Does treating animals like humans make sense?

When it comes to animal welfare we can’t just consider what makes us humans feel good, and then apply that to animals. Animals must be respected as sentient beings, always. But for what they are, not for what we think or would like them to be. 

Animals deserve to be treated humanely and it is our responsibility to treat them with compassion and benevolence. However, we should not treat them as humans because it can actually be inhumane to do so.  

There is a big difference between humane and human: 

  • Humane treatment is defined as treating something with compassion and benevolence. 
  • Human treatment is defined as relating to, or characteristic of humans. 

So when it comes to animal welfare, everyone is obliged to treat animals humanely but not as humans. The treatment of domestic animals exactly as humans can even endanger their welfare.  

Take cows for example. Cows do not naturally live in a family unit like most people do as they are naturally ‘herd’ animals. This means that they are most comfortable with other cows their age and their size. When a cow has a calf that herd instinct does not go away. Initially after a calf is born, the cow will lick the calf to stimulate it and get the calf up and moving. Unlike a human baby, the calf will walk immediately and become very independent. After the initial exchange the cow will start to become anxious as she wants to get back to the herd. This can put the calf in danger, as the cow often forgets about her calf and may be stepped on or get injured. This is why it’s important to understand established animal husbandry practices and not just judge farm practices from a human-centric view.   

Treating animals like humans is called anthropomorphism and anthropomorphic views on farming are increasing worldwide. This refers to practices in which humans attribute human emotional and behavioural features to non-human animals and objects. For some people, this represents a means to reinforce the human-animal connection, display empathy towards animals, and show care and interest in their well-being. However, some anthropomorphic behaviours often driven by ideology may have a detrimental effect on animal welfare, both physically and emotionally. 

Although anthropomorphism may on occasion be a source of useful hypotheses about animal behaviour, it remains quite simply hypotheses and does not provide concrete, unambiguous facts on the general mental state of animals.