Animals and emotion

If they have feelings, how can we treat them the way we do?

Gorilla mother with her dead baby

copyright: Frank Augstein/AP

A three month old baby died in its mother’s arms. For hours on end, the mother, name Gana, gently shook and stroked her son, Claudio, apparently trying to restore movement to his lolling head and limp arms.

People who saw what happened were moved to tears – evidently unbothered that Gana and Claudio were “only” gorillas, resident at Munster zoo in Germany.

It wasn’t only eye-witnesses who were moved. A British woman who read about Gana’s loss online posted this comment: “From one bereaved mother to another – Gana you are in my thoughts. My baby boy died last June and you wouldn't wish it on any form of life.”

Others were more detached. A writer in the Guardian asked brightly: “Are we too quick to project human feelings onto animals?”

Dr Bill Sellers, a primatologist at the University of Manchester believes gorillas go through emotions of pain and loss similar to humans. “But, of course, it's extremely difficult to prove scientifically.”

As Einstein said: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts. By focusing narrowly on specifics – in this case, the emotional capacity of animals – scientists sometimes fail to take account of what seems perfectly obvious and meaningful to the rest of us. Their experience of the world must seem a bit like watching a soccer match, at night, with a single spotlight instead of floodlights.

Many who commented on Gana’s story online have taken a robustly anti-science line, asking angrily how “experts” can be so idiotic. “Have they not heard a cow calling for days when her calves are removed?” asked one. Others have listed their own personal experiences with dogs and cats becoming “depressed” by the death of their own kind – and indeed by the loss of human companions.

These people would turn the Guardian’s question on its head: Haven’t we been rather slow to recognise that animals have emotions?

The question goes to the heart of our way of life. If animals have feelings it is much harder to justify experimenting on them in laboratories, ogling at them in zoos, and farming them intensively – or indeed, at all.

The academics attempting to resolve this fall into two camps. Behaviourists accept only the results of tests, rejecting any unproven suggestion that animals think or feel, or are even capable of emotion. Ethologists, on the other hand, are prepared to draw conclusions from studies and observation, anecdote and personal observation.

Ethologists, these days, are in the ascendant. One of the best known is Marc Bekoff, professor of biology at the University of Colorado, and co-founder with the primatologist Jane Goodall of the group Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Sceptical behaviourists often ask him, how do you know dogs and elephants feel joy or jealousy or embarrassment? “One retort is to say, How do you know they don’t? Darwin said that there is continuity in evolution so the differencew between species are differences in degree rather than difference in kind. They’re shades of grey. So if we feel jealousy, then dogs and wolves and elephants and chimpanzees feel jealousy. Animal emotions are not necessarily identical to ours but there’s no reason to think they should be. Their hearts and stomachs and brains also differ from ours, but this doesn’t stop us from saying they have hearts, stomachs and brains. There’s dog-joy and chimpanzee-joy and pig-joy, and dog-grief, chimpanzee-grief and pig-grief.”

And, though many people would feel comfortable associating emotions with large, charismatic mammals, hard evidence increasingly suggests that other animals are similarly capable.

The neurobiologist Erich Jarvis of Duke University argues that evolution has created more than one way to generate complex behaviour. And they’re comparable. Some birds have evolved cognitive abilities that are far more complex than in many mammals.’ And Dr Nathan J Emery, a neuropsychologist in Cambridge’s Department of Zoology suggests that in their cognitive ability, corvids – the bird family that includes crows, ravens, magpies – rival the great apes and might well be considered “feathered apes”.

Esther Woolfson, author of the new book, Corvus: A Life With Birds, has lived for years with a variety of these feathered apes.

Esther Woolfson

As it happens, Woolfson doesn’t believe that her birds understand every word she says – the dictum beloved of pet owners everywhere. But she does believe they have emotions. “I have seen— or believe that I have seen— in birds, impatience, frustration, anxiety in the urge to impart news, affection, fear, amusement (the last being a difficult one, I admit, to prove, merely on the basis of watching the look on a magpie’s face as its booby-trap was successful) and particularly, joy.

One bird, Spike, would balance an object — a pamphlet, a rubber glove, a matchbox — carefully on top of a half-open cupboard door, then wait until it fell onto the head of the next person to open the cupboard.

Her birds also seemed to empathise. “To have a magpie, on seeing me weep, hover on top of the fridge, wings outstretched, tremble for a few moments then fly down to my knee to crouch, squeaking quietly, edging ever nearer until his body was close against mine, seemed to me at the time, (as it does now) an act of an unexpected tenderness that I can interpret only as empathy. There may be other explanations of their behaviour, but I can’t think what they might be.”

Bekoff agrees that we can no longer associate emotion only with the charismatic mammals. “The fact is that fish show fear. Rodents can empathise. This is hard science. With birds and mammals there is no doubt that they have a very rich ensemble of emotions.

Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence magazine, was for several years a Jain monk. The Jain respect for life is extreme: Kumar didn’t wash his hair for years in case there were fleas in it. He gave up being a monk eventually, for other reasons, but still believes that all living beings should be respected.

“We are animals. And we have a kind of empathy with the animal kingdom. They’re our kin. There is a slight difference between a cat and a dog and a chimp and a female human and a male one and a black human and a white one. These differences are very small: 98 per cent of our DNA is the same as other animals like primates.

“There used to be a time when people thought that animals had no soul, just as they thought that slaves, or Africans or women had no soul. We realised a long time ago, as Jains, that animals have souls. They do feel pain, and joy. Mostly they feel what we feel. Animals have empathy and intelligence. We have to be humble and accept that we are only one kind of animal and these are others.”

