Philosophers from Aristotle and Aquinas to Descartes, Mill, Kant, and Schopenhauer have debated the moral status of animals for more than 2,000 years, with sentience being the most common denominator in animal ethics deliberations. If these theorists were alive today, they wouldn’t have to ponder whether animals feel because evidence now demonstrates that mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish almost certainly do. Even bees and lobsters probably feel. And, for anyone who has seen the 2020 film My Octopus Teacher, it probably is hard to deny that these cephalopods feel, as well.

Animal sentience – animals’ capacity to experience positive and negative feelings that matter to them, such as pleasure, joy, pain, and distress – took center stage at Animal Grantmakers’ 23rd Annual Conference, held in Berkeley, Calif. Animal Grantmakers is the nation’s only group of philanthropic funders focused on protecting and enabling the wellbeing of all animals. The conference brought together members, other funders, and animal and environmental advocates to discuss myriad issues — from the abuse of farmed animals and rise of alternative protein options to new, community-centric models to sheltering animals, and the movement toward racial justice in animal welfare and philanthropy. This year’s conference was a partnership between Animal Grantmakers and Farmed Animal Funders

Animal Sentience

In the opening keynote, Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at the Université du Québec à Montréal, spoke about why protecting the feelings of animals – human and non-human – is so important. “We cannot see whether an organism can feel; we can only see its body and what it can do,” Harnad said. “From that, however, we can get a good idea. And for them, if they feel, nothing matters more than that we get it right.”

Vicky Bond, president of The Humane League, Mikko Jarvenpaa, founder of Sentient Media, and David Peña-Guzman, associate professor at San Francisco State University, discussed the policy implications of the evidence of sentience for farmed mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrate species, including proof that animals dream – a sign of consciousness and artistic creation.

If animals have moral standing, should they also have legal standing? Chris Berry, managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Joyce Tischler, professor of practice at Lewis & Clark Law School (and a trailblazer in the field of animal law for more than 40 years), and Monica Miller, senior consulting attorney for the NonHuman Rights Project, explained why animals are considered property and how that impacts their protection under the law. They also discussed some recent legal cases arguing for personhood for specific animals, such as the offspring of Pablo Escobar’s hippos and “Happy” the elephant, who has lived in captivity at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. In Happy’s case, which the New York Court of Appeals rejected in June, legal personhood would have allowed her legal advocates to use habeas corpus to challenge her confinement. The speakers also reviewed the California Proposition 12 case, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in October, which could impact the ability of states to set standards about how farmed animals are treated.

The Interconnected Welfare of Animals and People

The interests and fates of animals and people are fundamentally intertwined — a point hammered home at the Animal Grantmakers conference. Leaders of three California animal shelters discussed the changes they implemented in response to COVID-19 and how those changes led to a new, community-centric, animal-sheltering model that better meets the needs of animals and people where they live. Dr. Jyothi V. Robertson, a veterinarian and owner and principal consultant of JVR Shelter Strategies, highlighted the intersection of animal protection and education reform, climate change, social justice, and other issues. And James Evans, Hakeem Ruiz, and Dr. Karlyn Emile of Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity focused on the importance of funding “proximate leaders”: people, especially those of color, who arise from the communities and issues they serve and bring authentic truth, data, storytelling, and impact to saving animals’ lives but who have limited access to resources, influential relationships, and opportunities to support their work.  

Factory Farming

While the public health risks and environmental impacts of factory farming are relatively well known, the less-discussed connection between that practice and systemic racism was the subject of a keynote from lauren Ornelas, founder and president of the Food Empowerment Project. Catalina López Salazar, director of the Aquatic Life Institute, and Andrianna Natsoulas, campaign director of Don’t Cage Our Oceans, spoke about the impacts of aquafarming or aquaculture, land-based factory farming’s underwater equivalent. Rachel Dreskin, CEO of the Plant Based Foods Association, and Amy Huang, university innovation manager at the Good Food Institute, described the science and work behind cruelty-free protein and the new type of food market that is emerging as more and more alternative protein options make their way onto grocery store shelves. And Miyoko Schinner, CEO and founder of Miyoko’s Creamery, delighted attendees with her personal story of innovation in the plant-based food world.

Plant-based Convenience Stores, P-22 the Mountain Lion, a Dog Named Sylvester, and More

In a new series of TED-style talks at the David Brower Center, 10 experts shared their personal stories. For instance, Bobak Bakhtiari, an actor, philanthropist, and entrepreneur, described how and why he created Hangry Planet, North America’s first 100% plant-based convenience store, in San Bruno, California. Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a board-certified neurologist and co-founder of the Center for Contemporary Sciences, talked about how her childhood dog, Sylvester, taught her about humanity. Miguel Ordeñana, senior manager for community science at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, told of his discovery of “P-22,” a mountain lion that inspired the construction of the world’s largest wildlife crossing. Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, who was named one of the top 400 environmentalists of the last 200 years, described the growing movement for the legal rights of nature. 

Also new this year was the Animal Grantmakers Melanie Anderson Lifetime Excellence in Animal Protection (LEAP) Award, which was presented to Sharon Negri, founder and director of WildFutures (a project of the Earth Island Institute) and co-founder and former director of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

To learn more about Animal Grantmakers, visit