s a vast field, but can you distill some of the critical new science on animal intelligence and emotion for our readers?

Distilled to its purest form, I think it’s that “neurotransmitters are highly conserved across taxa.” That’s a quote from Jennifer Mather, at the University of Lethbridge Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. The neurotransmitters responsible for our ability to think and feel and reason exist in some form in most other animals. The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness said certainly all mammals and birds and octopuses specifically, and possibly most animals, have the neural substrates necessary to generate consciousness. Ultimately what this means is that the world is far more alive and intelligent and thinking and feeling than we have wanted to admit for a long time. Ancient … people certainly knew this, but their ideas fell out of favor with Descartes. Nonetheless, Darwin also understood that animals think and feel and know.

It seems like every day there are reports of new evidence of non-human animal consciousness — just today I saw this about manta rays recognizing themselves in a mirror. How robust is that science, given that, as a recent article about holding journalists accountable for the science they report notes, “a substantial portion — maybe the majority — of published scientific assertions are false”?

We certainly need to ask this question since people can’t even decide on a definition for consciousness. Some scientists say there is no consciousness; there is no self, but does that mean we shouldn’t investigate what we can know?

It’s called “the hard problem.” It’s a difficult thing to study. There’s room for looking carefully at these studies because we can’t all agree on the vocabulary.

“The world is far more alive and intelligent and thinking and feeling than we have wanted to admit for a long time.”

The thing about mirrors is that they’re such a human artifact. Chimps look in a mirror and if they see a piece of food on their forehead, they take it off. Dogs don’t care if there’s something on their forehead because they like to roll around in shit. Gorillas don’t like to look in a mirror because they see a gorilla staring at them and that’s rude. What if you presented the animals with a toaster? If they don’t stick bread pieces in it and start the mechanism, does that mean they’re stupid? … I love the guy who said if an octopus were trying to measure human intelligence, it might ask how quickly a human’s severed arm would change color.

Grappling with these questions enlarges our minds by forcing us to imagine other ways of being and knowing….

We always want to measure animals against man. Henry Beston said, “The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move, finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” Trying to understand those other nations is a great way to enlarge our minds and extend our compassion.

This provides a head start on this question: Does the science support the mainstream human view of a sort of hierarchy of consciousness along a continuum, or is it suggestive of forms of consciousness that are radically different from what humans can understand?

It’s definitely the latter. The idea of the tree of life is a beautiful metaphor, but it’s not ladderlike; it doesn’t start in the dirty ground and end with us humans up above on the top with the angels. I personally don’t want to be on the top. It’s lonely there. I’d rather be embedded with the family. There are definitely ways of understanding the reality of the world that we humans cannot access with our senses. Other creatures, including birds, can see colors we can’t — and we know these colors are real. There are truths out there that have been discovered by other species that we may never discover and understand.

And do our own cultural and psychological attachments and repulsions to specific species bear any relation to those creatures’ type or degree (so far as we can perceive) of consciousness?

I think that they are just obstructions, just the same way prejudices about people different from ourselves have been obstructions. It’s easier to understand someone like yourself.

Look at hyenas, for example. They eat their prey alive; they often roll in vomit. These are things that people don’t necessarily like very much, but they are the hyena way. They have a matriarchal society; females have a pseudo penis through which they actually give birth. They also have a habit of digging up dead people and biting children’s faces off. That’s stuff that gives us the willies and leads to stories like hyenas being the consorts of witches. Hyenas do stuff that irritates us. You don’t want one as a neighbor because they’ll bite your nose off and run away with it because to them your nose is a delicious tidbit. Mine would be a large tidbit. But their society is fascinating on its own terms.

I was absolutely floored by this passage in Soul where you reflect after talking to some teenage girls watching the octopus Octavia tending her egg strings in Boston: “They don’t want to hear how Octavia is different from us. They want to know how we’re the same. They know what it’s like to have an itch. They can imagine what it’s like to be a mother. This brief encounter has changed them. Now they can identify with an octopus.” Do other animals have to be like humans for us to empathize? That seems to be the assumption, for example, underlying this work on cougars, which focuses entirely on the aspects of their behavior that are most “human.”

I was also surprised to learn the degree to which finding commonalities helps people to identify with an animal. I love the differences as much as the sameness, but it’s very helpful for us to know that if you want to make a connection, it helps to start with the ways you’re the same. If your job on earth is to forge connections between species, it’s very instructive and helpful to know how to go about it.

