Other Animals Have ‘Human’ Emotions, Too

By Russell McLendon

Updated May 16, 2019

Two young chimpanzees groom each other at a rehabilitation center for orphaned chimps in Guinea. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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Mama briefly achieved international fame after her death in April 2016. The 59-year-old chimpanzee was an astute leader and diplomat who lived a fascinating life, and she could have been famous for many reasons, as primatologist Frans de Waal explains in his new book, “Mama’s Last Hug.” She ended up going viral, however, because of the way she embraced an old friend who had come to tell her goodbye.https://2dca08cd582e873dbdf042cfba66d931.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

That friend was Jan van Hooff, a then-79-year-old Dutch biologist who had known Mama since 1972. Although the elderly Mama was lethargic and unresponsive to most visitors, she lit up at the sight of van Hooff, not just reaching out to hug him but also grinning widely and gently patting his head with her fingers. It was a powerful moment full of relatable emotion, and it was captured on a cellphone video that has been viewed more than 10.5 million times in the three years since.https://2dca08cd582e873dbdf042cfba66d931.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlhttps://www.treehugger.com/embed?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DINa-oOAexno&id=mntl-sc-block_1-0-4-iframe&options=e30%3D

Mama died a week after this reunion. The video was then shown on national TV in the Netherlands, where viewers were “extremely moved,” according to de Waal, with many posting comments online or sending letters to van Hooff describing how they had wept. The same reaction later echoed around the world via YouTube.

People felt sad partly due to the context of Mama’s death, de Waal says, but also because of “the very human-like way she had hugged Jan,” including the rhythmic patting with her fingers. This common feature of human hugs also occurs in other primates, he points out. Chimps sometimes use it to soothe a crying infant.

“For the first time, they realized that a gesture that looks quintessentially human is in fact a general primate pattern,” de Waal writes in his new book. “It’s often in the little things that we best see evolutionary connections.”https://2dca08cd582e873dbdf042cfba66d931.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Those connections are definitely worth seeing, and not just to help YouTube viewers empathize with a dying chimpanzee’s nostalgia. While “Mama’s Last Hug” offers some incredible anecdotes from its title character’s life, her final embrace is mainly a jumping-off point to explore the wider world of animal emotions — including, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “what they can tell us about ourselves.”


Frans de Waal
Frans de Waal (center) speaks with members of the Eugène Dubois Foundation during a 2015 dinner the organization hosted at the International Museum for Family History in Eijsden, Netherlands. (Photo: Stichting Eugène Dubois/Flickr)

De Waal, one of the world’s best-known primatologists, has spent decades exploring the evolutionary links between humans and other animals, especially our fellow primates. He has written hundreds of scientific articles and more than a dozen popular science books, including “Chimpanzee Politics” (1982), “Our Inner Ape” (2005) and “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” (2016).https://2dca08cd582e873dbdf042cfba66d931.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

After training as a zoologist and ethologist under van Hooff in the Netherlands, de Waal received his Ph.D. in biology from Utrecht University in 1977. He moved to the U.S. in 1981, eventually taking joint positions at Emory University and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. He retired from research a few years ago, and this summer he will retire from teaching, too.

For most of de Waal’s career, he has chafed under the way behavioral scientists have traditionally viewed the mental capacities of nonhuman animals. Justifiably cautious about projecting human traits onto other species — a habit known as anthropomorphism — many 20th-century scientists went too far in the other direction, according to de Waal, adopting a stance he calls “anthropodenial.”https://2dca08cd582e873dbdf042cfba66d931.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“Scientists have been trained to avoid the topic, even though we talk about power struggles and reconciliation behavior, emotions and feelings, internal states in general, cognition and mental processes — all the words we are supposed to avoid,” de Waal tells MNN in a phone interview. “I think it comes from a century-long indoctrination by behaviorists,” he adds, specifically crediting the American brand of behaviorism pioneered last century by psychologist B.F. Skinner, who saw nonhuman animals as driven almost entirely by instinct rather than intelligence or emotion.

