This was my big chance.
Would I ever get another opportunity to ask the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Wayne Pacelle, a question about animal consciousness?
Almost certainly not.
So I stuck my hand in the air tonight when Wayne said that he'd welcome a few questions from the passionate band of local animal activists who'd assembled at Ted and Beverly Paul's beautiful home in the south Salem hills to meet Pacelle.
As soon as we arrived, I plunked down $27 to buy a copy of his book, "The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them." Thumbing through the Contents, I could tell that Pacelle melded science and ethics in his book.
His remarks, spoken without notes while standing in the Paul's living room, confirmed for me that -- not surprisingly -- this leader of the national Humane Society had a good command of both facts about animal welfare and the morality of mistreating them.
I toyed with the idea of asking a direct question about vegetarianism: whether a root cause of cruelty to animals is the disconnect between (1) the enthusiasm people have for eating animals (most of whom are raised in nasty conditions on factory farms), and (2) the disgust people feel when an individual identifiable animal is mistreated.
But I didn't want to risk antagonizing the kind-hearted meat-eaters with whom I'd shared an excellent meal, wonderfully catered by Willaby's, which featured no animal carcasses other than a salmon dish.
So here's what I basically said to Pacelle:
A comment and a related question. It seems to me that a central problem here is that people forget that we are animals. There aren't humans, and also animals. We also are animals.
Which gets to the question of consciousness.
I'm amazed to read in neuroscience books that some people question whether animals are conscious. Anybody who has a dog or a cat is certain that their pet thinks, has feelings, and so on. Our dog spends much of her day plotting how to get her way with me, and she does a damn good job of it.
Do you think that as neuroscience advances, as more and more animals are studied in brain scanning machines, and it becomes increasingly obvious that animals have a roughtly similar sort of conscious life as humans do, this will make a difference in how people view their fellow animals?
Pacelle responded with a thoughtful answer, most of the details of which I can't remember. He said that just as science has debunked the pseudo-science of phrenology, along with the notion that the white race is superior to other races, so will research continue to demonstrate that animals are a lot like us.
When Pacelle signed the book I'd bought, I mentioned to him that I'd recently listened to a Philosophy Talk podcast about evil. A psychologist who has done research in this area said that he doesn't believe something called "evil" exists.
Rather, people who act cruelly suffer from an empathy deficit. And of all the animals, empathy is most highly developed in us Homo sapiens. So I told Pacelle that what he said in his remarks tonight made a lot of sense:
Yes, humans are animals. But we are special animals who are capable of feeling a lot of empathy for both other members of our own species, and members of other species -- like chickens, cows, pigs, cougars, wolves, salmon, and so on.
Sometimes people defend cruelty toward animals (such as raising chickens in tiny cages where they can barely move, and can't raise their wings) by saying, "Animals in the wild kill other animals for food, so why can't we?"
Well, other animals aren't as highly evolved as us human animals. They don't have as much capacity for empathy, though elephants have been observed to engage in what sure looks like grieving behavior when one of the herd dies.
We should aspire to be the most moral animal species on the planet, not just another species "bloody in tooth and claw."
In a final chapter in his book, Pacelle lists "Fifty Ways to Help Animals." Here's the first one:
Follow the 3 R's of eating: reducing your consumption of meat and other animal-based foods, refining your diet by avoiding animal products derived from factory farming, and replacing meat and other animal-based foods with vegetarian foods as you are comfortable doing so.