My definition of sentience is that any being who can understand others beings’ intentions, feel fear and pain, and be able to know joy and contentment, is sentient. This may not be the formal definition that cognitive scientists have adopted, it is my definition, which I have built up from many decades of living with animals, and it is the definition that I live by. I do not eat any animals and I do not accept any use of animals for scientific or medical research. Animal sentience may be different from human sentience, but it is sentience. Therefore, animals have rights, just as humans do. Killing or hurting an animal should carry the same penalty as committing the same crime on a human.
In the list of animal abusers I include those self-righteous pseudo-scientists who consider a species to be more important than a sentient individual. Those who think that it is acceptable to kill feral animals if, in their minds, those feral animals threaten the survival of some “native species”. For instance, and I am particularly sensitive to this, feral cats. My point of view is exactly the opposite: the life and well being of a single non-human sentient individual is more important than the survival of a species. I will always choose the life of a single feral cat over the survival of any number of bird species. I love birds too and feel terrible when a cat kills a bird. The cat, however, is only getting food, or practicing essential survival skills. And, crucially for the point that I am making, I feel sad for the bird as an individual, not for the species.
Feral cats may or may not be responsible for the demise of some bird and other animal species, but that is besides the point. Feral cats, as all other feral animals, are our responsibility as humans. We humans transported them from one part of the world to another without asking them their thoughts about the matter. And with this typically human, self-centered and short-sighted act came the responsibility of assuring the well being of those animals and their descendants. If that act was wrong, feral creatures are the product of an even worse human act, that of abandoning defenseless animals in an environment that was often radically different from the one where they evolved. But exterminating the feral progeny of abandoned and neglected animals is also wrong, and several wrongs do not add up to a right.
Once members of a species become feral they are part of the environment, and if we do not feed them and care for them they have a right to fend for themselves and survive. This applies to feral cats worldwide and to many other animals. It applies to Australian opossums in New Zealand (after all, humans of all ethnicities are also an invasive species in New Zealand, or for that matter everywhere but in the East African Rift Valley, where we evolved), to dingoes in Australia, to coqui frogs, mongoose and geckos in Hawaii, to raccoons in Europe. If a feral species is established and thriving then it is part of the environment. Accept it. Suck it up. Killing them is a senseless act of cruelty that accomplishes no goal. Animals who became feral are quintessential survivors and humans will not be able to “eradicate” them (a euphemism for murdering countless innocent creatures). If an “introduced” species causes the extinction of a “native” species, then that is simply too bad. And besides, don’t species that become extinct as a direct result of human action count? Shouldn’t we hold it against humans, that most pervasive and destructive of invasive species? I think that, if one is honest and gives this question even a little bit of thought, one will discover a monumental case of double standards. But of course, double standards are something that humans are very good at.
Something else in addition to honesty may be necessary in order to consider this question, however. That is the ability to feel compassion towards members of another species on an equal footing to the compassion that we may feel for our own species. Whether or not this is a uniquely human trait is debatable, but the many instances of non-human mothers adopting babies of a different species suggests that it is not a uniquely human emotion. Regrettably, it is not an emotion that all humans have, and it is infinitely sad to realize that this flaw in the character of many humans is at the root of so much suffering in the world.
But let’s get back to feral cats. You are almost certainly familiar with the scene: a group of feral or stray cats being faithfully fed by a few people, usually women but in not a few occasions men too. These feral cat colonies are a world wide phenomenon. In many ways the cats who live in them are lucky cats, who are able to live in freedom with compassionate humans looking after them, rather than spending a short time as numbers in a shelter with the all-too-often vain hope of being adopted, failing which they are killed as if their lives did not have any value. Many feral cat colonies are sanctuaries in which cats can live in relative safety and comfort. There is a beautiful feral cat colony next to the ocean at Anaeho’omalu Bay, in the Island of Hawaii, where a wonderful group of volunteers takes care of the residents. I would like you to meet some of the magnificent creatures who call this place home.
The cat in the opening image is named Princess, a very fitting name given her royal demeanor. She is the spokescat for the colony. Here is her side of the story:
I am a feral cat. I live in a colony in the island of Hawaii with my friends and family. There are some good humans with big hearts who take care of us. They make sure that we have plenty of food, water and shelter, and they help us heal when we get sick or injured. We cats have lived with you humans for many thousands of years. You took us with you in your travels around the world. We have kept your homes free of pests. We have enriched your lives with our beauty, our grace and our intelligence.
It is not our fault that many bird and other small animal populations are in decline. Blaming us for this catastrophe is hypocritical. Do you want to know who is responsible for causing one of the largest and fastest mass extinctions in the four billion years that our planet (ours as much as yours) has had life? Look in the mirror. Making us the scapegoats for your actions, and for the inevitable effect of your mindless population growth rate, will not solve any problems. You are the ones who are driving polar bears, pikas, whales, most of my large feline cousins and many many more species to the brink of extinction. You are the ones that caused the extinction of many large mammals in North America when you invaded that continent 15,000 years ago. You are the ones that caused the extinction of the moa, the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger, the passenger pigeon. You are the ones who exterminated grizzly bears, wolves and buffalo throughout most of the American West.
I also want you to understand that each of us is a sentient individual, just as you. We are able to understand other beings intentions, suffer pain and fear, and feel joy and contentment. No matter what your cognitive scientists and philosophers tell you, that makes us sentient, just as you. We have the same right that you do to live happy lives free of fear, hunger and pain. You are the only species that kills for the sake of killing. If we kill it is only because we are hungry, and because we evolved to be ultra-specialized carnivores, unable to digest anything but meat. We have neither malice nor cruelty. Perhaps we are better people than you are…
P.S. In case you got to this page following photographic interests, I will tell you this. I shot most of the pictures with a Zeiss Vario Sonnar 35-135mm manual focus lens and an Olympus OM-D EM-1 digital body. A very few I shot with a Lumix DMC-LX100 compact camera, which has a gorgeous Leica Vario Summilux lens on it.