Do Plants Feel Pain? No, and Here’s How Scientists Know
Science•5 min read
In this guest post, United Poultry Concerns president and founder Karen Davis critiques an earlier editorial by Mikko Jarvenpaa and warns of the dangers of ranking animals by false measures of sentience or moral worth.
Words by Karen Davis
Upon reading From Shepherd to Advocate by Sentient Media founder Mikko Jarvenpaa, I made a note: “He would choose to inflict suffering on birds over mammals. He considers human life and experience more valuable and desirable than the life and experience of other animals.”
Jarvenpaa’s views struck me as a channeling of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who has used his discourse to disparage birds in general and chickens in particular while asserting that pigs are “without doubt the most intelligent” animals eaten in the Western world (Singer, 119). Jarvenpaa writes that after exploited humans, the pig, “rather uncontroversially,” is the “next most intelligent exploited animal.”
We do not know the mental capacities of any animal well enough to conclude that a particular type of animal is without doubt the most intelligent or the least intelligent, or number two, five or eight on a cognitive scale of ten. All such scales are existential nonsense.
In What Happened to Peter Singer? I critique Singer’s assertions about who is smarter than whom, or more emotional or more sentient or “merely sentient” – this animal or that animal? There is in these assertions a categorical presumption couched in a tone of pomposity, of men speaking to other men, from which a “feminine” sensibility is excluded (Davis 1995). An example is where Singer writes in his chapter “Reflections,” in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals:
Suppose I grant that pigs and dogs are self-aware to some degree, and do have thoughts about things in the future. . . . Still, there are other animals – chickens, maybe, or fish – who can feel pain but don’t have any self-awareness or capacity for thinking about the future. For those animals, you haven’t given me any reason why painless killing would be wrong, if other animals take their place and lead an equally good life. (89-90)
Similarly, Jarvenpaa writes:
[I]f I was forced to cause a proportionally similar amount of suffering to a chicken or to a pig, say, suffering equivalent to that of a lost limb, I would choose to cause the suffering to the chicken because I assume that action to cause less suffering both in quantity and – perhaps more controversially – in quality.
First let us look at the lost limb example, followed by the question of “quantity” of suffering in chickens versus in pigs, and then at the link between these two instances. The question of surgically and genetically mutilating animals and the suffering they experience in being thus mutilated has been studied for decades. Animals including chickens, turkeys and ducks have been systematically tortured and continue being tortured in experiments designed to extract “confessions” of suffering (suffering in the form of injury as well as the sensation of injury, as not all injuries are consciously perceived by the injured) from their bodies and minds (UPCa).
Scientists cite neurological evidence that the amputated stump of a debeaked bird continues to discharge abnormal afferent nerves in fibers running from the stump for many weeks after debeaking, “similar to what happens in human amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain” (Duncan, 5). The hot knife blade used in debeaking cuts through a complex of horn, bone, and sensitive tissue causing severe pain. In addition to the behavioral impairment of eating and preening with a partially amputated beak, a “memory” of the missing beak part persists in the brain, beak and facial sensations of the mutilated bird after “healing” has occurred.
As to the suffering caused by a severed limb, there’s a difference between, say, a missing finger, claw, or leg and a mutilated mouth. The latter is a far more consequential wound in that it involves the fundamental necessity of having to nourish oneself through pain and disfiguration affecting the entire face and gastrointestinal tract of the victim. Moving beyond generalities about suffering, let us understand that the beak of chickens, as with all birds, isn’t just this detachable “thing” they peck and poke around with:
The integument of the chicken (skin and accessory structures, e.g., the beak) contains many sensory receptors of several types allowing perception of touch (both moving stimuli and pressure stimuli), cold, heat, and noxious (painful or unpleasant) stimulation. The beak has concentrations of touch receptors forming specialized beak tip organs which give the bird sensitivity for manipulation and assessment of objects. . . . Beak trimming affects the sensory experience of a chicken in more than one way. It deprives the bird of normal sensory evaluation of objects when using the beak. (Bell and Weaver, 80)
Finally, let us put debeaking in a context in which the procedure is conducted by workers in farm hatcheries around the world. As soon as egg-industry hens, turkeys, ducklings, and birds used for breeding hatch in the mechanical incubators, they tumble down metal carousels into the hatchery “servicing” room where they experience, not the soft comfort and care of their mother hen, but the rough handling of the operators who holler and yell and grab them by their heads, necks, wings and tails while shoving their faces into the debeaking machinery, breaking bones, tearing and twisting beaks and damaging joints – all without anesthetic or veterinary care (Glatz, 87-92).
As to the “less suffering in quantity” that Jarvenpaa speculatively ascribes to chickens versus pigs, what does this mean exactly? If by quantity is meant the number of chickens versus pigs suffering in agribusiness, the number of abused chickens exceeds that of all other land animals and is second only to the number of aquatic animals suffering at the hands of humans in open waters and in fish factories (Fish Feel). Conservatively speaking, each year one billion pigs are slaughtered for human consumption worldwide versus 60 billion chickens comprising 40 billion “broiler” chickens, 6 billion egg-industry hens, 6 billion egg-industry roosters destroyed at birth, and millions of chickens used for breeding (UPCb).
