In the Dutch magazine "de Groene Amsterdammer" of 7th July 2001 Dr Bob Bermond, biological psychologist with the department of psychonomy of the Amsterdam University writes that animals can experience pain only as a reflex. They cannot experience pain consciously in the form of suffering, because to experience suffering you need the presence of the prefrontal cortex as well as the capacity to reflect. He cites a number of situations from the animal world that would surely induce suffering when translated to human standards. For example, male lions kill their predecessor's cubs, after which their mother, seemingly without sorrow, mates with the murderer of her young. From this he concludes that animals have no consciousness that enables them to experience suffering.
With these "facts", supplemented by a quote of the well-known and somewhat half-hearted attitude of the National Animal Protection Society with regard to the double standards of its members toward (house) pets, he calls the animal protection society's behavior "ethic babble".
Bermond calls on animal welfare researchers to target the question of how we can set up rearing and cultivation situations for market-oriented production with the lowest possible stresslevels. He holds out that fur producers, meat producers and dairy producers will listen, because it's in their interest that welfare measures will prevent premature animal deaths caused by stress.
Mr. Bermond is somewhat right wen he tells the Animal Protection Society that if they were consistent, they would also discourage keeping pets in animal-unfriendly surroundings such as apartments.
But Mr. Bermond is way off when he says that animal suffering is the only right to existence of animal protectors and animal rights activists. They are also campaigning for basic rights for animals. Whether an animal does or does not have a demonstrable form of consciousness is irrelevant to its rights. After all, human rights aren't linked to the quality of their consciousness either.
Being able to experience pain is a mutual trait in humans and animals. People suffer mainly in situations where they can imagine pain, physically or emotionally. This difference between humans and animals may aggravate human reality, after all there's no greater suffering for man than the suffering he fears.
Animal rights comprise that pain should be prevented as much as possible. Still cattle farmers violate animal rights when they dock beaks, castrate and cut piglet's tails without anesthesia, de-horn cows, break wings while catching chickens etc. But Bermond doesn't write about that. Instead, he throws around scientific assumptions about the impossibility of animal suffering to defend Dutch factory farming management and to bring down the Animal Protection Society's right to exist. It makes you wonder what Bermond has with emotions? Is he emotionally blind?
On the Internet we found an article by his colleague Eric Rietzschel that shows us that Bob Bermond distinguishes five components of emotional experience. These five components are: (1) being able to experience emotional feelings, (2) knowing which emotion is experienced (differentiation of emotions), (3) being able to put this emotion into words, (4) being able to analyze your own emotions to some degree, and (5) the ability to come to terms with emotions through fantasy (Bermond, 1995).
When a number of these components are missing, this is called alexithymia. These people are often compared to robots. This refers not only to their straightforward thinking patterns, but also to the `inhuman' nature of their relationships with other people. As Krystal (1988) expresses it: `...there is no personal investment in these objects as unique individuals to whom there is a utilitarian attachment. Instead, the objects are replaceable, albeit necessary.'
Don't these phenomena bear a striking resemblance to the behavior of factory cattle farmers? And could it be that not recognizing animal emotions has something to do with being unable to recognize your own and other people's emotions?
     
  • Bermond, B. (2001) Ethic babble by the Animal Protection Society. De Groene Amsterdammer, 7th July 2001.
  • Bermond, B. (1995) Alexithymia: a neuropsychological approach. Dutch Magazine for Psychiatry.

See also comments by Titus Rivas to Bob Bermond's "The Myth of Animal Suffering" paper in Marcel Dol, et al. (1997) Animal Consciousness and Animal Ethics. Assen: Van Gorcum.

The above reaction appeared as a letter to the editor in the edition of 9th August 2001 (translation by Lia Belt).
Maureen Baartman (student biology)
Fabian Gort (student biology)
Rene Houkema (student biology)
Bert Stoop (personality psychologist)