Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yes, that purring cat is actually smiling

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal rights, emotions

I once saw the Lipizzaner Stallions perform. The announcer said a particular "Airs Above the Ground" maneuver was being performed by this particular horse for the first time in public. I noticed the horse, just before his jump, hesitate, sway slightly, then rear his head proudly and perform flawlessly. Tears came to my eyes. I could instantly sense the horse's anxiety and that he overcame it.

Five years earlier (1966), in some required Zoology class, we were told very sternly that to attribute to an animal the empathetic feelings we experienced while watching their behavior was "anthropomorphism," one of the greatest sins in science. At that time, even Jane Goodall was finding it difficult to get away with trying to print even weasel-worded statements like "Had we observed a child behave as little Jason behaved, we would say he was happy." When I wept in relief at the horse's triumph, I knew that professor was tragically wrong.

Thank God things have changed. When you scratch between your dog's ears, and he half-closes his eyes and whisper-moans; when you pet a kitten who then purrs; it is quite obvious they are enjoying happy emotions. Are they humanly happy? Of course not! They are dogly or catly happy!! But the emotions they feel are so similar to our own that we recognize them and respond to them.

This lovely image from The Africa Guide, and copyright by them, shows young elephants playing. Have you ever tried to play when you were sad? If you managed it, you weren't sad for long!

Today it is tolerated, and almost acceptable for a scientist to write of "the happy reunion" of a mother fox with her kits, or an "angry baboon", who feels he's been cheated...without using quote marks or weasel words.

Marc Bekoff is one of many whom we can thank for this salutary change. In The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter, Dr. Bekoff makes it clear that we have emotions because animals have emotions, including the animals from which our species descends. Perhaps because they think less richly than we do (at least, we think that is so...), their emotions are possibly richer and stronger than ours.

They are certainly more visible. Particularly in conservative cultures, we are taught to be reserved, to mask our feelings. As it turns out, many animals have been observed to mask feelings also, in order to deceive another or gain advantage. But they usually don't bother.

When a dog's caretaker says, "Let's go for a walk," There is no question of the dog's joy. Give a young pig a new toy, and watch out! Animals seldom have anything to hide. Their hearts really show on their...em...forelegs(!)

Dr. Bekoff and his preferred associates have brought the subject out of the closet. Animals love and hate, feel empathy or disdain, express fear, surprise, and grief pretty much the same way we do. He shows how studies of how brains work are showing that we (all vertebrates, to varying degrees) have specific brain equipment for recognizing and empathizing with the emotions of others, whatever the species. In fact, people without specific training are just as good, and often better, at recognizing an animal's emotion, compared to "professionals."

Dr. Bekoff is an ethologist, one who studies feelings. He specialized in canids (wolves, coyotes, dogs, foxes, and jackals). He and Jane Goodall have established Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or EETA. It is a professional-level organization with many of the same goals as PETA, on which I reported not long ago.

While reading, I realized something very weird: people who claim that only humans have emotions must be Creationists. They must believe our feelings are a "special creation". Otherwise, where did they come from? If 98% of our genes are Chimp genes, and 80+% are in common with all vertebrates, doesn't it stand to reason that our emotions are 80-to-90-plus percent the same as theirs?

Anyway, remember the dog that is happy to hear the word "walk"? He has learned some words of English, but his master knows not one word of Dog. Which one is really smarter?

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