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Scientists urge policy makers to consider animal cognition in their laws

Black-tailed prairie dogs
Black-tailed prairie dogs
Nat Geo

The Humane Society Institute for Science & Policy is sponsoring a symposium next week in Washington DC entitled The Science of Animal Thinking and Emotion: Sentience as a Factor in Policy and Practice.

Excerpt from the website:

Science is making stunning discoveries about animal cognition, awareness and emotion. How can we leverage this information for positive change in government and industry? This two-day conference brings together thought-leaders in the science and implications of animal sentience, and influential voices in the policy and corporate domains. As the bedrock of ethics, sentience deserves a more prominent place in the legislative and corporate landscape.

Dolphins and whales are well-known for their language and communal abilities, but increasingly experts are discovering sophisticated levels of reasoning among other species.

One of the most stunning discoveries about animal language was outlined in a 2009 Harvard University Press book co-authored by Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, who is an expert in animal language.

Dr. Con’s book is called Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society. The years-long study concluded that prairie dogs have a sophisticated language that is capable of communicating very distinctive details about approaching predators, including humans—as the prairie dog sentinels bark, yip and chirp the size, level of threat and even color of clothing worn by the bad guy— to warn the colony of impending danger.

“The first step in conserving anything is an awareness of the value of its existence,” wrote Dr. Con. “One can intellectually respect its right to life but one cannot truly feel its worth or know what is required to save it.”

More comprehensive studies are needed, reasons Dr. Con, to understand an animal’s role in the ecosystem and provide people with the information needed to make informed conservation decisions.

Furthermore, elephants, long known for their exceptional memory, are another example of sentient cognition.

Researchers recently discovered that elephants have observation skills, which allows them to distinguish between people who are a threat to them and those who aren’t.

"Basically they have developed this very rich knowledge of the humans that they share their habitat with," said Karen McComb , a professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of Sussex in England. "Memory is key. They must build up that knowledge somehow."

The study released on Monday, as reported by MSN News, included the use of voice recordings and observations of wild elephants living among humans in the Akmboseli National Park in Kenya.

Occasional conflicts over grazing land and water resources caused Maasai [Unlink] men to kill elephants previously, with fewer assaults coming from Kamba tribal men. So recordings of their voices caused elephants to respond with different levels of defensiveness; more retreating and bunching when hearing Maasai voices than Kamba men, but the sound of women’s voices caused no fear in the elephants.

Wildlife biologists would like to see behavioral factors, including the ability of some animals to think, perceive and communicate, to be considered at the legislative level when managing biodiversity and natural resources.

Many species of wildlife are facing extinction in the next few decades if measures aren’t taken to protect them. Most are sentient, aware creatures and they have the right to live, instead of facing constant extermination by humans for benefit, profit, sport or entertainment.

For more information on the March 17-18 Science of Animal Thinking and Emotion conference at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, click here.


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