How can we honor the integrity of other animals’ life course and our own?

There is so much room in this world for our behavior to improve that there are many options. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we get into a compassion competition. There are many ways to honor other creatures and many of them are easy. Sometimes what’s easy for some people is difficult for others.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years; I’m not vegan — I’d love to be actually, but where I live and what I do makes veganism harder than I am prepared to undertake.

Are non-vegetarians bad? Not necessarily. They could be working to save hundreds of acres of wild land. Because they eat a burger once in a while, does that make them Satan? I don’t think so.

I regularly get on a plane to talk about saving animals. Would it be better if I stayed home and tried to blog?

I hope I’m not copping out here. Rather than say there’s one highest and best way, there are many ways to be more compassionate and humble. Let’s start wherever we can. I’m happy to share my vegetarian recipes.

In this interview with you and Marc Bekoff, you begin to address the ethics of how we interact with other animals, given what we know about animal intelligence, but could you specifically address keeping animals in captivity in zoos and aquariums?

Different animals in the wild have different degrees of happy lives. If you are a mature bear with a terrific territory you have a great life — until somebody comes along and shoots you. But if you are a young bear with bad territory, you might have a better individual life in captivity than in the wild.

This is not so different from people. Some people are born into circumstances where their chances of dying of disease or violence are far higher than those of a privileged Western child; animals’ individual situations are just as varied as ours. But do we have the right to reach in and change that? …

Even if we feel legitimately philosophically that it’s wrong, we won’t get rid of zoos and aquariums any time soon, so it seems to me better to concentrate our efforts on making it possible for the individuals involved to live long, happy, interesting lives. I’m not dismissing the very legitimate question — do we have the right to arrest and incarcerate living animals? — but I do believe that the greater good is better served by making sure those who live in captivity live well.

We live in a world where people eat meat and we owe to animals that they suffer the least amount possible. My dad was a POW [prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II]. And I know that for anyone in captivity, your conditions really matter. You want desperately to get away, but you are never indifferent to the conditions of your incarceration.

Moreover, imagine if some alien race saw us imprisoned in our cities and thought, “I’m just going to lift them up and return them to the rainforest.” Most of us would have no idea how to survive the experience. The peculiar circumstances that any given individual faces matter. We can’t let every animal go in the wild. We have to focus on individuals a lot more than we did in the past. Jane Goodall was the first to demonstrate that we cannot possibly understand species without understanding individuals in the species and what’s best for them individually. This was such a radical concept that when she insisted on naming the individual chimpanzees instead of giving them numbers, no one would publish her papers. Every animal is an individual and this is especially important in considering captive versus non-captive status.

How do you feel about using animals for research, including the research that has yielded the information on animal cognition?

Personally, I think medical research is morally wrong and scientifically questionable as conducted now. Happily, we are finding a lot of other ways to conduct research, including a program at Tufts called “One Medicine,” or taking sick animals to try and make them healthy instead of diseasing healthy animals. We learn more when treating animals or people who have already gotten ill. I do not give money to medical causes that support research on animals.

It’s going to take us a long time not to use mice in medical research, but chimpanzees are rapidly moving out.

I don’t think we have the right to do invasive research on animals’ brains. I do not think we should hurt animals to find out stuff. Does that mean I won’t use the results of such research in my work to advance understanding of and compassion for animals?

What about the sale, body modifications (such as claw and wing clipping) and forced captivity of animals for personal pleasure (i.e. having pets)?

A lot of pets chose us. We didn’t make dogs. Dogs made dogs. Cats also seem to have chosen us. The most attractive thing about humans appears to be our garbage.

I think the essential question is can you give the animal a good life? They are not playthings. That whole painted turtles craze years ago was a travesty. I think the issue has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. One person may be able to keep an aquarium of really happy fish rescued from receding waters. Another may want a display and just flush the animals down the toilet that don’t fit their human idea of what it should look like. It is almost impossible to provide a good life in a private home for birds — especially parrots. I think the question must be, given what we know about an individual animal, is that animal going to be happy? That’s what we try to do with one another when we live together.

Additional reading:

“Discovering the World With Sy Montgomery”

“It Begins in Wonder: Sy Montgomery’s World”

“The Intersectionist: Sy Montgomery’s ‘Birdology'”

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