closeup of a horse's eye
Horses have some of the most expressive faces on Earth, de Waal notes, capable of conveying emotional subtlety almost on par with primates. (Photo: Mikail Brennan/Shutterstock)

De Waal cites one prominent neuroscientist who is so wary of anthropomorphizing that he stopped referring to “fear” in the rats he studies, instead merely speaking of “survival circuits” in their brains to avoid any parallels with subjective human experiences. “It would be like saying that both horses and humans seem to get thirsty on a hot day,” de Waal writes in his new book, “but in horses we should call it ‘water need’ because it is unclear that they feel anything.”

While this caution is rooted in scientific rigor, it has brought ridicule on scientists who study emotions and internal states of nonhuman animals. “We are very often accused of anthropomorphism as soon as you use ‘human’ terminology,” de Waal says. It’s true that we can’t be sure how other species feel when they experience an emotion, but we can’t be sure how other humans feel, either — even if they try to tell us. “What humans tell us about their feelings is often incomplete, sometimes plainly wrong, and always modified for public consumption,” de Waal writes. And we would need to ignore a lot of evidence to believe that human emotions are fundamentally unique.

“Our brain is bigger, true, but it’s just a more powerful computer, not a different computer,” de Waal says. To believe otherwise is “highly unreasonable,” he argues, “given how similarly the emotions manifest themselves in animal and human bodies, and how alike all mammalian brains are down to the details of neurotransmitters, neural organization, blood supply and so on.”

That feeling when

capuchin monkey with a grape
Capuchin monkeys like cucumbers, but they may reject this reward if a peer has unfairly been given something even better: a grape. (Photo: Rodrigo Cuel/Shutterstock)

De Waal draws a key distinction between emotions and feelings: Emotions are automatic, full-body responses that are fairly standard across mammals, while feelings are more about our subjective experience of that physiological process. “Feelings arise when emotions penetrate our consciousness, and we become aware of them,” de Waal writes. “We know that we are angry or in love because we can feel it. We may say we feel it in our ‘gut,’ but in fact we detect changes all over our body.”

Emotions can spark a variety of bodily changes, some more obvious than others. When humans are afraid, for instance, we may feel our heartbeat and breathing quicken, our muscles tense, our hair stand up. Most frightened people are probably too distracted to notice subtler changes, though, like their feet becoming cold as blood flows away from their extremities. This drop in temperature is “astonishing,” according to de Waal, and like other aspects of a fight-or-flight response, it occurs in mammals of all kinds.

Many people can accept that other species experience fear, but what about pride, shame or sympathy? Do other animals think about fairness? Do they “blend” multiple emotions together, or try to hide their emotional state from others?

In “Mama’s Last Hug,” de Waal offers a wealth of examples that illustrate the ancient emotional heritage we share with other mammals, in our brains and bodies as well as in the ways we express ourselves. The book teems with the kinds of facts and vignettes that stick with you long after you’ve finished reading, potentially changing your perspective on your own emotions and social interactions while shifting the way you think about other animals. Here are just a few examples:

two rats nuzzling together
Many ‘human’ emotions occur in all kinds of mammals, from apes to rats. (Photo: Ukki Studio/Shutterstock)

• Rats seem to have an outsized emotional range, experiencing not just fear but also things like joy — they emit high-pitched chirps when tickled, more eagerly approach a hand that has tickled them than one that has merely petted them, and make gleeful little “joy jumps” that are typical of all playing mammals. They also display signs of sympathy, not only improvising ways to rescue fellow rats trapped in a clear tube, but even opting to perform the rescue instead of eating chocolate chips.

