Bear laying in grass, looking at camera.

The Emerging Science of Consciousness

Scientists and scholars sign The New York Declaration of Animal Consciousness


For many animal lovers, it is common to think of the animals in our lives as family. Whether a pet, a working animal, or wildlife, it is clear that each animal is a unique individual with a vivid inner world. In other words, it is clear that they are conscious beings.  

While this recognition of consciousness may seem obvious to FOUR PAWS supporters, science has taken a while to catch up. Encouragingly, in the last ten years, the interdisciplinary field of animal consciousness has emerged and is gaining traction within the larger scientific community. And in a major, positive step forward, in April of 2024, thought leaders and scientists in the field of animal consciousness shared The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness and presented their research through a forum provided by New York University.

The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness states that there is, “strong scientific support” for consciousness in mammals and birds, as well as, “a realistic possibility of conscious experience in all vertebrates…and many invertebrates.” And in conclusion, “when there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal. We should consider welfare risks and use the evidence to inform our responses to these risks.” 1

In other words, it is very likely that most animals experience consciousness, and thus we must treat them as such and consider their welfare when making decisions which affect an animal.

Brown puppy laying on their back in the grass with happy look on their face

The declaration was initially signed by 40 leaders in their fields, including experts in neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, animal welfare, veterinary science, public policy, the social sciences, and the humanities. Many additional supporters have now also signed the declaration, and others with relevant experience are encouraged to offer their support  as well.

The goals of the declaration are to, first, encourage more research on this important topic, and second, to “encourage reflection on animal welfare,” particularly with regards to policy makers who determine regulations around animals.

This second goal is particularly important for improving the lives of animals who are under human influence, which is our main mission at FOUR PAWS. Once one recognizes that animals are conscious beings with individual needs, they cannot be treated as just another commodity, as is too often the case. If the physical and mental needs of the animals were to be acknowledged and addressed, it could lead to widespread policy changes which would improve the lives of wild animals--both those in captivity and those that live in the wild, farm animals, companion animals, animals used for science, and animals used in entertainment.

Orangutan looking at camera in the forest while holding leaf over their head

While animals such as primates, dogs, pigs, and dolphins have long been regarded as intelligent (even if their “consciousness” was called into question), further research has shown that a wide range of animals, including fish, reptiles, birds, and insects display characteristics and behaviors that are evidence of consciousness, such as learning, memory, planning, problem-solving, and self-awareness.

Here are 11 examples of animal consciousness throughout the animal kingdom:

  • Crows and Ravens are very curious and intelligent, and they have excellent memories. These birds have even been observed using tools, and many scientists consider their intelligence to be similar to chimpanzees. 1, 2, 3, 9
  • Octopuses are also regarded as extremely intelligent beings with phenomenal problem-solving skills. They have even been known to escape from aquariums and find their way back to freedom. 1, 4, 5
  • As most cat parents could tell you, house cats are extremely intelligent too, and they have been found to understand social cues from humans; of course, this doesn’t mean that they’ll do what you want them to do! 15, 16
  • Garter snakes and cleaner wrasse fish have displayed signs of self-awareness. Both animals have passed a version of the mirror-mark test, which is often used to test self-awareness in animals. 1, 6, 7
  • Dolphins and whales have their own form of language, and dolphins are even known to use unique names for one another.  13, 14, 9
  • Pigs are also well-known for their intelligence and problem-solving skills. Similar to octopuses, pigs are also known for escaping from farms, and some domestic pigs have even re-adapted to the wild.  10, 11, 12, 9
  • Bumblebees like to play. Play is not just about having fun, it is also a sign of intelligence, and many animals in the wild have been observed creating their own games. Even bumblebees seem to enjoy playing with wooden balls when given the toys in an experiment. 1, 8
  • Bears are another animal that display a wide range of intelligent behaviors. Studies have shown that bears can count, and they can categorize things, which seems to show that they understand the difference between such characteristics as animals and non-animals. 21, 22
  • Frogs and other amphibians are believed to create mental maps in their minds. A species of poison frog was able to use environmental cues to find a location, the hallmark of an animals’ ability to create internal maps.  17, 18
  • Orangutans display traits such as intention, teaching, planning ahead, and toolmaking. An orangutan in the wild is also the first known animal to use a medicinal plant to heal a wound.  19, 20
  • In addition to being incredibly intelligent, elephants are known for their strong social bonds and have been observed mourning their loved ones. 23, 24



Pig looking at camera with dirt on their nose

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