In 350 B.C., Aristotle found evidence of emotion in animals. "Some are good-tempered, sluggish, and little prone to ferocity, as the ox; others are quick-tempered, ferocious, and unteachable, as the wild boar," he wrote in The History of Animals.
Today, the proposition that animals share some of the same feelings as man – actually experiencing pain, grief, and joy – is winning more advocates. And animal rights activists point to that concept as a concrete reason to end man's exploitation of animals. The reformers are getting help from biologist Marc Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, who has compiled a new book, The Smile of the Dolphin, (Discovery Books/Random House, $35) in which dozens of animal researchers explain why they believe animals have emotions.
The Grieving Chimp
In one chapter, primate expert Jane Goodall recounts the grief experienced by a chimpanzee child named Flint after his mother, Flo, died in Africa's Gombe National Park. "Over the next three weeks, Flint became increasingly lethargic. He stopped eating, and he avoided other chimps, huddling in the vegetation close to where he'd last seen Flo," she writes.
The sad-eyed mourner made his way to the spot where his mother had lain, next to a stream, staring into the water until he died.
"Chimpanzees, differing from us genetically by only just over one percent, can't be said to weep, for they don't shed tears. Yet…they show behavior that's associated with sadness, depression, and grief in humans: soft whimpering, crying sounds, listlessness, lack of appetite, avoidance of others," Goodall writes.
But are such animals truly "sad," in the sense that they realize something is lost that will never be regained? How can they be said to be happy, sad, or angry if they don't perceive themselves as a separate being?, the skeptics ask. Others say it's credible to count apes as capable of feeling, but a broad stretch to attribute emotions to lions or sheep.
"Does Flint reflect and say, 'I'm sad'? I don't know if he does, but he's behaving as if he's sad, and there's no reason to believe that he's not sad," Bekoff says, adding that anyone who lives with a dog knows when she's happy, sad, or fearful.
Clinton Sanders, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, writes that he studied a guide-dog training program to find out more about the social bond between dogs and people.
"For people who depend on dogs for special assistance, knowing their animal companions' thought processes and feelings is central to building an effective alliance," Sanders says. "The visually-impaired people with whom I talked often spoke of the special pleasure their dogs derived from doing the work they were trained for – and, in contrast, the embarrassment they obviously felt when they made mistakes."
Jaak Panksepp, an expert in neuroscience at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says he witnessed the power of the mother-infant bond when his two female cats, a mother and her daughter, each gave birth after building nests in closets on opposite ends of his long, ranch-style home.
The mother cat gave birth first, and the daughter, while awaiting her babies' arrival, took charge of the mother's brood, carrying them to her nest. "Then we had a few days of chaos, as mother and daughter repeatedly ferried the kittens between their domains," Panksepp recounts. "We know many of the neurochemistries that activate these strong (maternal) feelings. At the basic emotional level, all mammals are remarkably similar."
So, what does it mean to believe that animals have feelings? "It means they are not just objects with which we can do what we please," Bekoff says. But the broader implications of viewing animals with more sensitivity could mean dramatic societal changes, like stopping the factory production of meat for humans, or granting animals more rights.
"I think it will have a subtle, slow impact," says Bekoff, who's a vegetarian. "I think the world is going to be different."