• Monkeys have a sense of fairness, de Waal writes, citing an experiment he and a student conducted with capuchin monkeys at Yerkes. Two monkeys working side by side were rewarded with either cucumbers or grapes when they finished a task, and both were happy when they received the same reward. They much prefer grapes to cucumbers, though, and monkeys who received the latter showed signs of outrage when their partner got a grape. “Monkeys who’d been perfectly happy to work for cucumber all of a sudden went on strike,” de Waal writes, noting that some even threw their cucumber slices in apparent indignation.

• Blended emotions are less widespread, but still not unique to humans. While monkeys seem to have a rigid set of emotional signals that can’t be mixed, apes commonly blend emotions, de Waal writes. He cites examples from chimps, such as a young male schmoozing the alpha male with a mix of friendly and submissive signals, or a female requesting food from another with a medley of begging and complaining.

Nonetheless, scientists tend to label these and other displays of animal emotion very carefully. When an animal expresses what looks like pride or shame, for example, it’s often described with functional terms like dominance or submission. It may be true that a “guilty” dog is just being submissive in hopes of avoiding punishment, but are people really so different? Human shame involves submissive behaviors similar to those of other species, de Waal points out, possibly because we’re trying to avoid another kind of punishment: social judgment.

“More and more I believe that all the emotions we are familiar with can be found one way or another in all mammals, and that the variation is only in the details, elaborations, applications and intensity,” de Waal writes.

‘Wisdom of the ages’

Extinction Rebellion protest in London on April 25, 2019
Emotions can compel us to take action when necessary, but they also leave room for experience and judgment to inform the most effective kind of action — like protesting nonviolently instead of rioting. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Despite this trend of underestimating the emotions of other animals, de Waal also points to a seemingly contradictory habit among humans. We have traditionally looked down on our own emotions, seeing them as a weakness or liability.

“That emotions are rooted in the body explains why Western science has taken so long to appreciate them. In the West, we love the mind, while giving short shrift to the body,” de Waal writes. “The mind is noble, while the body drags us down. We say the mind is strong while the flesh is weak, and we associate emotions with illogical and absurd decisions. ‘Don’t get too emotional!’ we warn. Until recently, emotions were mostly ignored as almost beneath human dignity.”

Rather than some embarrassing relic of our past, however, emotions are useful tools that evolved for good reasons. They’re sort of like instincts, de Waal explains, but instead of simply telling us what to do, they’re more like the collective voice of our ancestors, who whisper advice in our ear and then let us decide how to use it.

lioness stalking prey on the savanna
Impulse control is vital for all kinds of animals, de Waal points out. A lioness, for example, must suppress her urge to pounce on prey until she sneaks close enough to catch it. (Photo: Peter Betts/Shutterstock)

“Emotions have the great advantage over instincts that they don’t dictate specific behavior. Instincts are rigid and reflex-like, which is not how most animals operate,” de Waal writes. “By contrast, emotions focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgment. They constitute a flexible response system far and away superior to the instincts. Based on millions of years of evolution, the emotions ‘know’ things about the environment that we as individuals don’t always consciously know. This is why the emotions are said to reflect the wisdom of the ages.”

That doesn’t mean emotions are always right, of course. They can easily lead us astray if we simply follow their lead without thinking critically about the specific situation. “There is nothing wrong with following your emotions,” de Waal says. “You don’t want to follow them blindly, but most people don’t do that.

“Emotional control is an essential part of the picture,” he adds. “People often think animals are slaves to their emotions, but I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s always a combination of emotions, experiences and the situation that you’re in.”

We’re all animals

piglet being petted by children
Pigs’ personal experiences can turn them into optimists or pessimists, research has found. (Photo: galitsin/Shutterstock)

It may seem harmless for humans to put ourselves on a pedestal, to believe we’re separate from (or even superior to) other animals. Yet de Waal is frustrated by this attitude not just for scientific reasons, but also because of how it can influence our relationship with other creatures, whether they live in our care or in the wild.

“I think the view of animal emotions and intelligence has moral implications,” he says. “We have moved on from seeing animals as machines, and if we acknowledge they are intelligent and emotional beings, then we cannot just do with animals anything we want, which is what we have been doing.

