Are dogs people, too? Can animals feel love and fear? Should they have the same rights as humans?

‘Speciesism’ — the idea that treating animals less humanely than people is a prejudice, similar to racism or sexism — is gaining traction.

Author, psychologist and animal rights campaigner Clare Mann is the co-founder of Animal Matters, an invite-only event for over 600 Australian CEOs and executives that aims to make the ethical treatment of animals a business imperative. I spoke to her about the ideas being put forward by the animal rights movement, and the potential problems that come with them.

When did you develop an interest in animal rights?

My parents always taught me to be kind to all animals — people and non-human animals, and I had a particular affinity with dogs. In 1979 I read the book ‘Is That It?’ by Bob Geldof. He wrote about a job he had in an abattoir in Dublin, and he detailed the journey of a cow to the slaughter. I didn’t see anything, hear anything or smell anything but it painted such a graphic picture in my mind that I haven’t eaten meat since that time.

I thought these methods were peculiar to that abattoir. It wasn’t until later that I learnt that no animal has ever walked quietly to slaughter, but is highly distressed and the scene Bob painted was not pretty.

Five years ago when I moved back to Australia from NZ I was sent footage of the factory farming of pigs in Australia. Mother pigs unable to move around for years as mere units of production, smashing their head against the bars of tiny cages, unable to reach their young with no opportunity to display a modicum of their normal behaviors. It had a profound impact on me and I thought, ‘This is not the picture that the consumer is shown’. I wondered what else I didn’t know and what the implications were for us as a society in terms of health, environment, profit margins and conscience.

Sam de Brito recently wrote that we are all ‘Nazis’ when it comes to animal rights. Do you agree with this?

We usually resist such strong language about likening any other suffering to that of a Nazi holocaust, believing perhaps that it undermines the atrocities that occurred to the Jews under the Nazi regime. What Sam is referring to in his very bold article is the industrial use of animals in our society and factory farms, which, if you see them, are very similar to images we have seen of concentration camps.

Rows of living creatures, incarcerated in chains or cages, stripped of certain rights to enjoy a level of freedom that other living creatures are afforded. I think Sam is referring to the fact that through buying animal products that are produced in what he calls ‘barbaric’ ways, we are in fact colluding and indirectly agreeing to the process.

In Nazi Europe, the average person didn’t know what was going on and likewise until recently, the average person didn’t know that factory farms exists. But we are now learning what goes on behind closed doors is not what we are led to believe. What Sam is highlighting is our speciesism — through our actions, we are demonstrating our ingrained beliefs that humans are superior to other animals and that some animals have different rights than others. For instance, farmed animals are not afforded the same legal protection as our cats and dogs.

Do you think taking such an extreme position will make it harder to win over animal rights skeptics?

A lot of people shrink away from any use of the words ‘Nazi holocaust’, thinking maybe that it undermines the suffering of the Jews. By the use of the analogy in relation to animals, many people will feel this is wrong, that humans surely suffer more than animals. This, however, highlights an underlying, unspoken societal value system called speciesism, and I think it is time to bring it out into the open and debate it in the way we have debated any other ‘isms’, like sexism, racism or ageism.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns believes that “dogs are people, too”. Do you believe dogs should be granted personhood?

I believe all living creatures should be treated with a level of respect and minimisation of harm. Personhood presumably refers to rights afforded to choose things about one’s fate or have their needs taken into account, rather than having no rights to resist or having their bad treatment not be taken seriously.

I think there is also something about our assumptions about the thinking or feeling capacity of non-human animals and whether they are similar to those as humans. Research indicated that dogs and pigs have the intelligence of a two to three-year-old child. If we go down this road, we could say, ‘Should humans below the age of two to three years not be afforded personhood until they reach a certain standard of understanding or ability?’

Also, should humans with special learning needs be afforded fewer rights because they don’t have the average IQ for their age? Most people would baulk at the idea of this and yet many don’t know about the intelligence of pigs and dogs.

Can animals think and feel in a similar way to humans? Can they feel fear? Love?

Dr Jeffrey Masson, former director of the Freud Archives in London, has written several books about the emotional lives of animals. He makes it very clear that animals have a rich emotional life and undoubtedly feel intense emotions like love and fear. In his recent book, ‘Beast: What Animals Teach Us About the Roots of Good and Evil’, he highlights this whole notion of speciesism and myths we hold about predators and our understanding of what the emotional lives of animals are.

Does legislation need to be introduced? A Bill of Rights for dogs? Or do you think we just need to change our way of thinking?

In an ideal world, we would be a compassionate species who didn’t enact unnecessary suffering on any other living entities, including our planet. But unfortunately, we need to legislate to protect certain groups or categories of people or otherwise they will be taken advantage of.

For example, there was a time when the enslavement of black people was allowed and yet now we are appalled by such discrimination. A Bill of Rights was necessary to enshrine it in the culture of a society as not acceptable. In some countries still, we see the incarceration of women or children who are not afforded rights that, in our own country, we believe they should be.

If a dog can’t comprehend the rights they’ve been given, what difference would it make?

