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Can Animals Consent?

This interesting question, which came out of a post I shared on Facebook (here and here) about a yoga on horseback video that went viral recently, elicits differing opinions. Some claim that consent is a human construct linked to morality, and therefore cannot apply to animals philosophically or legally (calling it anthropomorphism). Others claim that since all mammals share a similar neurobiology, responses to safety, danger and life threat, experience emotions, are sentient and perceptive — and that since both human and non-human animals can express “yes” and “no”, aversion, attraction, fight, flee, freeze, fawn, collapse, submit, and make informed choices — they can indeed “consent” or not (in their own way). This second group suggests that to deny animals the ability to consent is anthropocentric and can be a way to justify the exploitation of non-human animals for the benefit of people. 

This article certainly will not resolve this debate, and its goal is not to malign or shame any particular horsemanship discipline, method, or equine-assisted intervention approach. Rather, I hope to invite curiosity and offer a different lens in a spirit of gentle openness and non-judgment about ideas that, while controversial, are nonetheless important to reflect upon.

The word consent means to permit or allow.  Barbara Rector, one of the pioneers in the field of equine-assisted practice, understood the notion of consent in relationship with horses. Her exercise, Con Su Permiso, which means “with your permission” in Spanish, speaks to the idea that animals can communicate consent or permission through their body language and that healthy relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect. Words are not the only way to express when something is a “no” or a “yes”, and Barbara is not the only person championing the idea that horses (and, indeed, mammals in general) can express permission or objection through their body language, of course. But, even so, this idea is not consistently applied in the field of animal or equine-assisted interventions.

A common statement heard in the industry is that the horses are always free to move away if they ultimately do not want to take part in something. However, what is the interpretation if they do not move away? Is it always because they are choosing to stay willingly and without coercion? One might not move away but show other signs of “not wanting to be involved” that are often missed or dismissed. Does that mean that someone (human or animal) who goes into submission, freeze, or collapse in the face of something they don’t want to do or experience is consenting? Shutting down technically is “allowing” something to happen on some level, but only because the other options (fighting back, fleeing) might not be possible or might lead to greater harm, punishment, pain or death. Equating “going along with” to “consent” is a very murky and dangerous proposition. There’s a distinction between being in the lower parts of one’s brain, dominated by survival physiology and reacting out of self-protection (instinctual), and being integrated and able to express conscious choice freely from one’s neocortex, when regulated and connected to self and other. And even this is not a clean dichotomy, but more of a continuum. Regardless, can consent happen when someone – human or animal – is hijacked by fear, terror, or primal subcortical self-protective responses in the face of coercion, control, threat, or helplessness? Can healthy relationships exist under those conditions? And how can there be connection in relationship without consent? Even the polyvagal theory proposed by neuroscientist Stephen Porges proposes that the capacity for social engagement and connected relationships decreases the more the nervous system is activated in sympathetic charge or in a dorsal shutdown.

Evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff states, “over the years, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. If a scientist says that an animal is happy, no one questions it, but if a scientist says that an animal is unhappy, then charges of anthropomorphism are immediately raised. This ‘anthropomorphic double-talk’ seems mostly aimed at letting humans feel better about themselves” (2009). This phenomenon also occurs when people use “human” concepts like “addictions” and “neglect” when referring to other mammals, instead of sterile words like “stable vices” and “deprivation” which minimize and deny that non-human animals also sense and cope with pain and distress in ways that are remarkably like our own. The same also happens when discussing other animal emotions, in spite of the evidence from the field of affective neuroscience, or even when wanting to use the word “trauma” in relation to non-human animals, a leap many are still reluctant to make. The same can be said for extending the idea of consent to non-human animals as well. This does not mean that there are no differences between humans and non-human mammals, for indeed there are. But all too often a false dichotomy between us and them is created that seems to promote the status quo, rather than face the cognitive dissonance or discomfort that comes when recognizing the impact of one’s actions on others.

The following quote aligns particularly well with this trauma-informed perspective:

“Like many vulnerable humans, animals are capable, though often deprived, of making informed decisions about their lives. Animals can express assent and dissent, but we rarely respect their personal sovereignty in ways that acknowledge their aptitude for making choices. Play and cooperation among animals are examples of how animals can express consent with one another, but we don’t speak the languages of other animals, and they typically don’t speak ours. Even when they express dissent to us, their feelings are often ignored. The ways animals are exploited in research, entertainment, food and clothing production, and other areas of human society clearly defy their sovereignty – much like human exploitation does, suggesting that something much deeper is at work here. In addition to the physical violence animals suffer through, they also suffer from fear, anxiety, and depression – like we do – when their personal sovereignty is violated.” –Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH

