At the same time, the authors reveal how our quests for proof may themselves produce painful or disturbing experiences for animals. We see this in Morell’s early example of Nigel Franks, a scientist who has devoted much of his life to proving that individual ants make decisions to produce a colony. “Now you’ll see what these people do when their home is destroyed,” Frank said, upon ripping apart an ant nest in order to show how ants will reconstruct it in a new spot. Indeed, his work has brought him to describe ants as the “ first non-human animals to qualify as teachers,” and Morell looks on with him as ants patiently show their pupils how to locate landmarks that lead to their new nest. Destroying a home to prove a point is some way to treat a teacher!
Not only ants but rats, too, are excluded from the definition of “animal” and thus from laws demanding humane treatment by the Animal Welfare Act of 2004 — this despite our knowledge of rat sentience. In experiments conducted in the 1950s, rats were tossed into a vat of warm water to see if they would develop a “feeling of helplessness,” and they did give up the struggle, though whether because of feeling helpless, as the research suggested, or from sheer exhaustion is hard to tell. The cruelty of such research can be contrasted with more recent work. Jaak Panksepp, a pioneer in the new field of affective neuroscience, which explores “the zone where neurons, emotions, and cognition meet,” tickles rats to show that they like to laugh. It’s about play and “social joy,” he says, abilities that show evolutionary continuities of feeling across species.