“Our ecological crisis at the moment, global warming and the loss of species, is a product of humans thinking we are not part of nature,” he adds, referring to human-induced climate change as well as our role in the mass extinction of wildlife. “That is part of the problem, the attitude that we are something else than animals.”

Climate change, biodiversity loss and similar crises may be getting worse, but as de Waal enters retirement, he says he’s optimistic about how our overall relationship with other species is evolving. We still have a long way to go, but he’s encouraged by a new generation of scientists who don’t face the kind of dogma he faced earlier in his career, and by how the public often welcomes their findings.

“I’m definitely not just hopeful, I think it is already changing. Every week on the internet you see a new study or surprising finding about how ravens can plan ahead, or rats have regrets,” he says. “Behavior and neuroscience, I think the whole picture of animals is changing over time. Instead of the very simplistic view we had before, we now have this picture of animals as they have internal states, feelings and emotions, and their behavior is much more complex also as a result.”

Mama the chimpanzee
Mama the chimp celebrates her 50th birthday in 2007 at Burgers Zoo. (Photo: Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images)

Mama had been the “longtime queen” of the chimpanzee colony at Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands, as de Waal puts it, and after she died the zoo did something unusual. It left her body in the night cage with the doors open, giving her colony a chance to view and touch her one last time. The resulting interactions resembled a wake, de Waal writes. Female chimps visited Mama in total silence (“an unusual state for chimps,” de Waal notes) with some nuzzling her corpse or grooming it. A blanket was later found near Mama’s body, presumably brought there by one of the chimps.

“Mama’s demise has left a giant hole for the chimpanzees,” de Waal writes, “as well as for Jan, myself and her other human friends.” He says he doubts he’ll ever know another ape with such an impressive and inspiring personality, but that doesn’t mean such apes aren’t already out there somewhere, either in the wild or in captivity. And if Mama’s last hug can draw more attention to the emotional depth of chimps and other animals that are still with us, then we all have reason to feel hopeful.

Do Animals Think or Feel?

Research shows cows are bright and emotional and pigs are intelligent, emotional, and cognitively complex

“…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” —Jeremy Bentham

An email about a report called OFA [Ontario Federation of Agriculture] submission to the Standing Committee on General Government regarding the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act (Bill 156), which contained a quotation emphatically stating, “We simply do not know if animals are capable of reasoning and cognitive thought,” shocked me. I immediately read through the report and lo and behold, the authors did make this unscientific and ludicrous claim. And, not surprisingly, there isn’t a single citation in the entire in-house report.

Here is the full quotation, because I don’t want people to think I’m fabricating what these thoroughly uninformed people wrote.

“The concept of ‘sentient beings’ refers to beings with the power to reason and think. The term also implies beings with an awareness of their surroundings who respond to sensations, have cognitive thoughts and have the capacity to perceive and experience life subjectively. Feeling is a subjective state, available only to the animal feeling it. As animals and humans are built and function differently, it is unfair to automatically attribute the sensations experienced by humans to be the same as those experienced by animals. Humans have the ability to communicate their experiences, and what they feel. Since animals cannot communicate with us, there’s a huge assumption by animal activists that animals have emotional responses and the ability to reason and think, in the same way that humans do. We simply do not know if animals are capable of reasoning and cognitive thought, therefore we cannot attribute human qualities of reasoning and cognitive thought on animals as the activists would like.” (My emphasis) —OFA [Ontario Federation of Agriculture] submission to the Standing Committee on General Government regarding the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act (Bill 156)

When I read this, I was shocked. It’s clearly anti-science given what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of numerous diverse nonhuman animals (animals), including so-called “food animals.”And it’s also extremely misleading because humans shouldn’t be the templates against which nonhumans should be measured. Few people criticize studies of animal cognition and emotions because nonhumans don’t resemble or equal humans. There’s no reason they should.

