How do you measure the value of a being?
As a strictly C student and general underachiever I can say with the utmost confidence that no, not all animals are intelligent. When your family celebrates a barely passing grade or the fact that yes, you got your degree after ten years, you look at the world through a different lens. So I am of average or slightly below average intelligence and while I want desperately to contribute to the greater good I am too busy writing each day's chores on tiny yellow and pink sticky notes that festoon my office until my computer looks like it's wearing a pair of garish pantaloons. But does that give you the right to eat me? Does it give you the right to hunt or corral me, cook me and devour me with impunity? If I am not as cute as the next guy and can't use tools, should I be nothing more than sustenance for the smarter ones who consider themselves the top of the food chain (you know who you are)? Should I have my beak removed or be imprisoned in a stall so small I am unable to move, see the sun, experience joy? If you are indeed a human animal the correct response would be no. And yet we do this and much more to our brother and sister animals who reside alongside us on this planet.
I argue today that just because you don't recognize intelligence or feelings in another animal, does not mean they are not there. Maybe you have to look more closely. Or maybe we are just in denial. So you catch a fish and he is thrashing about on the deck of your stinky fishing boat (known undoubtedly to the fish swimming below as "Threat Level Minimal" because maybe you aren't such a great fisherman). I remember as a child being told that the fish is merely leaping and flopping due to nerve endings or some primal fight or flight reaction and it does not feel pain. Most likely the fish was referred to as an "it" thereby keeping it even further distanced from something for which we might feel sympathy. My goodness but doesn't that look like pain? Or at least panic? I suppose one might react that way if they were suddenly seized by the lip and hoisted violently from the environment that sustains their life. I am not the brightest bulb, but even as a dumb little kid I thought the fish looked an awful lot like he was suffering. Most likely I named him Sam and then my family ate him and the incident was soon forgotten (because I did not write it on a sticky note). I don't eat Sam anymore.
On a recent trip to Aksarben Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska I encountered a massive catfish swimming tight circles in a tank in the lobby. My sister and I approached him and stood watching for a very long time as he swam languidly around and around. But after a short while he began to circle more slowly. I call the fish a "he" only because the barbs around his mouth looked like a mustache. All apologies if the fish was a female (we've all had that problem now and then). As the fish swam by us his eyes caught mine. Over and over now the big fish was locking eyes with me as he curved his way past me through the glass. His eye contact became more intense the longer we stood there. Other people walked by and I saw him glance at them and then continue his slow circles, beginning his gaze further back and maintaining his stare as he came close. My sister Jo and I were not growing impatient standing there. Neither of us wanted to move on to the next tank because we both felt like the fish, the object of entertainment at the aquarium, was being entertained by us. Yes, he had very low standards. And we felt a strange, creeping sense of something huge dawning on us. It was certainly not something that we had never considered, both of us being animal lovers, but it was something passed onto us with a sudden urgency and validity by the big, bored catfish. Suddenly my sister and I were assaulted by the notion, no, by the fervent belief, that this fish was just like us.
His circles slowed to nothing and suddenly he was just hovering in his tank facing us. His eyes did not gaze ahead blankly, but looked into mine, and then my sister's, with purpose. Meanwhile the other fish in the tank, much smaller and less arresting than this large beauty, began to line up as well. They were pikes with long noses and a few smaller catfish one might not even cast a glance at because they were so overshadowed by their enormous tank mate. They all seemed as if they were waiting to be entertained. We had brought the activity in the tank to a standstill. I never even thought fish really noticed the things happening outside their fish tanks, and yet this little captive crowd had gathered to watch the watchers. It may seem a non-event to you, reader, and perhaps no measure of intelligence or comprehension but simply creatures captivated by something outside their environment, but had you been there to see it unfold I suspect strongly you would feel differently.
A lesson from a fish
Ultimately the experience changed me. My sister and I eventually moved on from that particular fish tank before security had to remove us and visited the other inhabitants of those aquariums. There was a mud puppy who rather did look like a dog. There were amphibians and turtles and a disturbing room used to educate youth groups that was full of birds and animals that had passed away by natural means. They had an appointment with the taxidermist and would now spend eternity in that room surrounded by excited children who were mostly grossed out by them. Things are so much cuter when they aren't dead.
We talked at length about the big catfish and determined that he was in fact smarter than me. And then we talked about the ramifications of a world full of other animals that understand and feel and mourn and how devastating that reality might be to a culture that sees itself as dominating all the creatures of the earth. What does it mean if they understand? What if we misunderstood and we were supposed to care for them all as if they were members of our family rather than use them like products for our convenience? If we knew we were causing such pain, would we continue to behave as we do?