I don’t think a living creature has to comprehend rights they are afforded to deserve them. For example, what if an asylum seeker doesn’t speak English? Does it mean they don’t comprehend the impact of how they are treated?

Is it time to stop thinking of ourselves as ‘pet owners’, and start thinking of ourselves as ‘guardians’? Are pets property that can be ‘owned’?

Ownership is an interesting concept. In some cultures or earlier in our own, we have seen the notion of ownership with the owner being afforded certain unquestioned rights to usurp power over the owned. We also know that unbridled control of one entity over another invariably leads to abuse, for example slavery trafficking or prostitution. The ‘owned’ doesn’t have access to a system to have their bad treatment questioned. The same with animals.

If our domestic pets are seen as being owned, the owner has certain unquestioned rights. We have limits to those choices that can be taken over the dog or cat but with non-domestic pets, we see a different picture. Animals used in industrial processes, like food production or animal testing, are seen as property with the owners’ treatment of those animals not being subject to question by a system outside of that industry. I think that if the majority of us saw what happened when animals are mere property with ‘no rights’ we would not be proud of ourselves as a species.

I think the term ‘guardian’ is much better and affords rights to the ‘guarded’ who deserve protection. I would like this used in the context of children, too. If we say that we own our children, it implies rights of ownership — children are only lent to us and we are guardians. Our role is to take care of, direct, have boundaries etc, but not to show unbridled control over them as if they are our property.

Should puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing be banned for violating the right of self-determination? What about guide dogs? Police dogs?

We are talking about the use and exploitation of animals here. Where animals are not legally afforded the right to non-exploitation and freedom from pain, they are vulnerable and what happens behind closed doors is rarely brought into our living rooms. When it is brought forward, the average person is appalled and either speaks out or believes that this must be an anomaly and not the norm. A number of industries have grown out of the use of animals for profit.

Puppy mills are an example of how the lack of legal protection for animals results in enormous suffering for dogs. Anyone who has ever visited a puppy mill will see the enormous exploitation of female dogs whose reproductive systems have been hijacked to produce products — puppies — for sale. The mothers live lives of abject misery as reproductive systems and yet all the prospective buyer sees is the puppy that is sold to them, invariably at a location far from the factory.

MPs who are advised about practices underpinning certain industries are now speaking out and demanding protection for animals used in sport. Look at greyhounds. The average observer sees dogs getting exercise but the person wiling to look a little further sees enormous abuse in how those animals are abused through the breeding, training and when they are no longer of use as racers. Again, it is not a pretty picture — first hand accounts of greyhounds made dependent on heroin to control their actions is not seen by the average observer as they hold their glass of beer and watch the races.

If someone hurts, mistreats or kills a pet, should they be subject to the same punishment as someone who does the same to a human?

I believe that if we cause harm to any living creature there should be consequences. As a psychologist I am interested in us becoming a more ethical society, one in which profit or tradition are not pursued without due consideration of the consequences. I believe we are facing a new challenge — to examine our relationship with the animal kingdom. If we keep the debate at the level of ‘a bit of cruelty here or there’ or comparisons of intelligence or ability to feel certain things with those experienced by humans, I think we are not thinking big enough.

We need to examine this from a psychological, social and ethical perspective. We must examine our speciesism – our unconscious beliefs that humans are superior over non-human animals and that animals raised to be our friends and pets have different rights than those that are raised for industrial purposes.

Today we look back, in certain counties at least, and say that racism or sexism is unacceptable. We laugh when we see images of the 1950s wife patiently waiting for her husband to return from work — and, by the way, if the wife is not looking smart with makeup on, dinner in the oven and children clean and tidy, who is to blame the husband if he strays?

I believe a time is coming when we will not laugh, but hang our heads in shame at the way in which we have allowed animals raised for industrial purposes to be exploited by us. Not only non-protection from industrialised cruelty, but incarceration that negates them to display their natural behaviors.

A few years back I ran a show for Voice America called Social Myth Busting. I had occasion to interview Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, who spoke once to a packed out audience at the Sydney opera house. He advised me that there was a national poll conducted in the US that showed that over 95 percent of Americans agree on one thing and one thing only — ‘that there should be legal protection against cruelty to animals’.

I believe that if a similar poll was conducted in Australia today we would find a similar result — and yet we are only just becoming aware that the vast majority of animals in our society live with intense pain every day through covert practices such as factory farming, puppy mills, laboratory testing and military exercises.

In fact, according to Professor Steve Garlick, who founded The Animal Justice Party, over 80 percent of decisions made in federal parliament affect animals. I think it is time for us to put these issues on the table and have an intelligent debate about the ethical treatment of all living creatures.

If a human couple separates, do you think custody of their pets should be determined in much the same way as custody of their children, with the pet’s best interests at heart?

If you ask the children of parents who are separating, some will choose immediately who they prefer ‘not’ to live with but the vast majority of children just don’t want the family to split up. The same no doubt might be true of animals — they do anything to keep the pack together, although dogs, in particular, are more attached to one guardian, often the one perceived to be the pack leader.

