DAO 75:87-98 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/dao075087

Contribution to the DAO Special 'Welfare of Aquatic Organisms'

Aquatic animals, cognitive ethology, and ethics: questions about sentience and other troubling issues that lurk in turbid water

Marc Bekoff*

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0334, USA

ABSTRACT: In this general, strongly pro-animal, and somewhat utopian and personal essay, I argue that we owe aquatic animals respect and moral consideration just as we owe respect and moral consideration to all other animal beings, regardless of the taxonomic group to which they belong. In many ways it is more difficult to convince some people of our ethical obligations to numerous aquatic animals because we do not identify or empathize with them as we do with animals with whom we are more familiar or to whom we are more closely related, including those species (usually terrestrial) to whom we refer as charismatic megafauna. Many of my examples come from animals that are more well studied but they can be used as models for aquatic animals. I follow Darwinian notions of evolutionary continuity to argue that if we feel pain, then so too do many other animals, including those that live in aquatic environs. Recent scientific data (‘science sense’) show clearly that many aquatic organisms, much to some people’s surprise, likely suffer at our hands and feel their own sorts of pain. Throughout I discuss how cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) is the unifying science for understanding the subjective, emotional, empathic, and moral lives of animals because it is essential to know what animals do, think, and feel as they go about their daily routines. Lastly, I argue that when we are uncertain if we are inflicting pain due to our incessant, annoying, and frequently unnecessary intrusions into the lives of other animals as we go about ‘redecorating nature’ (removing animals or moving them from place to place), we should err on the side of the animals and stop engaging in activities that cause pain and suffering.


KEY WORDS: Ethics · Cognitive ethology · Animal emotions · Animal protection · Animal welfare · Animal rights · Sentience · Animal pain · Animal suffering


Full text in pdf format