Jackdaw Jacky – Thoughts about Sentience

Jacky is a western jackdaw (Coloeus monedula), also known as Eurasian jackdaw, European jackdaw, or simply jackdaw, and is a passerine bird belonging to the crow family. She is a seven year old imprinted bird, whose care we have taken over about one year ago. Jacky is unfortunately not releasable, as she has spent her whole life with humans. Jacky has been rescued as a fledgling by a well meaning person, who raised and unintentionally imprinted her. It did not take long for Jacky to conquer our hearts. Jacky lives with us, as she is not comfortable with other residential jackdaws, and is sadly not being tolerated by her own kind. Experiencing non-human animals like Jacky can be an eye opener for people, who never had this kind of close relationship with non-human animals like her. And as people, who have already opened their minds and hearts towards the plight of human as well as non-human animals, we are still again and again amazed by what we can learn from our non-human fellows. This insight makes it even more difficult to comprehend and live with the widely accepted normality and legality of discrimination and persecution of human and non-human animals.

Jacky is a sentient being with her own interests, similar to those interests we take as granted for ourselves. Conscious beings like Jacky have the ability to have experiences of all kinds, and to learn from the things that happen to them. This capacity includes a wide variety of perceptions, emotions and thoughts. This ability is what allows us and many animals to perceive harms and benefits. And Jacky is no different. Working and living with animals is a privilege and can give valuable insight into their lives. It does not take long to realise that Jacky has got clearly her very own preferences, ideas and perceptions. Her sleeping quarters, for example, are clearly being regarded by Jacky as her private space. Any changes to the interior of these private quarters do require her explicit agreement, or they will be immediately corrected. Social interactions are very important to Jacky, in the same way as they are important to us. This is reflected in her behaviour and are very clearly shown in a variety of nuanced responses. Jacky will clearly voice and show her likes and dislikes. She demonstrates a clear preference for participating in our daily activities, which seems to be a very important part of her social life. Her mind needs constant input, and her curiosity does not know any boundaries, although this may cause one or the other conflict of interest. Jacky may become jealous when ignored, or she may feel offended when not taken seriously. Our interactions will trigger emotional verbal and also physical responses. Jacky can be forgiving, affectionate and gentle. But she can also be fierce and aggressive. She definitely requires lots of tender loving care. Jacky is able to learn from her experiences, and she is clearly able to comprehend the principle of cause and effect. As it is with any relationship, it is built on mutual trust and understanding, and needs to be maintained and cherished by both sides.

Sounds familiar? So why is it then that her life seems less worth than that of any other species, including ours? The only objective difference is that we are belonging to different species. Otherwise, there is no difference regarding our principle needs, values and emotions. We are all conscious or sentient beings. The answer to this rhetorical question seems to depend, at least for the majority of people, on their personal or monetary interests and priorities. If humans believe that animals are benefitting them, then the conclusion usually is that we need to protect them, which strangely enough also may include and justify the use and abuse of non-human animals, often based on the conclusion that they are so similar to us. If it is for example about our dietary requirements, often being conveniently and wrongly regarded as a ‘personal choice’, then the same people usually deny non-human animals the status of being our equals. Having said that, one has to be clear that there is nothing like a ‘personal choice’, when other sentient beings are getting intentionally harmed.

Crows, jackdaws and rooks are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. This makes it illegal to intentionally take, injure or kill corvids, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. However, the law recognises that in some circumstances control may be justified, such as to prevent serious damage to agricultural crops or livestock, to preserve public health or air safety, and to conserve wild birds. The law does clearly take in account the interests of individual human beings, but completely ignores the interests of individual sentient non-human animals. Tough, if you are not a human, or at least if you belong to a species, which is not being regarded as worth protecting. This is even more astonishing, in particular when considering the fact that almost all problems affecting our ecosystems and its inhabitants, including us, are man made.

Isn’t the lack of concern for individuals not inevitable or normal? This common claim is simply unwarranted. All around the world, an increasing number of people are currently rejecting speciesism. It is a growing grassroots movement. A few decades ago, the term speciesism did not even exist. Now millions across the globe think that animals should be respected. Claims similar to this one have been made at other times in history. For instance, when women were denied the ability to vote. However, human interests are still widely regarded as more important than those of non-human animals, something which there is no reason to believe is true. Non-human animals suffer no less than humans, and therefore we should not ignore or undervalue their interests.

However, there seems to be a shift away from well established outdated conservation approaches towards wild animals. Institutions like Wild Justice have been set up with the aim to inform people and to utilise opportunities to use the law for the benefit of wildlife. It has been stated quite rightly by Wild Justice that these animals cannot speak for themselves and therefore need human support. However, non-human animals have no legal standing. This is simply due to the fact that sentient beings belonging to a species other than ours are not regarded as subjects with legal rights, but as inanimate objects. One could argue that the new approach to fine tune the existing insufficient legal system, as suggested by Wild Justice and other similar institutions, without making the desperately needed groundbreaking changes, is at least a baby step in the right direction. However, is this approach truly good enough?

No, unsurprisingly, it is not. In fact, it is actually a potentially dangerous and misleading approach, as the aim of these conservative conservationists is clearly not to abolish the mistreatment and abuse of wildlife. They are merely trying to legalise and control the killing of individuals of undesired non-human species whilst preserving the option to continue to protect human interests by following a very selective anthropocentric approach. Most conservative conservationists do not recognise the needs of non-human individuals as such and are therefore promoting speciesism, which in human terms is equivocal to promoting racism. Speciesism is the moral discrimination against certain individuals because of their membership to a particular species. This includes undervaluing a being’s life or disregarding its suffering because it does not belong to a species humans have chosen to be worth protecting. The most common form of speciesism is anthropocentrism, the discrimination against non-human animals compared to humans.

However, there is no doubt, it is morally not justifiable to protect one individual by harming another. This truth can be inconvenient at times, and advocating against speciesism and anthropocentrism may not increase the follower-ship as quickly as desired. If one were to argue that discriminating against and exploiting non-human animals is justified because they are less intelligent, or because humans are stronger and have more power, then one would have to accept that this can be applied to humans who are less intelligent or less strong as well. This would mean discrimination against the very young and very old, the handicapped and injured members of our human society. Respecting others means caring about how our actions may affect them. Sentience – the capacity to experience suffering and joy – is the only factor relevant to determining whether someone’s life can be made better or worse. Other factors only affect the particular ways an individual can be harmed or benefited, but not the actual capacity to be harmed or benefited.

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