My personal opinion is that this whole debate is one of addressing our speciesism – if we afford animals rights, our own treatment of them will be compassionate and we will do what we can to minimise pain. But as with children of a divorcing couple, there will be pain inherent in the process. Let’s do what we can to minimise that.

If a vet causes harm to an animal, should they be liable for malpractice to the same degree a doctor would be?

There are different issues here — one about the professional standards of practice and one about whether the life of the human is worth more than the animal. I believe that any practitioner — vet, doctor, psychologist or other — should have the rule of ‘causing no harm’. I think negligence should be treated with the seriousness it deserves, whether it impacts animals or humans.

Like most of my friends, I eat meat. As an animal rights activist, do you think that makes us bad people?

As I said before, we are reaching a time when we must examine our relationship with the animal kingdom. Veganism is often misunderstood. It’s not just an extreme vegetarian diet, it’s a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals, and one of the behaviors of veganism is not eating animals. So possibly the vast majority of people who eat meat would adhere to the main philosophy and yet don’t question how strange it is that we eat certain animals and not others.

For example, people are alarmed at some cultures eating dogs or horses and if they heard of a neighbor eating their golden retriever, they would be outraged. Again, we need to look further and make informed choices about what we think is acceptable or not and why.

People are led to believe their meat comes from processes where animals enjoy a quality of life until they are slaughtered. I encourage people to look inside the factory farm or the abattoir and then decide what is humane or not. My experience and research has shown me that no animal goes willingly to slaughter. Humane, in this context, refers to standards that are set to minimise their pain during the whole production process. However, what we are sold as ‘free range’ or ‘humane’ methods is often sadly lacking.

I have heard people say, ‘If only we could go back to traditional farming’. I imagine they think cows are languishing in lush fields with their young and are grateful for being milked. However, the reality even in non-factory farming is that animals are dehorned, castrated without anesthetic and have their young removed from them so we can take their produce. Standards of ‘humane’ must therefore be addressed and a sensible, informed debate be had.

There are obviously benefits to science in using animals for research purposes. Do you believe the cost to the animals outweighs the benefits to humanity?

This whole debate must take place within that of speciesism. If we believe and put in place law and practices that mean animals are there for our use, we will automatically believe that a few animals lost in the process of finding a cure for human animals is necessary collateral damage. The suffering of animals in laboratories is enormous and behind closed doors. Often findings satisfy the corporation commissioning the testing because it satisfies their insurance concerns.

There was a time when we tested on non-white humans or other races because we believed in white superiority. We are appalled by this now. Why? Because it subjects a living creature to intense suffering and degradation. We must debate whether an ethical society would seriously think it OK to put enormous suffering on animals. Also, we are probably bamboozled about the extent of the testing necessary to ‘protect’ the public — it may be more about ensuring the profit of industries that put profit and greed before decent standards of treatment of all animals.

What are some simple things people can do to treat their pets better and more humanely?

In Switzerland the law has changed to set standards to stop animals being kept in isolation. For example, fish or guinea pigs must not be kept in cages alone. So having a second pet of the same species is very important, and so is allowing animals as much of their natural display of behaviors as possible. For example, dogs eat things that don’t always smell as good. We have no right to punish them as ‘dirty’. Keep pets from unnecessary harm and like children, you don’t need to hit them (nor do I believe we have the right to do so) — separating them from the pack for a while is the biggest punishment you can give to human or animal and it moderates behavior so we can live together.

What sorts of things should businesses be doing to treat animals more humanely?

Businesses have a huge role to play and that is why, as an organisational psychologist, I am informing the business community about these issues. Our forthcoming series Animal Matters, sponsored by brands such as Nespresso, is making corporate and SME Australia aware of the implications for their businesses of the industrial use of animals in our society.

Incremental changes to minimise harm to animals have major ramifications in large organisations. Employees or customers do not wish to work for (or buy from) businesses that wreck the environment, damage people or abuse animals so the rising tide of social awareness of how animals are treated in society has direct implications for the bottom line of business.

Business leaders can ensure the supply chain is as cruelty free as possible. They can check out the ingredients used in their production processes, the implications for damage to the environment on the habitat of animals and what is served in the boardroom or canteen. Today’s consumer is well informed and can easily research what ingredients are included in products and services.

Businesses often unwittingly collude with cruelty because they don’t know of the extent of animal use. But with over 80 percent of decisions made in federal parliament affecting animals, businesses need to become informed or find themselves in costly damage limitation efforts to respond to what their consumers or employees find out on the internet.

A company may say that they do not test on animals, and yet the consumer might find out that ‘they’ do not test, but they either pay others to test or the ingredients are tested on animals. Becoming informed about how business practices (in every industry) wittingly or unwittingly collude with animal cruelty doesn’t just make us all feel warm and fuzzy – it’s a business imperative.

And when we make changes in any area of our lives – personal or business — that minimise harm, it’s also good for our conscience and the moral integrity of our society.

Visit communicate31.com/am to apply for tickets to the Animal Matters tour, which visits Brisbane on June 24. 

Do you think animals deserve the same rights as humans? Are dogs people, too? Do you care where your food comes from? Are we ‘Nazis’ when it comes to animal rights? Have your say below!