Going back to your points about sentient beings and our perception of other life forms. As you say, there is debate about how intelligent certain species are, how to measure that intelligence, whether they can feel emotions, what this all means. Being human, although we may try to be objective in assessing the cognitive abilities of other species, we are still limited by our own perceptions and interpretations.
I guess you would have come across certain situations with all manner of different species that have amazed you and made you re-evaluate your idea of how these organisms perceive their world. Most people who have pets, domestic animals or who have worked with wild animals can tell you interestng stories of certain encounters, but of course interpreting this into something that will not be labelled anthropomorphising is very hard. Often I think that our shame of anthropomorphising animals means we miss a lot of interesting details.
With regards to whales, I am sure that George, Ann and Peter can related stories that would suggest cetaceans are sentient beings and can feel fear as well as other emotions, and there is literature out there on studies into cetacean ‘intelligence’ and perception. For myself, I have had a few encounters that suggest to me that cetaceans are most definately sentient beings . One was with a southern right whale female I was cautiously observing in the water. I was careful to maintain my distance from her, but she kept positioning herself right next to me. If I would swim away she would follow. When I got tired and was treading water at one stage, she came up underneath me so that I was supported on her back. When I returned to the small boat and placed my hand in the water to say ‘goodbye’, she apporached the boat and lifted it up so that she could touch my hand with her back. Another encounter was observing a mother and calf humpback The mother was snoozing on the reef, but all of a sudden the calf looked up at me, left her side, swam straight up and put me on his belly, before casually rolling over and returning back to mum.
Why did these two animals choose to interact with me the way they did? Was I just a weird looking cetacean, or was I something quite different but that could obviously provide some tactile stimuli as well as perhaps ‘entertainment’? As I said, people who are close to pets and so on would have countless stories of special interactions with them.
Our preception of other species is also as you mentioned dependent upon cultural and religious beliefs. Whether we see ourselves as the pinnacle of all life and thus the ones to control it and dominant it depends often on these factors.
For me, I believe that as animals that can feel empathy, and have an awareness of themselves and others, we have a responsibility to ensure that our actions are not unnecessarily harming those others. Our relationships with animals should be humane and with careful thought for the past, present and future. Humans nowadays divorce themseves from the natural world, but in the end we are animals and part of that natural world, and could do well to remember that.
This note was originally posted as a comment here: http://www.jennifermarohasy.com/blog/archives/001806.html .