Dead elephant
Villagers look at the body of a dead elephant knocked down by a train in Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary in northeast India

The other day I wrote about John Gray’s The Silence of Animals. The silence of animals, says Gray, is not the same as the silence pursued by human beings.  The silence of animals is not a literal silence, for most sentient animals inhabit vivid sound worlds. It is, however, a world without the kinds of turmoil and torment that humans experience.

But today we listened to ‘The Roaring Crowd’, an episode from the excellent Radio 4 series Noise: A Human History.  In the programme Professor David Hendy, in the ruins of the Colosseum, conjured up the power of the roaring Roman crowd and told a story of animals in torment.

On days when there was a big event at a Roman arena, mornings were reserved for the venatio, or animal hunts. Since an important object of the entertainment was to celebrate the superiority of Roman power over enemies, in 55BC Pompey hit on what he thought would be a real crowd-pleaser. A century earlier, Rome had crushed the great Carthaginian Republic, so why not remember that triumph symbolically by recalling Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who waged war against Rome by bringing 38 war elephants over the Alps, by massacring a few dozen pachyderms Pompey had expressly shipped to Rome.  Truly, a spectacle no one would ever forget.

But things didn’t go quite as Pompey expected. Hendy gave us Pliny the Elder’s account of what happened, revealing just a hint that Romans saw animals as having human characteristics, thoughts, and emotions.  Pliny wrote:

Pompey’s elephants, when they had lost all hope of escape, tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey for which he soon afterwards paid the penalty.

Plutarch records that a staggering five hundred lions were killed on that day, but that the elephant fight was ‘a most terrifying spectacle’. Cicero, who was present, wrote to a friend that for several days there had been two animal hunts a day:

The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure. Indeed the result was a certain compassion and a kind of feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.

Gladiators Fighting an Elephant in an Arena
Gladiators Fighting an Elephant in an Arena: 17th century Italian engraving

Seneca, too, recalled the slaughter:

Pompey … according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, [but] thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds!

The elephants, wrote Cassius Dio, ‘were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them’.

And so they were: Seven years later, Pompey was stabbed to death in Egypt.

In this episode of Noise, David Hendy also recalled George Orwell’s famous account of the death of an elephant when he was serving as a civil servant in Burma in 1936.  Orwell was called upon to shoot an elephant that had run amok; the memory of its dying never left him :

It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock. In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die.

Orwell’s conclusion is a dry assessment of where the elephant stood in the colonial hierarchy:

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

It hasn’t been just John Gray’s book and David Hendy’s radio essay that have had me thinking about animal consciousness.  A few days before that I had read One of Us, an interesting essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from Lapham’s Quarterly.  He remarks at the outset that:

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly.

The most striking example of this came last July when a group of scientists gathered at Cambridge University for the first annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference. Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, spent the latter part of his career studying consciousness and in 1994 published a book about it, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul.  The upshot of the meeting was the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which was publicly proclaimed by three eminent neuroscientists, David Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, Philip Low of Stanford University and Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology.

The declaration concludes that:

Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

The question of whether animals are conscious has a long history, embracing philosophers, biologists and psychologists. If you’re interested, both Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have detailed accounts of the evolution of the debate online. In his essay, John Jeremiah Sullivan goes right back to those Ice Age artworks that I had the good fortune to see recently :

Trying to recapture the thought life of prehistoric peoples is a game wise heads tend to leave alone, but if there’s a consistent motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago, it’s animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else – lion or bird or bear. Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom. They were beings in a world of countless beings. Taking their lives was a meaningful act, to be prayed for beforehand and atoned for afterwards, suggesting that beasts were allowed some kind of right. We used our power over them constantly and violently, but stopped short of telling ourselves that creatures of alien biology could not be sentient or that they were incapable of true suffering and pleasure. Needing their bodies, we killed them in spite of those things.

Sullivan argues that only with the Greeks does the notion emerge of a formal divide between our species and every other animal on earth:

Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equalled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results. For them the matter was even simpler. The animals lack souls.

Or, as Rene Descartes put it two millennia later, they ‘eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing’. Man, on the other hand, thinks.

conscious animal

In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made the intriguing claim that among the naturalists he knew it seemed that the better one got to know a certain species, the more each individual animal’s actions appeared attributable to ‘reason and the less to unlearnt instinct’. Scientists were beginning to suspect that animals were rational.  Since Darwin, it’s largely been scientists who have probed the question of animal consciousness – and the clear trend in all their investigations has been towards more consciousness.  As Sullivan succinctly puts it: More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed.