People who know anything about the field of cognitive ethology (the comparative study of animal minds and what’s in them) pay careful attention to what other animals know and feel, capacities and adaptations that allow them to be card-carrying members of their speciesnot ours (or that of other nonhumans). Intelligence is a slippery concept and should not be used to assess suffering. Asking if chickens suffer less than pigs, or if pigs are as smart as dogs, is meaningless and idle speciesism.

In addition, the way in which people treat or mistreat other animals and how they feel about it isn’t a matter of how smart they are. Rather, nonhumans are sentient beings, and it’s a matter of how they suffer, not if they suffer. So-called dumb animals experience deep and prolonged suffering, and, in fact, they’re not really dumb!

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture claims we don’t know if nonhumans think, so therefore they don’t. Both are anti-science, defy reality, and are inane. Animal sentience and animal emotions matter very much; animal sentience is not science fiction, and the life of every single individual matters because they’re alive and have intrinsic or inherent value. They don’t matter because of what’s called their instrumental value—what they can do for us.

I wanted to know more about what was happening on the ground in Ontario, so I contacted Camille Labchuk, a lawyer and the Executive Director of Animal Justice. Here’s some of what she wrote. The Canadian province of Ontario is currently trying to ram through an ag-gag law in the midst of a pandemic. The bill would outlaw whistleblower exposés on farms and in slaughterhouses, and is fiercely opposed by animal advocacy organizations, consumer protection groups, civil libertarians, and journalists. Instead of acknowledging their own wrongdoing, the response from the powerful farming industry has been to lobby for so-called ag-gag laws that make it illegal to film and expose cruelty in the first place. The legislative hearings on Ontario’s ag-gag bill have given us a rare glimpse of the utter indifference that many farmers still have for animal suffering, and indeed their denial of basic science about the emotional and cognitive abilities of animals.

Canada unfortunately has some of the worst animal protection laws in the Western world, and Ontario’s ag-gag bill is about to make a bad situation far worse. Governments do not regulate animal welfare conditions on farms, and farmers are typically exempt from general animal cruelty laws. Farmers engage in a variety of standard yet painful practices with impunity, such as slicing off chicken beaks and piglet tails without anesthesia. To make matters worse, there is no public inspection of animal facilities. With no legal standards to enforce, what would be the point? Instead, the farm industry is left to make up its own rules.

Most people have compassion for animals but are often unaware of how badly animals suffer on farms. When they learn the truth, their trust in the farming industry plummets, and they consider dietary changes to avoid contributing to suffering.

Where have all the science and scientists gone? 

As a scientist, I often wonder: Where have all the science and scientists gone, and why hasn’t every scientist spoken out against such trash. Why aren’t they outraged by OFA’s utter nonsense? And the OFA isn’t alone in putting forth such junk. In the United States, laboratory rats and mice and other fully sentient animals aren’t considered to be animals under the guidelines of the Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). No joke. The science that clearly shows these rodents are sentient beings continues to be totally ignored.1,2

To summarize, who (not what) we eat is a moral question and scientists must speak out. Concerning the notion of who we eat, Ms. Labchuk writes, “Of course, considering the ‘who’ is a massive public relations problem for farmers. The meat industry’s business model depends on ignoring their suffering by crowding chickens raised for meat into dark, windowless warehouses; stuffing egg-laying hens into tiny battery cages; and confining mother pigs in gestation crates so small that they can’t even turn around or play with their babies. Animals are trucked to slaughter when their short lives are over. The victims of the meat industry have few opportunities to experience positive emotional states, and experience significant pain and suffering.”

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s conceptualization of the cognitive and emotional lives of clearly sentient beings is pure fiction and should be read as such. Their misguided views support and will continue to perpetuate the extremely cruel and brutal treatment of “food animals” and ignore a wealth of scientific data. It’s high time to bridge the “knowledge translation gap” and use what we know to truly help other animals. The “knowledge translation gap” refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that nonhumans are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas.

