In​ November, the government voted to let go of a European law which declares that animals are sentient beings. At that time of year the cattle on my father’s beef farm in Yorkshire come inside for the winter, and we had recently separated a group of young bullocks from the rest of the herd. The bullocks went into a barn and the others were supposed to stay out for a few more days, but they didn’t like it, and expressed their dislike loudly. We had to move the bullocks’ mothers to a distant field far from the barn. Where we left them, there were several hedges, fences and closed gates between the cows and their offspring.

The following morning the mothers were standing outside the barn, bellowing. During the night they had jumped or broken through every hedge, fence and closed gate to get there. My father hadn’t thought this possible: the same barriers had, for years, kept all the animals in. The escape seemed to reveal that the cattle were able to get out at any time, if only they wanted to badly enough.

There is an argument that domestication is a regime men have imposed on other species to project a human idea of power onto a more-than-human relationship. But what if we thought of farming as an innovation of opportunistic animals? From that point of view, it is people who dedicate themselves to the propagation of cows. Leaving aside the compromises that cattle would be making in the circumstances, the argument isn’t easily disproved. The actions of other living things are cryptic. The farm gates look different to the farmer and to the animals. If a mother cow does not run through the hedge every day, it is not that she lacks the ability to do so, but that she has no cause to do it.

Because of this, the breakout didn’t make me feel that I understood these cows any better – in fact, the opposite. It was something like the experience, during the days following a birth or a bereavement, of looking out of the window and being surprised to see the neighbours going to work as usual: there is a sense that normal life is supported by a set of assumptions which are necessary, but not necessarily right. Derrida felt ashamed when he was caught naked in his cat’s gaze, and embarrassed, in turn, by this feeling of shame. My father repaired the gates.

When, a few years ago, I first attended an animal studies conference, I was struck by the extent to which the delegates lived out their specialism. At the vegan lunch buffet there were spring rolls with hummus and a brown bean salad, which, in the absence of cutlery, we ate with our paws. Intellectually, the unusual thing was that the post-paper discussions, whether on philosophy or veterinary research, led inexorably to a conversation about the delegates’ dogs. We considered whether dogs enjoy kissing their humans (with and without tongues), the ethics of guide dogs, the physiology of the canine nasal passage, the racism of South African police dogs during apartheid and, of course, whether a dog should be vegan. I do not have a dog, and I kept quiet. The official subject of the conference was not dogs.

This mix of the professional and the personal was exciting and uncomfortable. It created a low-level, background hum of conflict between the documented and the anecdotal. A rigorous long-term experiment undertaken by a group of distinguished professors was undermined by an undergraduate who put up her hand with a single observation about her flatmate’s pug. The controlled laboratory setting can appear reductive and even false in real life. Events in other animals’ lives, for example, how they eat or quarrel with one another, are cast as the mechanistic exhibition of behavioural traits rather than as events experienced by complicated beings. I was reminded of the captive chimpanzee Sultan in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, who is commissioned to prove his intelligence by stacking crates to reach a bunch of bananas that has been suspended from the ceiling. Coetzee imagines Sultan’s response to this set-up. The bananas on the wire, he believes, are there to make him think, to spur him to the limits of his thinking. Instead of working out how to stack one crate on top of another, he wonders why he is being kept hungry, why the researcher has stopped liking him and whether the researcher no longer needs his crates. None of these is the ‘correct’ thought. More complex ideas cross Sultan’s mind: what is wrong with the researcher, and what malformed concepts cause him to believe that it’s easier to reach a suspended banana than to pick one up from the floor? These thoughts are also wrong. ‘The right thought to think is: how does one use the crates to reach the bananas?’ The premises of the experiment are made to appear extravagant: its central assumption, that the chimpanzee will have a simple and stable relationship with a bunch of bananas, is wrong. Like the theory of domestication, the scene in The Lives of Animals doesn’t make a serious argument so much as give a disconcerting taste of what it is like to be alienated from normal reason. There lingers a troubling feeling that humans could be wildly underestimating the ways in which other animals might experience their lives.

This doesn’t mean, though, that to get a more accurate picture of animal experience, we simply have to look at animals more. Studies repeatedly show that eyewitness testimony, although it is one of the least reliable forms of evidence, is among the most persuasive to a jury. At the animal studies conference, there was a tense discussion about friendship between humans and their pets. Somebody brought up Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, in which a man comes to believe that a wild bear is his friend, and is eaten by it.