This was made starkly clear in last year’s Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which stated unequivocally that those ‘neurological substrates’ necessary for consciousness belong to ‘all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses’.  Though what consciousness actually is, is anyone’s guess.  In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay, ‘What Is It Like To Be a Bat?’, in which he suggested that animal consciousness occurs when ‘there is something that it is to be that organism – something it is like for the organism’. Sullivan comments:

The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that.

There’s that wonderful passage on animal minds in Montaigne’s ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, where he writes about playing with his cat and wonders who is playing with whom. He finishes with a witty and deceptively profound final sentence: ‘We divert each other with monkey tricks’.

Meaning he and the cat. Both human being and cat are compared with a third animal. They are monkeys to each other, strange animals to each other. (The man is all but literally a monkey to the cat.) All three creatures involved in Montaigne’s metaphor are revealed as points on a continuum, and none of them understands the others very well. This is what the study of animal consciousness can teach us, finally – that we possess an animal consciousness.

Which is, more or less, what John Gray argues in The Silence of Animals.

As for morality – and recalling those screaming, dying elephants, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once wrote: ‘The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?’

See also


7 thoughts on “Animals: silent or screaming?

  1. Dear Gerry,

    I don’t know who might have doubted animal consciousness at some point; I certainly haven’t but I also don’t think that is the point. The point at issue surely isn’t whether the animals are conscious but rather conscious of being so, in other words, self-aware. This seems to me to be closer to whatever it may be that separates US from THEM. Also, there seemed to be some blurred borderline between consciousness and rationality in there.

    In among the Roman references, I was surprised to see — in this context at least — that no mention was made of the Romans’ assumption of animal consciosuness, after a fashion traceable to the very term ‘animal’: it comes from ‘anima’ or ‘soul’ so, regardless of our personal spiritual/religious positioning, the Romans thought the animals were possessed of a soul and, in all likelihood, consciousness.

    I think you put your finger on the nub of it all when you underline that no charlie actually knows what consciousness is, to my mind, because any given individual has only his own consciousness to examine the matter: there would have to be some sort of ‘flash-access’ to a meta-consciousness to provide any description of what passes for ‘consciousnss’.

    I was surprised to see in the clip some super-heavies too who attributed ‘similar feelings’ to animals as would be attributed to humans under certain stimuli: how could they possibly claim validity for ‘similar’.

    I do remember my own ‘odd feelings’ when watching a TV programme years ago, made by an academic bird specialist who was researching swans: he made a swan-body headpiece with an inbuilt camera and small breating unit and swam underwater gently in among a flock of swans on a river, expressly to get closer observations than usual but also to ‘get into the swan world’. It was a tour de force: you (I anyway) could actually sense as he entered and dallied in the group how gradually, your ‘own’ senses were being encroached upon by the sense of ‘what it must be like to be a swan’, or at least ‘something else’. All tripe of course inasfar as you have only your own consciousness to detect an alien one: the only conclusion you can draw is that it is different in a way inaccessible to words but nevertheless exciting stuff.

    Keep Up The Good Work


    1. Thanks, John; several interesting points there. I liked your formulation ‘the point at issue surely isn’t whether the animals are conscious but rather conscious of being so’: that helps in tackling the thorny question of what consciousness actually is. It does seem as though we’ve come round in a huge circle – from ancient times when humans sensed that animals had a parallel, if not equal, state of consciousness, to the present with scientists asserting that animals share ‘similar feelings’ with humans. As you suggest, how can they know? In ancient times it was that unknowability of animals that humans respected.

  2. You will be familiar with this Gerry, perhaps, but its worth the link back to John Grays review of Mark Rowlands book ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’ and its frankly terrifying conclusions as to our own nature and consciousness and that of animals consciousness (at least Brenins) and how we underestimate the forces that operate within them, both singularly and in their interconnection with each other and within the web of life. .

    Also, perhaps a familiar story and one that David Attenborough says set him off on his path as a young boy. Its a sad story, but one from which a man actually learned that the consciousness of animals, whether or not it exists or in what form, is one worth preserving and how he came down from his arrogant position to treasure that which he did not fully understand, but would endeavor to protect, regardless.

    Last year I had the good fortune to come into contact with a couple of wolves in the flesh at a wolf sanctuary on the Welsh Border. One, the male, Kgosi, 120 pounds of him, from which I was thankfully 2 feet the other side of a fence from him as he stalked up and down. His mate, Madadh, on two occasions I had the opportunity of meeting and feeding face to face, until Tony the owner sensed she had had enough of humans and was let loose. Was there evidence of a consciousness at work? I have no idea, Madadh did not say, though I suspect her indifference to me said it all.