How we treat these and other clearly sentient nonhumans isn’t necessarily a matter of rights. Rather, it’s a matter of decency and depends on using what we know—and have known for a long time—on the animals’ behalf. Indeed, we are obligated to do so.



1) Here are some essays on the emotional lives of so-called “food animals.”

On World Day for Farmed Animals, Let’s Honor Who They Are.

Going “Cold Tofu” to End Factory Farming.

What Would a Mother “Food” Cow Tell Us About Her Children?

Cows: Science Shows They’re Bright and Emotional Individuals. (A new essay reviews the detailed science that demonstrates bovine sentience.)

Is an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?

The Cow’s Nose Shows How They’re Feeling About Life.

Do Cows Moo “Get me the Hell out of Here” on Factory Farms?

The Emotional Lives of Cows: Ears Tell Us They’re Feeling OK.

Dead Cow Walking: The Case Against Born-Again Carnivorism.

Happy Cows: A Heart-Warming Video Offers an Important Lesson. (Watch rescued cows free to run gallop around with unmistakable joy and glee.)

Babe, Lettuce, and Tomato: Dead Pig Walking.

Pigs Are Intelligent, Emotional, and Cognitively Complex.

Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs and Does It Really Matter? (Intelligence is a slippery concept and should not be used to assess suffering.)

Why Sheep Matter: They’re Intelligent, Emotional, and Unique.

Sheep Discriminate Faces, So What’s In It For the Sheep?

The Rich Emotional Lives of Chimpanzees and Goats.

The World According to Intelligent and Emotional Chickens.

The Thanksgiving Day Massacre: A House of Horrors.

2) In the 2002 iteration of the United States Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) we read, “Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of ‘animal’ in the Animal Welfare Act, specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research.


Dog with eyes closed in car
This expression is commonly known as ‘having the sh*ts’. Source: Flickr

Many recent studies have confirmed what you always knew: your dog has feelings.

Dogs can read human emotionsSo, it appears, can horses. Whales have regional accents. Ravens have demonstrated that they might be able to guess at the thoughts of other ravens — something scientists call “theory of mind,” which has long been considered a uniquely human ability. All of these findings have been published within the past several weeks, and taken together they suggest that many of the traits and abilities we believe are “uniquely human” are, in fact, not so unique to us.

That statement probably sounds as if it is veering perilously close to anthropomorphism, and if you know anything about research concerning animal behavior, you likely know this: Anthropomorphism is bad. Animals are animals, and people are people; to assume that an elephant, for example, experiences joy in the same way a human does is laughably unscientific. This has been the prevailing mode of thought in this line of scientific inquiry for most of the last century — to staunchly avoid, and even ridicule, any research project that dared to suggest that animals might be thinking or feeling in the same way that humans do.

But new studies like these, along with a slew of recent books by respected biologists and science writers, are seriously considering the inner lives of animals. Now some prominent scientists are arguing that, though the impulse was well-intentioned, decades of knee-jerk avoidance of all things anthropomorphic may have mostly served to hold this field back. “It ruined the field,” biologist and author Carl Safina told Science of Us. “Not just held it back — it’s ruined the field. It prevented people from even asking those questions for about 40 years.”

New studies … are seriously considering the inner lives of animals. Though the impulse was well-intentioned, decades of knee-jerk avoidance of all things anthropomorphic may have mostly served to hold this field back.

The theme of Safina’s book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel pairs nicely with a forthcoming title from famed primatologist Frans de Waal called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Both scientists make the case for something the biologist Gordon Burghardt called “critical anthropomorphism” — using your own human intuition and understanding as a starting point for understanding animal cognition. “Thus, saying that animals ‘plan’ for the future or ‘reconcile’ after fights is more than anthropomorphic language: These terms propose testable ideas,” de Waal writes.

