10 November 1997
Do Animals Have Emotions?
Somewhere in the savannas of Africa a mother elephant is dying in the company of many other pachyderms. Some of them are part of her family; some are fellow members of her herd. The dying elephant tips from side to side and seems to be balancing on a thin thread in order to sustain her life. Many of the other elephants surround her as she struggles to regain her balance. They also try to help by feeding and caressing her. After many attempts by the herd to save her life, they seem to realize that there is simply nothing more that can be done. She finally collapses to the ground in the presence of her companions. Most of the other elephants move away from the scene. There are, however, two elephants who remain behind with the dead elephant—another mother and her calf. The mother turns her back to the body and taps it to follow and eventually they do (Mason and MaCarthy, Elephants 95). These movements, which are slow and ritualistic, suggest that elephants may be capable of interpreting and responding to the notion of death.
The topic of animal emotions is one that, until recently, has rarely been discussed or studied by scientists. However, since the now famous comprehensive field studies of chimpanzees by the internationally renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, those who study animal behavior have begun to look more closely at the notion that animals feel emotions. As a result of their observations of various species of animals, a number of these researchers have come to the conclusion that animals do exhibit a wide range of emotions, such as grief, sympathy, and joy.
One of the major reasons research into animal emotions has been avoided is that scientists fear being accused of anthropomorphism—the act of attributing human qualities to animals. To do so is perceived as unscientific (Masson and McCarthy, “Hope and Joy” xviii). Frans de Waal, of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, believes that if people are not open to the possibility of animals having emotions, they may be overlooking important information about both animals and humans. He explains his position in his article “Are We in Anthropodenial?” The term anthropodenial, which he coined, refers to “a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves” (52). He proposes that because humans and animals are so closely related, it would be impossible for one not to have some characteristics of the other. He contends, “If two closely related species act in the same manner, their underlying mental processes are probably the same, too.” (53). If de Waal is correct, then humans can presume that animals do have emotions because of the many similarities between human and animal behavior.
Grief has been observed in many different species. In many instances, their behaviors (and presumably, therefore, their emotions) are uncannily similar to the behaviors of humans. Birds, which mate for life, have been observed showing obvious signs of grief when their mates die. In The Human Nature of Birds, Theodore Barber includes a report from one Dr. Franklin, who witnesses a male parrot caring for his mate by feeding her and trying to help her raise herself when she was dying. Franklin observed the following scene:
Her unhappy spouse moved around her incessantly, his attention and tender cares redoubled. He even tried to open her beak to give her some nourishment…. At intervals, he uttered the most plaintive cries, then with his eyes fixed on her, kept a mournful silence. At length his companion breathed her last; from that moment he pined away, and died in the course of a few weeks. (qtd. In Barber 116)
Veterinarian Susan Wynn, discussing the physiological symptoms brought on by emotional trauma in animals, notes that “[a]nimals definitely exhibit grief when they lose an owner or another companion...
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