    Perhaps we had better just assume that the creatures we share our existence with on this planet do indeed bear a soul and a conscience, otherwise history has already bore witness to what happens when we withdraw those allowances, which we may fully never understand and then a ‘thou’ becomes all to easily an ‘it’ and we excuse ourselves of our divinity and lose more and more species. If God is to exist at all, surely he lies in that which is ‘unavailable to the mortal man’. The mystery.

    New research has shown that our own human hearts appear to have 10 000 neurons which connect to the brain and indeed the brain and heart work together in a kind of marriage, but that the heart has a capacity to somehow be conscious of its environment and react accordingly. That ‘gut feeling’ is not to be ignored, but yet that which it ‘feels’ we cannot put it into words, but further we act on it rather than in a rational manner. Perhaps investigations will see that animals too have similar but more complex systems than we know. Beautiful and sad conclusion to this programme on YouTube which illustrates a language not yet understood rationally, but which poets, mystics and shamans wrote about for hundreds of years.

    The American writer and broadcaster Bill Moyers received the Global Environment Citizen Award from the Harvard Medical School, Centre for Health and the Global Environment in December 2004. Meryl Streep, a member of the Center Board, presented the award in recognition of Moyers’ reporting on the environment.

    In his acceptance speech, Moyers said:

    ‘We do know what we are doing. We are stealing [our children’s] future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world. And I ask myself: Why? Is it because we don’t care? …Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability to sustain indignation at injustice?… What has happened to our moral imagination?

    On the heath Lear asks Gloucester: “How do you see the world?”
    And Gloucester, who is blind, answers: “I see it feelingly.”
    I see it feelingly.

    Why don’t we feel the world enough to save it—for our kin to come? We must match the science of human health to the science of the heart, the capacity to see and feel and then to act as if the future depended on us. Believe me, it does.’

    Maybe as some suggest ‘consciousness’ comes about when we each discover language and not before. We cannot possibly know the language of animals, we may get insights here and there and even manage a communication across the divide between our species, just as they could never understand Stephen Kings theory that reading his book is telepathy.

    In Stephen Kings book ‘On Writing’, which is part memoir, part master class, about half way in, he heads a chapter, ‘What writing is’ and he describes a table covered with a red cloth and on it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, (that’s the rabbits, not the carrots) clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.
    Do you see it?
    Well there you go, now we’re doing it. I’ve just transmitted that picture, however odd it may be, from me to you. Wherever and whenever you are, either the other side of the world lounging on a beach or sitting in the smallest room in the house in the same street as me and whether you are reading this five hours or five years from when my fingers hit the keys, you have received my thoughts and transported them into your own mind and you now understand what I understand and you see what I see. As King says, your picture may vary somewhat from mine, but essentially you have it.
    It is nothing less than telepathy. As King says, “It’s no mythy-mountain shit; (it’s) real telepathy. I’m not going to belabour the point, but before we go any further you have to understand that I’m not trying to be cute; there is a point to be made.”

    1. A great deal to absorb here, Les. Thanks for reminding me of ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’. I only wrote about it a year ago, but already the drift of passing time had obscured it from view. John Gray’s review, apart from being perceptive, is interesting because it clearly prefigures ideas he develops in The Silence of Animals. As I watched the heart vs mind documentary I realised that I had seen that, too, some time ago. On one level it’s a beautiful film about one man’s search for meaning after experiencing pain and loss. I must admit, though, I found the examination of the science of the heart made me even more confused about not just the heart//brain relationship, but the brain/mind one, too. In the end, I thought, the presenter is still talking about the heart in the metaphorical sense that poets do, and maybe (I don’t know) placing too much weight on the significance of the science. But, relevant to this post, is his remark towards the end that what really distinguishes us a species is our ability to ‘feel someone else’s pain and feel compassion for the other’. This might be regarded as a key element of what we call consciousness. But I gather that there have been several experiments which suggest that other animal species possess this ability, too.

  3. Years ago I inherited some animals from my partner’s grandmother. They included 2 Chinese geese (old partners), a previously wild duck, an old sheep(ewe) and some chickens.

    One day the old gander stood against the fence under the persimmon tree and began to call out with long, loud sounds. All the animals gathered around him and just stood watching him. Not long after he died and none of the animals (with the exception of the chickens) ate for three days. I have always remembered this, as he was the oldest one of them all, and it seemed to me that they understood his imminent death and mourned his passing.

    It reinforced to me my belief in universal consciousness, and in animal consciousness and communication between different species. He was the oldest and seemingly the most revered. I wish I could have understood the message he was conveying. Animals are capable of showing as much compassion as human in my opinion and frequently conduct themselves with more dignity.

    1. Thanks, Kate, for reading and re-blogging. That is a moving and lovely story; I’ve heard others like it from time to time. See also the end of my reply to Les, above.

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