How, then, might a human being find terms for the motives for, or meaning of, another animal’s actions? On the one hand, we could use our unusual brains to study animal behaviour by using regulated procedures to create what is known as evidence. On the other hand, we could look at the cows and pugs around us, and think what we like. After the conference, I spoke to Françoise Wemelsfelder about how the two paths can come together. Wemelsfelder is a professor at Scotland’s Rural College in Edinburgh, where she and her colleagues have developed a scientific methodology to gauge spontaneous assessments of animal welfare. That is, her work explores the way a human might learn to interpret what animals are feeling, by paying close attention to the expressive qualities of their movements: whether, for example, an animal is behaving in a relaxed, anxious or tense way. She believes that an ability to understand animal feelings comes naturally to humans, and that while this ability is not invulnerable, it can be honed. ‘When we first started out, we simply put groups of people in front of groups of pigs and said: “What do you see? What do you think these animals are feeling?”’ The completed assessments were surprisingly consistent, and correlated well with other indicators of animal welfare.

Some of Wemelsfelder’s colleagues are hostile to her work. They think that human impressions of animal lives should not be given a role in scientific and legal evaluations of how happy another animal is. Wemelsfelder describes a tendency in the behaviourist community to regard abstract theories and concepts as more real than experienced reality, which is shrugged off as mere appearance. ‘To this day, there is this conventional received view that you cannot see what animals feel. The problem comes when people say: “But this is just the outside!”’

I am not sure how far inside another animal’s experience I want to go. Wemelsfelder sees her work, as a whole, as engaging with other species rather than trying to understand everything about them, and this makes sense to me. Different living things live differently: a cow can batter down a gate, or hurdle it, if she really wants to. I know how to climb over it or open the catch. To smell the world with the sensitivity of a bloodhound would make every lamppost overwhelmingly interesting but it would take a long time to get to the bus stop. ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,’ Eliot says in Middlemarch, ‘it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ If Eliot is describing an ‘element of tragedy’ which defines ordinary human activity, think how daunting it would be to experience life as another animal. Middlemarch finds in Coventry something which we struggle to extrapolate from the whole of non-humanity: a mode of being which is dignified as well as alien.

This is a challenge not only for novelists, scientists or farmers with fences to maintain. It is a live matter for legislators. The British government is currently constructing a new legal framework for human-animal interaction which will come into being when European regulations go defunct after Brexit. Title II Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty currently guides policy creation in light of the fact that ‘animals are sentient beings.’ When the clause was pushed out of UK law by 18 votes, there was an angry and slightly bewildered public response (when any response was registered at all). Parliament, in turn, reacted with some confusion. Michael Gove issued an official statement from Defra saying that the government wasn’t necessarily saying that animals are not sentient, but that it was saying it won’t say that they are. Gove’s statement considers the question of animal sentience solely in the context of human abuse of animals. He pledges to expand on a robust British tradition of animal welfare which would, he argues, be weakened by this ‘faulty’ European clause.

It is true that Britain has a long history of protecting animals, dating back to the 1822 Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, which is recognised as the first of its kind and which outlawed the ‘wanton and cruel’ beating, abuse or ill-treatment of livestock (‘cattle’ referring to animal ‘chattel’, rather than just cows), with a minimum penalty of ten shillings. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 is substantially committed, as Gove says it is, to high standards. However, its clauses do not have much to say about laboratory or farm animals, or many species in the wild. They largely relate to domestic animals, the category of nonhuman which, given that human-style consciousness is, if anything, over-attributed to most pets, is least in need of a law certifying sentience. (I have lost count of the number of house cats I have heard described as ‘neurotic’.)

EU rules, Gove argues, prevent us from cracking down on puppy smuggling, though he doesn’t explain how bringing into law the statement that ‘animals are sentient beings’ would hinder it. His colleague Teresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet, also issued a statement on the issue, in which she pledges to hold Gove to his promises and accepts that, in the reality she occupies when she is not voting in Parliament, ‘animals are sentient, can feel pain, and have feelings.’ In spite of the Lisbon Treaty, Villiers notes, the Spanish continue to throw goats off their church roofs. How typical of them. When she has dealt with this goat situation, she can turn her unusual logic to the problem with our laws against murder. They do not prevent murderers from murdering – perhaps we should replace them too.

So, Villiers and Gove say that they are not anti-sentience, but anti-pro-sentience, and not in real life, and only for the time being. They want us to see their vote against animal sentience as merely the outward expression of something whose inner truth is deferred, perhaps indefinitely. (In the meantime we are supposed to overlook the fact that their outward expressions have made law.) Their scrambled and scrambling statements suggest a sense of shame. You know the story: you cast your vote against animal sentience and you feel it’s reasonable to do so, but then you have to go home and undress in front of the cat.

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