Animal behavioral science began in the 1910s and 1920s by focusing on description in order to combat superstition (cats are not witches’ familiars, tortoises are not especially tenacious, and grasshoppers are not lazy, etc). The problem is that, eventually, “[d]escription — and onlydescription — became ‘the’ science of animal behavior,” Safina writes in his book, which was published last summer. “Wondering what feelings or thoughts might motivate behavioral acts became totally taboo.” Here’s an example Safina uses: A “good” scientist’s notes might say something like, “The elephant positioned herself between her calf and the hyena.” A bad, anthropomorphic-leaning scientist, on the other hand, would observe the same scene and write, “The mother positioned herself to protect her baby from the hyena.” How can the scientist prove what the mother elephant was intending to do? You can’t see a thought; you can’t observe a feeling. Therefore, to presume that animals possessed either of these things was considered unscientific.

Even raising the mere question of animal awareness was once enough to potentially ruin a career. In the 1970s, the biologist Donald Griffin published a book that did almost exactly that: Question of Animal Awareness. Griffin at this point was a well-respected scientist who had recently made the discovery that bats use echolocation, or sonar, to navigate their surroundings. But after the publication of his book, his professional reputation was largely ruined. Even Jane Goodall caught some flak for going so far as to “humanize” her chimp research subjects by giving them names, and as recently as the 1990s, a writer in the prestigious journal Science advised that research concerning animal cognition “isn’t a project I’d recommend to anyone without tenure.”

Even raising the mere question of animal awareness was once enough to potentially ruin a career.

Better data, including advances in neuroimaging technology and videos from scientists doing fieldwork, is now forcing many to reconsider some very basic questions of animal cognition. Today it sometimes seems like barely a week goes by without the publication of some new study that shows evidence of one species or another demonstrating what might’ve once been considered a strictly “human” ability or emotion.

Evidence of empathy, and even comforting behavior, has been observed in a variety of species

A recent study proposed that the humble prairie vole, a rodent found across the United States and Canada, appears to console its fellow vole after mean scientists stress it out by giving it a (small) electric shock.

Behaviors that look a lot like consolation have also been observed in animals known for their sociability, like elephants. When one Asian elephant sees that another elephant is agitated, scientists have observed that the calmer one will respond by touching the distressed animal with its trunk. “I’ve never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone,” Joshua Plotnik, who led the study, told Discovery. “It may be a signal like, ‘Shshh, it’s okay,’ the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby.”

Contagious yawning, some scientists argue, is another signal of empathy and has recently been observed and recorded in chimpanzees.

Some research suggests that a few animals have demonstrated signals of self-awareness

The best way scientists currently have of measuring this admittedly abstract concept is the mirror recognition test (though some recent work has called the accuracy of this method into question). This usually involves marking the subject with some kind of conspicuous, but odorless, dye and placing it in front of a mirror. Passing the test involves examining the mark in the mirror, and then examining it on their own body; this suggests that the animal grasps that the reflection is a representation of them. Apes and monkeys seem to be able to figure the game out.

In the early 2000s, a pair of scientists found that bottlenose dolphins could also pass the mirror test with flying colors. In her new book Voices in the Ocean, science writer Susan Casey nods to that study, and notes that, in subsequent years, elephants and magpies have also taken the mirror test and passed. (For context, humans don’t pass this test until they are about two.)

Some animals appear to be capable of understanding the perspective of others 

Beyond the raven’s newly discovered behaviors, there is evidence that scrub jays are able to see the world from another scrub jay’s viewpoint, which helps them hide their food. Male Eurasian jays seem to be able to make a good guess at what sort of food female Eurasian jays might like to eat. “It was long thought that only humans could do this,” University of Cambridge psychologist Nicola Clayton told Wired of the jay research. “What we’ve shown in a series of experiments is that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

To be sure, in an era of viral videos, it’s easy to take this idea —Anthropomorphism is okay now! — and get carried away with it. A perfect recent example is a back-and-forth over a picture of a trio of kangaroos. According to the Facebook caption accompanying the photo, the female had recently died, and the male and baby were “mourning” it. Media outlets took this at face value and ran with it, with headlines like “Dying Kangaroo Mom Spends Last Moment Holding Her Baby.”