If saying the word “consent” is still too politically laden, too controversial or too far of a mental leap to make, then using “assent and dissent” still conveys the underlying point. Anecdotally and the research shows that mammals – including humans and equines – are capable of choice and expressing their preferences and opinions. This does not mean that learning to tolerate things that are uncomfortable or doing things we or other animals don’t want to do does not have value. There is a need to be able to do so in life, to compromise, to do what needs to get done (even if unpleasant), such as having to do certain tasks or jobs to pay the bills, following through on commitments or requirements (work ethic), or using distraction in order to cope with an uncomfortable or painful medical procedure, for instance.  But there is a far cry between getting a horse to comply with a medical practice that might benefit its own health and wellbeing in the long run, and getting a horse or other animal to comply or submit to an activity that seeks to provide some benefit to someone else at its own expense (or, at worst, causes harm to the animal).

While this issue is difficult to resolve at a macro level (such as using animals in medical testing or other industries that benefit humans – a conversation that is beyond the scope of this article), it is much easier to tackle at a micro level, such as in the field of equine-assisted practice, where partnership with a horse should be the foundation for growth and healing. If the healing, growth or enlightenment of one member of a relationship comes at the expense of another whose “no” is not being respected, what message is this conveying? How “healing” is an interaction if the needs of only one are being acknowledged or respected in the process? Doing so comes at the risk of reinforcing an unfortunate win-lose re-enactment that, ultimately, benefits neither and, at worst, is retraumatizing… something that may be all too familiar for either the horse or the human. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing® (SE™), uses the term “renegotiation to refer to the reworking of a traumatic experience in contrast to the reliving of it” (In An Unspoken Voice, 2010, p.23). Reliving, or re-enacting, is repeating a familiar situation or dynamic without resolution. Renegotiating is experiencing a different outcome or experiencing oneself differently in a familiar situation, completing what did not get a chance to biologically complete (such as a self-protective response – the traditional definition of renegotiation within SE™) or repairing or restoring what was ruptured, such as relational trust and attunement. For instance, if one of the goals is for humans to connect with animals in a deeper way, how is this possible if the animal’s needs are disregarded in the process and they are tuned out, shut down, frustrated or merely tolerating the interaction? If one of the goals for humans is congruence, assertiveness and greater agency around voicing needs and boundaries, what is being modeled if the equines’ voice and boundaries are disregarded in the process?

It is important to acknowledge and balance the needs of both members of a relationship – even an inter-species one – especially when the relationship is purported to be the vehicle for healing. And, again, compromise and doing things we might not want to do from time to time are also necessary. But there is a difference between getting there through dominance, fear, submission, coercion, and shutdown, and getting there through mutual respect, choice, compromise, responsiveness to signs of “yes” and “no”, and connection. Offering animals choice does not inherently mean that humans have to relinquish theirs – or vice versa. Rather, it is about really hearing what is being communicated and negotiating from there in a way that honours both voices. Even if this is not always achievable for various valid reasons, aiming for win-win scenarios in human and inter-species relationships to the degree that is possible is nonetheless a worthwhile intention.

Even if equine-assisted practices are typically for human benefit, this does not mean that such programs cannot also seek to benefit the animals in some way. At the very minimum, the interaction will be neutral for the animals, and ideally both would gain from the interaction – the ethical concepts of “do no harm” and “do good” apply equally to the human client and the equines involved. The same can be said for the principles of trauma-informed care. Safety, choice, voice, empowerment, trust, collaboration, compassion – and, yes, even “consent” as defined in this article – can be applied to all those taking part, whether two or four legged, to the degree that is reasonably possible. Since these principles are foundational components of human therapy and of animal rehabilitation programs, extending them to equine-assisted practice also makes sense. After all, “a good principle is a good principle, regardless of where it is applied.”

*The word horse in this article was used to lighten the text. The points raised in this post can apply to other equines and mammals as well.  Images in this article are by David Karaiskos Photography.

More information can be found at  www.equusoma.com, www.healingrefuge.com, www.traumatrainings.com, www.traumainformedyoga.ca.

About Sarah Schlote

Sarah Schlote is a registered psychotherapist, trauma and attachment specialist, and Somatic Experiencing (SE) Practitioner in Ontario, Canada. She practices equine-facilitated trauma therapy and offers trainings and consultations on Trauma-Informed Principles for Equine-Assisted Practitioners and EQUUSOMA™, an integration of SE and equine-assisted work. She has completed additional training in EMDR, Body Memory Recall, parts work for structural dissociation, and SE touch work, among other approaches, and frequently speaks on the topic of trauma-informed care within various fields ranging from spiritual practices to education, health care and social services.