Sentience and welfare: The convergence of Dharma and science
May 24, 2017 – St Catharine’s and King’s College, Cambridge, England
Today His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa left London and travelled north to Cambridge, a city whose name has become almost synonymous with its world-famous university. The Karmapa’s visit to Cambridge was hosted by the International Buddhist Confederation’s Secretary for Environment and Conservation, Dr Barbara Maas.
His Holiness’s day in Cambridge began with an academic seminar on animal sentience and animal welfare science, and their significance for our relationship with and treatment of animals. Veterinarians turned animal welfare scientists, Dr Murray Corke and Peter Fordyce from the University’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, provided His Holiness with background about the complexities of assessing the wellbeing of animals and introduced him to some of the latest research developments that have transformed our understanding of animal awareness and suffering. These include a wide range of behavioural and physiological measures, which can be used to assess animal welfare.
His Holiness agreed with Dr Fordyce and Dr Murray that our attitude towards animals not only depends on the use we make of them—be it as farm, companion, laboratory or wild animals—but also varies widely between different cultures and geographical regions, and it is irrespective of the objective experience of the animals themselves. Self-centredness and failure to understand the consequences of human actions is at the very heart of the problem.
“Much of the terrible suffering endured by animals at our hands is caused by ignorance. It is therefore very important that we tell people about the depth of their awareness and their capacity to feel pain and fear, so that we can improve their lives and avoid violence towards them,” His Holiness said.
More than 1070 million animals, including cows, pigs, turkeys, geese, and chickens were killed in the UK for their meat in 2016 alone, highlighting the ethical questions raised for the process of meat production from rearing to slaughter. But even much loved companion animals can suffer greatly as a result of selective breeding or mutilation to enhance specific traits—as for example with some dog breeds—or inappropriate care. The latter is particularly relevant for the growing fashion and demand in exotic pets such as lizards and snakes, which not only harms individuals but whole populations and species in the wild. Seventy percent of snakes, lizards, tortoises and almost all of the 40 million fish imported into the UK every year die within a year. Compassionate ways to deal with feral or stray dog and cat populations through humane catch, neuter and release programmes were also identified as a priority.
The seminar participants concluded that we need to pay more attention to the animal’s perspective, because that is the important one. As we know what the needs of many animals are, we have a responsibility to respect them. Instead of a parasitic relationship with animals we should move towards one that is mutually beneficial and in which the physical, health and mental needs of both parties are met.
Following the seminar, His Holiness’s party took a short walk to King’s College, which was founded in 1441 by Henry VI and is one of 31 colleges in the University of Cambridge. Like the university itself, the College has an outstanding academic record, a strong tradition in research and counts many Nobel laureates among its present and past Fellowship. His Holiness was welcomed by the Head, or Provost of the College, Prof Michael Proctor, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Chapel, and other senior academics, including Prof Caroline Humphrey DBE, Director of the University’s Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, Tibet expert Dr Hildegard Diemberger from the Department of Social Anthropology, and Lhendup Tharchen, a wildlife conservation expert from Bhutan. Also present were Ven. Ato Rinpoche and his wife.