And then, as is the circle of life for a viral news story, came the debunkings: The male kangaroo was just trying to have sex with the female, these articles scolded, and to believe any differently was a sign of “naive anthropomorphism.” Safina’s impression of the photo, incidentally, is that there really isn’t much we can tell one way or the other from a still photo. Really, the photo — or, more specifically, the instantly polarized online reactions to the photo — tell us more about ourselves than they do about kangaroo behavior.

“The one thing that is almost never allowed, or never thought of, is that there can be nuance,” Safina said. “There can be a range of emotions that happen in nonhumans, just as there is in humans.” After a human death, for example, the person’s loved ones show a range of emotions — denial, confusion, even some terribly inappropriate laughter. “But with animals everything has to be either/or,” Safina continued. People either want to believe that animals are pure and kindhearted and all-around better than we are — or they want to believe the very opposite, that humans are the most remarkable creatures on Earth, and animal behavior is driven only by instinct. (As if human behavior isn’t, too.)

Rushing to an unsupported conclusion that animals are just like us is bad, biased science. But willfully ignoring evidence of animal behaviors that look suspiciously like human emotions is unscientific and biased, too. “The key point is that anthropomorphism is not always as problematic as people think,” de Waal writes, adding that this is probably particularly true of animals with brains like ours: apes, sure, but even elephants and some marine mammals like dolphins. After all, we’re animals, too.

This week Insight is looking at the emotions of dogs and their human companions. Do they actually love us? | Tuesday 26 April, 8:30pm SBS 


That Dog Don’t Hunt

Since the dark ages of Descartes, certain people have tried to keep non-human animals down and justify their exploitation with the absurd and arrogant allegation that animals don’t really care what happens to them because they aren’t capable of feeling, choosing, or perceiving—they aren’t “conscious”.

Say what? What are they, unconscious?

To borrow a redneck phrase I promise I’ll never resort to again, that dog don’t hunt!

Of course, neither does our yellow lab, Honey. But she definitely can think and feel, and on Wednesday night she felt bad, clearly perceiving that things weren’t right. She must have eaten something unsavory that didn’t sit well. Normally Honey sleeps like a log, choosing to sleep on the bed, but that night she didn’t sleep a wink and instead lay on the floor with a pained expression and a hang-dog look (sorry, again, but it seemed to fit); she was worried, fearful and subdued—obviously uncomfortable.

By morning, her stomach must have settled and she slept soundly until 11:00 a.m. Honey hadn’t been outside since the previous afternoon, and my wife and I had been growing quite concerned, but when we asked if she was ready to go for walk, the answer was plain as day. She jumped for joy—leaped, in fact—in jubilant celebration of feeling like her old self again. Her recovery was dramatic, almost startling, and she pulled against her leash with renewed vigor and intensity.

How anyone can still subscribe to the agenda-driven assertion that non-human animals don’t experience life every bit as—if not more—richly as our species, is beyond me. All of the other animals we share the world with—dogs, cats, pigs, cows, horses, rabbits, parrots, pigeons, turkeys, turtles, deer, elk, mink, salmon, or moose–have each evolved the wits and sensations needed to survive, or they surely wouldn’t be with us now.  

Regardless of what you believe about whether animals should have rights, we humans don’t have the right to make them suffer. Any attentive dog owner knows that their best friend can go through a full spectrum of emotions, from fear and sorrow to love and joy—on any given day. Rene Descartes must have been short changed when god was handing out empathy. A lot of animals have needlessly suffered for his convenient, but lunatic theories on the lack of animal consciousness.

Conscious or not, Descartes must not have had a conscience. His theory could have been put to rest long ago had his peers applied one simple equation:   If it looks like poop and smells like poop, it must be bullshit.