The Sentience of Sheep

shallow focus photography of sheep
Photo by Dan Hamill on

Is it me, or do dinner parties spark the best conversations? The last dinner party I attended birthed a discussion surrounding animal sentience. Three Bags Full is an internationally best selling novel about a flock of sheep who are driven to solve their shepherd’s murder. It was originally written in German by Leonie Swann, a writer with degrees in philosophy, psychology, and communication. No doubt her education background contributed to the ever-present theme of animal sentience in this peculiar, witty mystery.

Studies have shown that animals have stress responses, personality traits, and can obtain a certain IQ level. However, the real difficulty of deciding whether or not animals are sentient lies in the definition. What constitutes sentience? If it’s emotion, then our pets qualify. If it’s a stress response, then a meager shrimp is sentient. If the deciding factor is the knowledge of a difference between right and wrong then criminals aren’t sentient…And if it’s the awareness of our own mortality, then humans are sentient, but we ignore the possibility that animals have thoughts we can’t study in terms of heart rates and vocalizations.

“…Personality is discernible even in fish, which are often seen as being singularly lacking in emotional range. Scientists have found that the personality type of a fish may affect its likelihood of having certain parasites, or its ability to move past a barrier in a stream when on migration.” – Jan Hoole on The Conversation

In Three Bags Full, sheep are intelligent in their own way. Sure, they get distracted from solving the case on a regular basis. They worry about wolves even though they’ve only ever seen ghosts. They practice looking normal and focusing so they don’t attract too much human attention. But they understand ~roughly~ how humans work. Sheep have their own values, too. A strong sense of smell is well respected in the community, as is a good memory and thick wool. By the way: A shepherd should always wear his flock’s wool as to not offend them.

winnie the pooh
Photo by Dan on

“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie The Pooh

I won’t spoil the end of the story for you, but it has to do with this quote from Winnie The Pooh. The sheep were smarter than people expected. Yes, I know the novel is fictional. But it brings up a fun topic. Are sheep sentient?

8 responses to “The Sentience of Sheep”

  1. Well, my completely unofficial definition of sentience is awareness of one’s own existence, or “self.” The problem with that is that it’d be hard to determine if animals have a sense of self. We know that some species, like elephants, can recognize themselves in a mirror, but is that really the basis of self-awareness? It seems entirely possible that an animal may not realize that the figure in the mirror is them, and yet have some sort of internal ‘knowing’ that they’re alive, and separate from the other objects that they perceive with their senses.

    Of course, all this brings up another question: what constitutes a sense of self?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Josh,
      That’s neat about the elephants! My cat never cared much for mirrors. And she also didn’t care much for TV. But she definitely had a personality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The more I learn about elephants the more in awe I am of them. It’d be such a tragedy to lose them…

        But yes, every cat I’ve ever met had a distinct personality! That’s one of the things I like about them 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In my studies I have concluded that life is sentient. That includes plants. Communication is one attribute. Emotion and caring is another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Sherry! I love my houseplants and hope to have a hugeeee garden some day 🙂


  3. Of course animals are sentient, if you’ve ever encountered a mother defending her young you’d feel the emotion – fear and potential aggression aimed at you from a good distance away! They learn who to trust-flocks of sheep recognise their shepherd, or farmer, too. In a recent TV programme they dressed a farmer and another similar-looking man identically and had both do similar things around the sheep alternately. They reacted normally to their man, but gave a wide berth to the other. Seems they recognise faces, human or ovine!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The books sounds intriguing. I will look for the original version during my next trip to Germany. Thank you for discussing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You should definitely look into it! Thanks for stopping by, tanja 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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