Jains divide the living world into several categories. “Living things like trees and vegetation have only one sense – touch. Then you have two senses, touch and taste, the animals that eat. Then there are animals with a third sense, smell. Fourth are the ones that have sight too. And then hearing. Intelligence is limited because they get their information through just one sense. But look at people who are not literate. Literacy is a relatively new thing. Before that, we had only an oral culture. That does not mean that people lacked intelligence, just techniques. So even mosquitos have something. Even viruses and fungi have intelligence. Nature is full of intelligence. That intelligence manifests in different ways. A tree knows how to bear fruit.”

Many people will reject this as sentimental nonsense, but scientific evidence is increasingly providing support to such ideas.

The parasitic plant, dodder, appears to “choose” which host plants to parasitize on the basis of an initial evaluation of a potential host's nutritional status. Transplanted shoots are more likely to coil on (“accept”) host plants of high nutritional status and grow away from (“reject”) hosts of poor quality. Crucially, this acceptance or rejection occurred before any food had been taken from the host. It was based on an as yet unknown evaluation by the parasite of the host's potential food value.

But intelligence is not the same as emotion. Studies of intelligence and ability have been around forever – a new one this week showed that elephants can do maths. Evidence of emotional capacity, conceivably older in evolutionary terms than intelligence, has the greater potential to change the way we treat animals. You might put an animal into a circus if it did tricks, but if you knew that this upset the animal you would take it out again. (Unless you were a psychopath, many of whom have been shown to be cruel to animals as well as humans.)

To Bekoff, the great distinction between living beings is whether they have eyes.

“The eyes tell it all. If we can stand it we should look into the fear-filled eyes of animals who sufer at our hands, in horrible conditions of captitivy, in slaughterhouses and resarch labs, fur farms, zoos, rodeos and circuses. Dare to look into the sunken eyes of animals who are afraid or feeling all sorts of pain and then try to deny to yourself and to others that these individuals are feeling anything. I bet you can’t!”

Bekoff abandoned a promising career at medical school for this reason. “A very intelligent cat looked at me and asked, ‘why me?’ I couldn’t find the words to tell him why, or how badly I felt for torturing and killing him.

Strict behaviourists might laugh at this, saying that the animal’s expression was merely a physical response to particular stimuli. But if they’re consistent they must say the same about human emotions too.

Marian E. Stamp Dawkins, professor for animal behaviour at the University of Oxford, points out that even in humans it is difficult to measure emotion. There are three ways to do it: we can listen to what people say they feel; measure body temperature and heart rate and hormonal levels; and observe behaviour. “Unfortunately, the three emotional systems do not necessarily correlate with each other. Sometimes, for example, strong subjective emotions occur with no obvious autonomic changes – as when someone experiences a rapid switch from excitement to fear on a roller coaster.”

Ultimately, the minds and feelings of individuals other than ourselves are private. “Access is limited because we can’t really get into the head or heart of another being, and that includes other people,” says Bekoff.

“I often imagine a dinner table conversation between a scientist and his or her own child concerning research in which the nature of mother–infant bonds is studied by taking the infant away from their mother. Child: So, what did you do today? Parent: Oh, I removed two baby chimpanzees from their mother to see how they reacted to this treatment. Child: Hmm, do you think the baby minded being taken from her mother? Parent: Well, I’m not sure, so that’s why I did it. Child: Oh, but what do you think that the baby’s fighting to get back to her mother and her writhing and screaming meant? Parent: It’s getting late, isn’t it time for bed?”


As Gana’s loss of Claudio went round the world, the director of Munster zoo hailed the episode as “one of the greatest gifts that a zoo can bestow – to show ‘animals’ are very much like ourselves, and feel elation and pain. Gana lost a child, but I think in that loss, she taught people here so much.”

Others think that the story has opened a fresh line of attack on the very existence of zoos, and their breeding programmes in particular.

“What in the world was the zoo doing allowing a female to breed?” asks Marc Bekoff. “A baby in the wild is born into a large social group. What kind of life is the baby animal going to have in the zoo – sentenced to a lifetime in captivity? Zoos say it’s about repopulating wild populations but that’s a lot of bull. They’re going to make a lot of money, selling cute toys and candy.”

Berlin Zoo intervened 18 months ago to save the life of the now internationally renowned polar bear cub, Knut, after he was rejected by his mother at birth. Several polar bear experts said that it was unnatural for the zoo to step in and rescue the bear. They said human intervention would result in Knut never being able find a mate and would leave him totally dependent on humans. Similar arguments were raised earlier this year after the birth and rescue of another polar bear cub rejected by its mother at Nuremberg Zoo.

The death last week of Claudio at Munster Zoo only adds to the sense that breeding in captivity may be a mistake. Eleven-year-old Gana has a history of neglecting her young, and the infant's death may have been a result of her poor parenting, itself very likely the result of Gana's own detachment from wild gorilla populations. Last year, for reasons nobody understands, Gana rejected a six-week-old daughter, Mary Zwo. The baby was moved to a zoo in Stuttgart where she is now one of the star attractions.

The gestation period for gorillas is 295 days — compared to 266 for humans and 108 days for lions. Coupled with a high infant mortality rate, this means that female gorillas successfully rear an infant only around every six to eight years.

Ian Redmond, of the UN’s Great Ape Survival Project, points out that keeping animals in zoos doesn't only hurt the animals. “Forests are important for the planet and great apes are a keystone species in the forest ecology,” he pointed out. Without the apes, does the forest suffer?

First published in The Sunday Times