Lincoln Professor joins calls to recognise feelings and emotions in animals

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A world-renowned expert in animal cognition at the University of Lincoln, UK, joined a global consortium of scientists and philosophers to sign the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness.

Professor of Animal Cognition Anna Wilkinson, alongside co-signatories last month, signed the declaration to state consciousness in reptiles, amphibians and others is a ‘realistic possibility’, underpinned by strong scientific support.

The degree to which animals possess a conscious experience of the world remains uncertain, however, this declaration marks an important juncture in the field of animal ethics, supported by growing empirical evidence which suggests there is a wide range of animals, including invertebrates and vertebrates, that do possess an ability to subjectively experience their surroundings.

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In 2022, the UK Government announced a new law, with the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act, as formal recognition of the sentience and welfare needs of all vertebrate animals and paving the way for more robust legal protection for the welfare of animals.

A red-footed tortoise, at the University of Lincoln's Cold-blooded Cognition LabA red-footed tortoise, at the University of Lincoln's Cold-blooded Cognition Lab
A red-footed tortoise, at the University of Lincoln's Cold-blooded Cognition Lab

The New York declaration brings new moral relevance to how we understand sentience, outside of our own species and underscores the ethical implications and obligations of considering all animals as individuals.

Professor Anna Wilkinson at the University of Lincoln, commented: “I was delighted to be part of this ground-breaking declaration, it is particularly important to consider feelings in species that are less similar to humans and may have feelings and emotions but not exhibit them in ways that we, as humans, are readily able to recognise.

“Consciousness or sentience is hard to demonstrate with a single study but, taken together, work demonstrating animal feeling, emotions and cognition can start to pave the way towards this understanding.

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“Our research investigating the remarkable cognitive abilities in reptiles and amphibians has formed an important part of this evidence.

"We have shown that salamanders have substantial long-term memory, lizards can learn from each other, tortoises can feel emotions and change their behaviour on the basis of this.

"Taken together, this amongst other evidence, suggests that these groups of animals have a realistic likelihood of consciousness and that it is important to treat them as such when making decisions about them.”