Editor’s note: This post has originally been posted on 1st June 2017, and has now been updated and republished.
Animals, also called Metazoa, are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms in the biological kingdom Animalia, which includes the human species. Based on current scientific evidence one can assume that any animal with a centralised nervous system might be sentient, which means that we as humans can affect them through our actions, and for this reason we should give them moral consideration. Sentience refers to the ability to have positive and negative experiences caused by external affectations to our body or to sensations within our body. When a being has an experience, then this experience exists in that being or subject, as objects cannot have an experience. We do not know for certain what causes consciousness to arise. However, it is known that in the absence of at least a centralised nervous system, consciousness will not arise.
Therefore it makes perfect sense to refer to sentient non-human beings as “he/she” or “them/they”, or by species. The words “it” or “thing” should not be used to refer to a non-human animal, and “who” is used rather than “that”. If you do not know the gender, choose one: “he” or “she”. Even if your gender choice is wrong, it is more respectful than “it.” This is an important way of demonstrating respect towards non-human animals, and will stress the fact that non-human animals are not being regarded or treated as possessions or objects. Please note that this approach is not thought to reflect the complexity of human gender diversity.
Should A Sentient Being Be Used For Educational Purposes?
The law allows the rescue, treatment, rehabilitation and euthanasia of poorly or injured wild birds under the assumption that these birds will be released when recovered unless they are included in Schedule 9 (Non-native species) of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 or Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is expected that the injured animal gets appropriate treatment or is being passed on to a suitable individual or organisation for further care, rehabilitation and release. In the case of Schedule 4 birds, only authorised persons can keep included birds for the purposes of rehabilitation without having to register them with the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, which acts on behalf of the Scottish Government.
As sentient beings, neither releasable nor unreleasable wild animals, including patients undergoing long term rehabilitation, should be subjected to the stress of a public display for educational or other purposes. Similarly, ‘public’ releases of rehabilitated wild animals are in our opinion not to recommend either, because they will cause additional stress to the animal concerned and may contribute towards imprinting or habituation. Generally speaking, sentient beings should not be treated as objects and used in any way, which includes well intentioned educational purposes too. There are a multitude of more efficient educational media available in nowadays, which can be specifically tailored to suit the audience targeted. The abuse of sentient beings in this manner sends a message to the public that animals can or should be tamed, kept as “pets”, or that they are ‘objects’ for human diversion, entertainment, recreation or education.
In this context, and from the viewpoint of a rescue organisation or rehabber, it is very important to thoroughly establish whether an animal, which might not be releasable straight away, or at all, is coping well with being kept in captivity. This is a difficult and complex assessment, which depends on many factors and requires experience and intuition. It is a process which is also very dependent on the personality of the individual animal concerned, and her or his adaptability. This assessment is not a one off decision either, and is in fact an assessment, which has to be frequently repeated throughout the time the animal is being kept in captivity.
Does A Species Matters More Than Its Individuals?
When we give someone moral consideration, it simply means we take into account how he or she will be affected by our actions, omissions, attitudes and decisions. Some people give consideration to things such as an ecosystem or a species. However, genuine moral consideration can only be given to conscious beings. It is often believed that species should be considered and preserved because they have some sort of value in themselves, a value unrelated to what is in the best interests of the individuals who are members of the species. Furthermore, there is occasionally the notion made that some species are more valuable than others. This is often being mentioned in the context of their so called conservation status. We do not share these views. Sentient individuals, regardless of their species, have morally relevant interests in being alive and in not being harmed, and this does not vary according to the fact whether a species is rare or common.