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Let Sleeping Dogs Obsess: Bowser contemplates life on the food chain.

Do Animals Dream of Electric Sheep?

A critic considers what separates humans from animals beyond our ability to read menus

By Elisa Camahort

I was having lunch with a girlfriend recently, and she was lamenting that she couldn't seem to stop overthinking, overanalyzing and nearly obsessing about something that was 99.9 percent likely not to happen. She could tell herself that she was being ridiculous, but all the same she couldn't seem to stop the wheels from turning when it was 2am and she really needed to be sleeping.

I said, "You know, there are lots of people that think that what separates us from the animals is our ability to think, but an animal would never do that to itself. You'd never catch an animal driving itself crazy like that. Animals probably don't suffer from insomnia--self-induced insomnia, even less! That's what really separates us from the animals--we're idiots!"

It was a silly joke, but it made me think.

I happen to believe that animals think. And that they understand cause and effect. And that they can develop plans. Over time my cat, for example, has learned where I keep the cat treats in my room, and has learned that I really, really want her to be quiet at 6am. What had been occasional morning whining to be fed has now been augmented by her meowing by my head and then walking over to the cat treats--and back again--until I get the subtext, which is: "Hand over the Pounce, and I shut up." She didn't always do this, mind you. It is a strategy she has developed and refined over time. But no matter how much credit I give her for nefarious plotting to deprive me of sleep and therefore lower my resistance to her manipulations, I don't believe that my cat or any other animal spends a lot of time analyzing itself, its relationships, its actions. She is satisfied when her plan works, and wastes no time feeling a pang of guilt at the pain it causes me to be awoken at 6am.

(It is probably this sleep deprivation that has led to long ramblings about my cat and her evil plans to rule the world.)

I know that animals feel. They definitely feel physical pain, no different from the pain I feel. I also believe they feel emotional pain, such as fear or dread. They certainly feel contentment--and the opposite of that. It is this ability to feel that drives my commitment to vegetarianism.

It is the human race's ability to think and feel that drives my belief that vegetarianism is the logical choice for anyone, not just the emotional choice for me.

I started to consider vegetarian-ism because I felt sympathy for the conditions of factory-farmed animals, and antipathy for the violence of slaughter. But what sealed the deal for me was thinking it through: there was no reason to not be a vegetarian. I am not physiologically required to eat meat. I am not constrained in any material, important way by my vegetarianism. Do I sometimes whine about restaurants not serving me enough choices, or high-quality vegetarian food? Sure. But I don't starve. Is vegetarianism healthier, in fact, for most people? Yes, it is.

In addition, I could use reason to determine that it is illogical to base the ethics of causing pain or death on whether or not the subject thinks at a higher level--because you'd be opening the door to a whole new crop of test subjects or cuisine options: the infants, the senile, the mentally challenged, the wingnut! It is enough for me that they feel pain, and I don't need to cause them that pain to live my life quite well.

People say to me, "Animals eat animals--it's a food chain thing." True enough, they do. They are driven by both instinct and physiological requirement. And unlike us, I sincerely doubt they have the thought processes to think about it or judge it. Nor do I think they feel guilt or regret.

But we do. If we really want to consider ourselves superior for our wonderful ability to reason and for our finer feelings, then we should use that reason and those feelings to make the more humane choice. Now that would really separate us.

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From the August 3-10, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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