My purpose in contrasting chickens and pigs is not to contend that chickens suffer more intensely than pigs – although chickens suffer and enjoy life just as much and as sensitively as pigs do – but to challenge the whole notion of sentient and cognitive ranking of animals (Davis 2011; Grillo). Ranking animals in a hierarchy of intelligence, pitting animals against one another according to some cognitive or sentient scale of awareness or feeling – a scale derived mainly from contrived laboratory experiments – is an aspect of cross-species comparisons that has no place in the animal advocacy vocabulary or thought-process. It’s an absurd, inaccurate and unjust way of relating to and conceiving of our fellow creatures, without relevance to the real world in which real animals live, experience their own nature and environment and make decisions for themselves, their families and other members of their communities throughout their existence.
It is also dangerous. Ethologist Marc Bekoff states that ranking animals on a cognitive scale and pitting them against each other as to who is smarter and more emotionally developed, or less intelligent and less emotionally developed, is not only silly but harmful, since these comparisons can be used to claim that “smarter animals suffer more than supposedly dumber animals,” whereby “dumber” animals may be treated “in all sorts of invasive and abusive ways.”
As Malcolm Gladwell observed in “The Order of Things,” in The New Yorker, “Rankings are not benign. . . . Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking” (Gladwell, 74-75).
Jarvenpaa writes that “reduction and elimination of involuntary suffering is perhaps the most universally appealing goal across most ethical frameworks,” and that involuntary suffering is “not a good thing.” Voluntary suffering is a conscious act committed on behalf of a perceived good, as when a person chooses to lay down his or her life for another or for a cause. In the animal kingdom there are plenty of instances of, for example, dogs willing to suffer and die to save their companions in peril and of avian parents risking injury and death to protect their young from predators.
It would seem that a more universal goal across ethical frameworks is to reduce and eliminate unnatural and deliberately inflicted suffering. In Animal Suffering and the Holocaust: The Problem With Comparisons, animal advocacy author Roberta Kalechofsky writes: “Most suffering today, whether of animals or humans, suffering beyond calculation, whether it is physiological or the ripping apart of mother and offspring, is at the hands of other humans. Pain is a curse, and gratuitous pain inflicted by humans on other humans or on animals is evil” (6-7).
Of suffering, Kalechofsky observes that the world today is the “same vale of tears described by psalmists and poets for millennia”; moreover, “with respect to suffering, pain, cruelty, and the ineptness of the human race to furnish even a modicum of ease for most human beings, nothing has changed.” Further is the fact that “most human beings everywhere are indifferent to the hideous suffering of the animal world, most of which is not inflicted by nature ‘red in tooth and claw,’ but by humans themselves” (16).
Considering the chronic misery human beings inflict on the sentient world as a matter of course, there is every reason to disagree with Jarvenpaa’s view that human life and experience are “indeed more valuable and more desirable than a non-human animal experience of life.” More valuable and more desirable to whom and for whom? I’d say it’s the person looking in the mirror, asking rhetorically, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
I do not share the view that human life and experience are the most “important” and desirable and that no matter what cruelties and hellishness we inflict on our fellow creatures, our existence should be celebrated. What good we bring is almost entirely to ourselves alone and does not benefit, but harms, the other inhabitants of the Earth and their homes. One need look no further than the current planetary mess of our making, so that for me, our desire for the eternal recurrence of human life is an affront (Davis 2019).
I will not re-watch the March of the Penguins by National Geographic because the majesty and mystery of the penguins, their ineffable selves and journeys, will probably soon be gone from the Earth except for some remnant individuals in zoos who will embody learned helplessness and shame including the human sexual assault and violation of their being to reproduce more victims for our entertainment and genetic extraction. Philosopher Dale Jamieson writes that if zoos are like arks, “then rare animals are like passengers on a voyage of the damned, never to find a port that will let them dock or land in which they can live in peace” (140). I hope that, like the pandas who are failing to “breed” under duress, these penguins will refuse to comply at the core of their nature that does not care to live under the obscene, soul-destroying circumstances we impose (Loeffler).
Jarvenpaa says of his involuntary connection to the slaughter of the sheep he befriended on his family’s hobby farm: “Betraying the trust of the innocent is the worst feeling I know.” The feeling that lodges in all of us who have felt the guilt of betraying those who trusted us and who needed our good faith, which we failed to keep, should arise each time we are tempted to betray an animal by offering him or her up for sacrifice to the “higher” animal construct – whoever, anthropomorphically, that may be at a given time. There are no “higher” animals, except in our heads, and we see where that fiction has led.
Karen Davis, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Karen’s books include A Home for Henny (a children’s book published by UPC); Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless ‘Poultry’ Potpourri (a cookbook published by the Book Publishing Co.); Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (Book Publishing Co.); More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books); and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities (Lantern Books). The 2009 Revised Edition of Karen’s landmark book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (first published in 1996) is described by the American Library Association’s Choice magazine as “Riveting . . . brilliant . . . noteworthy for its breadth and depth.” Karen’s latest book, published by Lantern Books in 2019, is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation – Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl. Amazon Reviews Praise For The Birds: From Exploitation To Liberation by Karen Davis, PhD.
Climate•7 min read
Health•7 min read