Friday, July 28, 2006

Emotional Lives of Non-Human Animals

In the wild, researchers were observing a herd of six giraffe when they noticed a lion stalking nearby. The lion pounced and the giraffe bolted. But one giraffe, a baby calf, was too slow. The calf's mother (the researchers had been observing this herd for quite awhile and were aware of the familial relations of the various giraffe) got behind the calf and tried to push it to run faster. Within a few strides, however, she realized this was not working, and she stopped, turned, and faced the charging lion. Lions regularly take down adult giraffe, so this was a dangerous act on the part of the mom. The lion circled the two giraffe, and the mother continued to face the lion as it circled, placing itself between the lion and calf the entire time. Any time the lion approached, the mother gave a violent kick in his direction, forcing him back to the perimeter. An hour later, the lion gave up and left, and the mom and calf rejoined the herd.

Was this an example of love? Most animal owners would answer "yes" in a heartbeat. But many scientists will say no, or say they don't know, either unwilling to allow that non-humans experience emotions or are simply not convinced based on current evidence. You might say that this reaction was the result of survival instincts in the giraffe. In that case, consider the following story.

A male red fox named Smudge had a litter of pups with Whitepaws. Male foxes typically supply food to the female and her pups after birth, but otherwise leave the female alone in a den with the pups. Smudge did this with excitement, according to researcher David Macdonald, who was studying these foxes. However, as the cubs aged a bit, Smudge enjoyed playing with them. But this wasn't always allowed by Whitepaws or Big Ears, the pups' maternal aunt who also watched over them. Oftentimes, Smudge would approach the cubs to play, but the females would chase Smudge off. So what did Smudge do? He waited in hiding until the females fell asleep. Then the researcher watched Smudge sneak a little closer to the den and give a very soft warble. Within a few moments, the pups quietly tiptoed out of the den to their dad, and they proceeded to play. Of course, at some point the pups would make enough noise to wake the females, who promptly ran over and reprimanded Smudge. But this didn't stop Smudge. He kept sneaking play time with his pups whenever he could!

I'm reading this book entitled When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals (J.M. Masson & S. McCarthy, 1995) and these are only two of about fifty such stories I've already read, and I'm only on page 73 of 236. It's a great book that demonstrates (pretty conclusively in my opinion) that other animals experience emotions—it's not just impersonal instinct.

7/29/05 Edit:
Bill, at Integral Options Cafe kindly linked here and his comment there reminded me of something I had wanted to add to this post but forgot before submitting. He mentioned the anthropomorphizing of non-human animals, and as a matter of fact, that's exactly what the authors discuss in a well-written (and fairly long) first chapter in the book. They mention the scientific suicide that can often result by attributing even the slightest emotion to non-humans, and give many examples of such, including instances where an emotional word slips into an otherwise "objective" description, and instances where a scientist attributes some emotionality and is chastised bitterly for it. The authors' purpose in this book was to cull the scientific literature and present evidence based on all those studies (there are 32 pages of Notes at the end that cite the literature from which they draw their stories) that emotions are evident in non-humans. They argue (correctly in my opinion) that the main reason for the taboo against non-human emotion is the—conscious or unconscious—placement of humans as the pinnacle of creation/evolution (rather than the species that just happened to evolve the greatest complexity, today).* So while they are quick to point out that we don't fully understand emotional responses in non-humans, and their experience of love is probably a bit different from our experience of love, they argue that there is ample evidence that they do experience emotions and there's no shame in admitting such. Keep in mind that it's not anthropomorphizing if non-humans DO experience emotion.

*I mean, at one point in time, dinosaurs were the most complex creatures on the planet and were the "pinnacle of creation/evolution." Look what happened to them, after which small mammals were given the chance to evolve, eventually resulting in us. But once we go, something else is bound to take our place. Perhaps the reptiles will have their revenge! :)


WH said...

Thanks for the additional info, Mike. I sent the link to my girlfriend for a book she's writing on "love" among non-human animals (a kid's book). She's looking at mating for life, family structure, and altruism in animals. It's cool that there are publishers who are willing to look at such things, and make them available to children (who aren't yet closed to all the possibilities).