Do Animals Have Emotions?
By Jeffery Moussaieff Masson
How many Egyptians believe animals have emotions? You who are reading this are probably in the minority, but also in the forefront. And science is rapidly catching up.
Now a slightly modified question: how many of you believe farm animals have emotions? I suspect some of you, but not as many as for the previous question. But those of you who do believe it are ahead of the scientists on this question.
Two of the most important reasons for the lag in the scientific consensus are:
1) Farm animal scientists are paid by the community that profits from the use of animals in agriculture. You cannot expect scientific objectivity.
2) There are not enough scientists who conduct the kind of field studies that transformed our knowledge of great ape societies: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas all went into the field and watched animals without asking for anything in return. I think the same will happen with farm animals as more and more female scientists realize that it is fascinating to spend time with a herd of cattle, or with pigs or even a flock of chickens. If I were an Egyptian, I would go into the rural areas and talk to farmers there who live on close terms with their animals. There may be much to learn. There is a distinct reluctance on the part of the general population for reasons that are not very difficult to guess. It is hard to be curious and even more difficult to be compassionate, about the face on your plate. These are the animals you eat! Of course you are reluctant to believe they have powerful feelings!
But here¹s a puzzle. Scientists always felt fine with accepting the existence of negative emotions in animals. Books about animals with the words fear or aggression in them have always been acceptable. It was happiness, joy, compassion, and friendship that gave us pause.
Again, it is not that difficult to see why: this was encroaching on our territory. Humans are the pinnacle of creation and such positive emotions should be reserved for our species alone. But the evidence is increasing, and so are the books that narrate it.
But I would go even further: I believe that when it comes to certain positive emotions, some animals surpass us. I am thinking of mourning in elephants; contentment in cats; love in dogs; joie de vivre in both dogs and cats. I am even prepared to include compassion as an emotion that animals feel more strongly than we do. Here is why: no animal except the human animal hunts for sport, for the sheer entertainment value of it (the big and small cats practice, but that is different); no animal kills indiscriminately the young of its own species, except humans; genocide does not exist as a concept in the animal world outside Homo sapiens. Live and let live is the byword of the vast majority of animals, apart from humans. All non-human animals have historically preserved their own biosphere. We are the one exception.
It is time we faced the fact that domestication has been, for the animals themselves, a disaster, with two exceptions, cats and dogs. Cats are hard to exploit. You can¹t even get your cat to come when you want her to. Ever try saying ³I said stay² to your cat, and watched the bemused expression on her face as she saunters off? But, and this is really something quite unique: the African wild cat from whom our cats all descend, was and is an entirely solitary species. We have somehow transformed cats into a species that enjoys our company and sometimes that of other species as well. This is no small achievement, and in my opinion, it has actually improved the lives of cats. Dogs: well, that is the topic of my next book: The Dog Who Couldn¹t Stop Loving: A 40,000 Year Romance, so I won¹t go into it here. But I do believe that we have crossed the species barrier with dogs, in a more profound way than with any other animal, and it is mutual. (the reason, I think, is because we have been together so long, we co-evolved).
But even for cats and dogs there are, as you all know, limits. I am thinking of the number of cats and dogs who are still euthanized in shelters, dog fights, declawed cats, home-alone dogs, and so on.
May I proceed to an even greater controversy? We cannot have a relationship of any depth with an animal we intend to consume or exploit. Was it Polanski or Bergman who made most idiotic comment about women of all time (and believe me the competition is stiff): ³I love women so much, one day I want to kill one.² One day we will see as Claude Levi Strauss did, that any species of bug that people spray with an insecticide is an irreplaceable marvel, equal to the works of art which we religiously preserve in museums. As the British scientist Colin Tudge noted: Even the simplest living creatures are at least 1,000 times more complicated than any computer.² We should not kill any creature unless we can bring the same sentient being back to life. That is, for the present, far beyond our capacities. This is the essence of why I eat no animal or animal product. My fervent hope is that one day Egypt will lead in this field just as they have led in so many others over the thousands of years we have lived on our fragile planet.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the author of some 25 books, among them:
When Elephants Weep; Dogs Never Lie About Love; The Pig Who Sang to the Moon; The 9 Emotional Lives of Cats, and most recently: The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food.
He lives in New Zealand with his two boys, his wife Leila, his three cats, and his dog Benjy.