How The Hen House Turns: Sentient Beings

How the Hen House Turns
Sentient Beings

As you may have noticed, in this column I tend to focus on animal awareness and street smarts (about humans (sometimes even about streets). Hence I took notice when I found Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” article in the February Scientific American subtitled “A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform ethics.”

As I struggled to find a positive way to speak in fiction about our iffy future, I took notice of  Shermer’s definition of the “moral starting point” as “the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.” (Italics are his.) In defining sentient, Shermer includes concepts like “emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and especially, having the capacity to feel and to suffer.”

Too often, when selecting what to write for the Hen House stories, I remember some of the most difficult moments—those that illustrate my birds’ or dogs’ capacity to feel and to suffer. We no longer disregard that capacity, at least in our fellow mammals. Hence our concern about overcrowding in factory farming.

Temple Grandin’s work comes to mind. As an inspector for McDonald’s she noted that a long list of things to check was not sufficient to keep the process of slaughter humane. One need only watch the animal’s behavior. A steer could shy at a small puddle of water if he saw a bright light reflected in it. Grandin’s book, “Animals in Translation,” is an eye-opener.

The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness declares that sentience is the most common characteristic shared by humans and nonhuman animals. Between us and them there is a continuity in the ancient subcortical region of the brain.

Shermer goes on to focus on the individual and its rights. It is the individual “…who survives and flourishes, or who suffers and dies…” The individual is the fundamental unit of nature, “…the main target of natural selection and social evolution…”

I have seen individualism in the Hen House gang. Every chicken, every goose–even every rabbit–was different—an individual with his or her own preferences for food and play, nesting and laying sites. They all got it when Little Bear Turkey died. The dog DeeDee and the birds gathered around her silent body as we all confirmed that turkey the individual was gone. Mine were the only tears, but the air was tense with concentration and focus, probably some question, unlike the birds’ usual behavior.

My suspicion that the birds understood something about death was confirmed when Mrs. Campbell the duck ran to me one morning from her nest box, obviously and unusually  agitated. Her second chick, the one I had to help from the shell, had died. At least that tiny bird had had a taste of life, enjoying a chance to try out her legs and swim free for two days. Perhaps it’s the moment that counts.