Animal sentience is generally defined as the ability to feel, perceive, be conscious, or to experience subjectivity. The word “sentience” comes from the Latin verb sentire, which means “to feel.”
The RSPCA Australia (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Knowledge Base website has a good definition that’s easily understood:
Animal sentience is the capacity of an animal to experience different feelings such as suffering or pleasure. Negative feelings or emotions include pain, fear, boredom and frustration, whilst positive emotions include contentment and joy. Sentience also extends to an animal’s ability to learn from experience and other animals, assess risks and benefits and make choices. These abilities rely upon animals being aware of changes happening around them (also known as perception) and being able to remember, process and assess information to meet their needs (also known as cognition).
Anyone who knows me knows I’ve never questioned the idea of animal sentience. I’ve accepted from the moment I could understand the concept that all of the animals around us are sentient. I see it daily in the lives of my dogs as well as the birds and mammals I observe regularly in the nearby forest.
Of course animals have feelings! Wild or domestic, animals experience joy and pain. They can be playful, loving or angry. They have families and extended communities they value and protect, just like us. They have rich inner lives that we can only guess at or comprehend.
And, they help their own as well as other species in acts of altruism.
Altruism is defined as a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare; the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
I’ve always been fascinated by stories of interspecies cooperation and altruism, of empathy between very different animals: a dog and elephant living in an elephant sanctuary becoming best friends; porpoises saving humans from sharks; humpback whales protecting seals from killer whales; an ape protecting a child who falls into their zoo enclosure. The examples are endless.
I recently came across an extraordinary and beautiful example of interspecies altruism on a local friend’s Facebook page.
Dan O’Malley lives in McCall, Idaho. His house is in a quiet area, close to undeveloped, forested land that’s full of wildlife. Over time, deer, fox, skunks, raccoons and squirrels have all learned that Dan’s yard is a safe haven for them. Even Dan’s cats welcome and interact with many of the animals. While Dan has become well-known locally for his photos of the many fox that visit him and his cats (see the link to a local news station interview below), it was Dan’s photos of a deer, a cat, and a bird that caught my attention.
The amazing encounter occurred August 31, 2018. Dan noticed his cat Blackie in his front yard, with a doe approaching quite close, which wasn’t all that unusual. But then Dan watched the doe nuzzle something in the grass next to Blackie. As the doe picked it up, Dan realized it was a bird that Blackie had apparently caught and left for dead.
“The bird appeared lifeless until the deer tapped it a few times with its tongue, while the bird was still in the deer’s mouth. I noticed the bird kick its legs. At this point, the deer lightly tossed it into the air, and the bird flew off into the woods across the street.”
Luckily, Dan was able to capture most of the remarkable scene with his camera and gave me permission to share the photos here.
Clearly there was “nothing in it” for the doe, who, if anything, risked a scratch on the nose from Blackie for coming so close. Nothing except altruism: helping another animal in need.
Those of us who have engaged in acts of altruism know the “high” the follows. Sure, that warm, fuzzy sensation post-deed is likely the result of a flood of hormones – endorphins along with some dopamine and oxytocin – but the good deed wasn’t done in anticipation of that hormonal reward. Instead, it was done because it was the right thing to do in the moment. Why should it be any different for other animals? And why is that concept so difficult for so many people to understand and accept?
I like to imagine countless similar examples of interspecies altruism occurring in “my” forest and, for that matter, around the globe – on land, in the sky, and in the oceans – every single day, away from prying (and mostly uncomprehending) human eyes. For allegedly being top of the intellectual chain, we humans – with our arrogance toward others species and animal sentience in general – can be incredibly stupid.
We have so much to learn from the natural world. All the more reason to do everything possible to protect and preserve it, along with all the creatures it sustains.
Dan’s Facebook page is public. He invites you to visit and enjoy his wildlife photos, even sharing them so long as you give him credit. Dan says he’s often asked if one of his photos can be used as inspiration for a painting or other work of art, and it’s easy to see why; his close-ups are exquisite.
To learn more about Dan and his photos of foxes and other wildlife in McCall, take a look at this video from an interview he did with a Boise, Idaho TV station in April 2020.
Please: No debates here about free-roaming cats, hunting, or raising/eating animals for meat. Those discussions can take place elsewhere. Such comments will be deleted here. Instead, let’s focus on the beautiful interaction between the doe and the bird she saved.
All photos published with permission of Dan O’Malley. Feature photo: a doe and her triplets – triplets! – visiting Dan’s yard August 14, 2020.