Amy Hatkoff Interview | Thinking Animals United

DISARMINGLY INTELLIGENT

Amy Hatkoff for Interview crop © Liktorius 2013

Do cows feel a sense of accomplishment when they learn a new task? Are chickens capable of understanding the concept of “future”? In her book, The Inner World of Farm Animals: Their Amazing Social, Emotional and Intellectual Capacities (foreword, Jane Goodall, afterword, Wayne Pacelle, President of The Humane Society of the United States), author Amy Hatkoff examines the fascinating research that sheds new light on the farm animals we sang about as children. Her extensive research offers compelling scientific evidence that these familiar yet misunderstood animals are sentient, intelligent beings, who demonstrate a complex array of emotions and learning capabilities. In a recent interview with Ms. Hatkoff, we discussed her motivation for writing this book, and how she hopes this research will help to improve the lives of the billions of farm animals we consume each year.

What was your motivation for writing this book?

The inspiration to write this book came while I was riding a bus in New York City. I saw a sign depicting a cow who looked disarmingly intelligent, but at the same time appeared to be in great distress. It was a light bulb moment prompting me to write about who farm animals truly are and bring their capacities to light.

 In your book you talk about your visit to the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. At the sanctuary did you see any evidence that would support the research on the cognitive and emotional capabilities you wrote about in the book?

cow-goatMy experience at the sanctuary confirmed so much of the research I had uncovered in my conversations with scientists around the world. It was clear that farm animals had preferences, personalities and emotions. Some seemed shy, some seemed curious, some were playful, and some seemed withdrawn. They were very social with one another, as well as the staff and visitors.

Bernard Baars, former senior research fellow at the Institute for Neurosciences at San Diego, is quoted in my book as saying “After seven years of cumulative discoveries…about consciousness, we have not yet found any fundamental differences between humans and mammals.” At the sanctuary, I had a very strong sense of the animals’ consciousness. They seemed so “tuned in” and aware of their surroundings, themselves, each other as well as of the staff and visitors. They seemed to have an uncanny sense of things. As Jane Goodall opens the book, “We have to understand that we are not the only beings on this planet with personalities and minds.” This was very clear to me on this visit.

… farm animals had preferences, personalities and emotions. Some seemed shy, some seemed curious, some were playful, and some seemed withdrawn …

As science makes it clear that animals are thinking, feeling beings, hopefully we will gather strength and momentum in bringing about a shift in how they are treated.

The research findings are very compelling. What do you believe provides the strongest evidence for the cognitive abilities you discuss in your book?

turkeyI was amazed at the wide body of research confirming the cognitive capacities of farm animals including their complex thinking, intricate language, memory, intention, and problem solving abilities. For example, cows get excited and demonstrate physiological changes when they are able to solve a problem. They have also been observed using tin sheds to possibly amplify their separation call to their calves. If so, this would indicate tool use, a sign of higher thinking. Pigs can learn to play video games on the computer, identify and fetch objects upon request, and remember these same objects years later. Chickens can use geometric principles to problem solve. Baby chicks learn from watching videos, just as human children learn from watching television. Sheep, who are by nature herding animals, and who experience separation anxiety when removed from their flocks, can be calmed by looking at photographs of familiar sheep. Male sheep actually show a preference for the faces of female sheep who most resemble the faces of the male’s mother! The list goes on and on. The original title of the book was Closer Than We Think, and on page after page, there is scientific evidence that speaks to these similarities and capacities.

What, in your opinion, are the implications of these research findings for the way we treat animals in society, and particularly farm animals?

The science is very powerful and can play a strong role in helping to dislodge assumptions, myths, and misconceptions about animal cognition. It makes the information harder to dismiss, and can therefore serve as ammunition to bring about change in policy and put some protections in place, as there are so few for farm animals, and other animals around the world. As science makes it clear that animals are thinking, feeling beings, hopefully we will gather strength and momentum in bringing about a shift in how they are treated.

What do you think is the best way to inform people who might not be inclined to read up on the newest science on animal cognition?

pigI think you can reach and move people in a variety of ways. In the book, I tried to bring the science to life and make it more palatable and compelling by combining the research with stories of individual animals. I also gave the animals a voice, letting them translate the scientific findings into simple headline captions conveying their capacities and rich inner lives. I used photographs to deepen the experience and connection with the animals. The science is critical, but it can reach a wider audience when combined with other elements. The stories are meant to speak to the heart, put some soft edges around the hard science and move us so that we are more motivated to support and protect the animals.

I think organizations and lecture series like Thinking Animals are critical as they can change public perception and lead to action. We need to teach young children who the animals truly are, and encourage their compassion. One-on-one conversations whenever and wherever possible will help to widen the conversation and make the animals’ reality more visible.

What is your take-away message?

Farm animals are so much more intelligent and aware than we ever imagined! The book is designed to help us see their capacities, to shift our thinking, and to inspire action and compassion on their behalf.

Any last comment?

Change is hard! We are exposed to ideas that are not based on knowledge and often accept them as true. It takes work to ‘wake up’. This is an exciting time, with the science exploding on many fronts. Hopefully, that science will lead us all forward: to greater truths, to greater compassion, greater change, and ultimately, to greater peace for the animals and ourselves.

It takes work to ‘wake up’. This is an exciting time, with the science exploding on many fronts …

megan-mcgrathInterviewed by Megan McGrath, writer and student in animal behavior and conservation, New York.

No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.