Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
29 November 2000 Issue

By Steve Best

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
By Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy
Delacorte Press, 1995

"It is plain that the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather
on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason. The rational
quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associ-
ating ourselves with our fellow-men, but not with beasts, or things, whose
nature is different from our own ... for their nature is not like ours, and their emotions are natural different from human emotions."
Benedict Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher

The modern tradition of animal rights got underway in England during the nineteenth century. Against those who denied animals moral status because they allegedly lacked rationality and language, philosopher Jeremy Bentham replied: "The question is not, Can they reason nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" By displacing the terms of debate, emphasizing that animals are sentient beings that experience pain just as human beings do, Bentham and others (like Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation [1977]) concluded that it is wrong to harm or kill animals.

The argument for sentience is indeed a strong basis for the notion of animal rights, and draws an important correlation between animals and human beings. But an even stronger case can be made that underlines more important similarities between human beings and animals, one based on our shared emotional complexity. This case is presented in clear and compelling terms in the new book by Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, perhaps the first work to seriously explore this topic.

The book documents how animals experience not only crude emotions like fear, but far more subtle and complex emotions such as love, grief, pride, shame, joy, and loneliness. For many of us with pets, this fact should come as no surprise, for we can see on a daily basis how our dogs and cats react to us with varied moods and expressions (I have poster on my kitchen wall that asks, "How Does Your Cat Feel Today?" and depicts dozens of different faces and attitudes, all of which he seems to possess on any given day).

Yet the scientific community has denied what ordinary experience confirms, largely because they fear being "anthropomorphic," a scientific sin which attributes human emotions to nonhuman life forms, presuming to know how they feel or think without any basis for judgment. Thus, the scientist would not say my cat experiences joy when I come home from a trip (or perhaps resentment might be more accurate), but rather that he "moves in a rapid manner, emitting loud cries." A monkey never gets "angry," rather he "exhibits aggression."

Scientists also deny emotional complexity to animals by offering reductionistic evolutionary explanations of their behavior. A bird, for example, sings only to attract its mate, and not because its happy or likes to sing, hearing the beauty of its own voice. Such descriptions transform animals from living beings into mere machines.

I'm sure sometimes we do commit the anthropomorphic fallacy, wrongly attributing thoughts and feelings to animals that they may not have. Honestly, when I say my cat is "jealous" of another cat that might be visiting, I don't really know what he feels and he may not feel anything in particular. But, as the authors argue, just because animal emotions are difficult to interpret does not mean they aren't there; just because animals don't frame their thoughts and feelings in human language doesn't mean they don't have them.

In response to the skeptic's claim that we can't know for sure if animals really have feelings, because they have no "language," one can respond that the same is true for human beings. How can I really know that other people feel grief, joy, or even experience pain if I them? They can indeed express thoughts and emotions to me in language, but how do I know their language describes a true state? In animals, no different than human beings, all we really have to go on is their behavioral expression and what we can infer from that based on our own experience. In the case of animals that can use sign language, however, we do have a bona fide use of language that is directly revealing.

The scientific denial of complex animal emotions is an anti-scientific dogma; there have been no serious scientific studies of animal emotions because no scientist is willing to do them. Over 150 years ago, Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, but his lead has not been followed.

And it is obvious why, for if animals have more thought and feeling than scientists allow, their experimental work on animals becomes morally problematic, if not wrong. As the film Project X dramatized, for example, monkeys confined in cages experience deep anguish, pain, and loneliness, yet their lives are sacrificed in the sacred name of experimental science, which often is nothing but a euphemism for cruelty and brings no valid results except to boost the careers of men and women in white coats.

When Elephants Weep provides hundreds of examples to refute scientific reductionism. We meet chimps and apes with a sign vocabulary of over 100 words, communicating in a creative way not only with human beings, but with members of their own species. We encounter Alex the parrot who knows the names of over 50 objects, 7 colors, and 5 shapes, along with Michael the gorilla who loves Pavorotti and refuses to go outside when he is on TV. The title of the book stems from one of the more remarkable examples of animal emotions, the Indian elephant which sheds tears of pain when injured, or tears of grief when a family member is killed. Amazingly, elephants seem to have a concept of death and enact long burial rituals.

If animals can experience a range of emotions similar to human beings, they are not significantly different from us and we cannot escape our moral obligations to treat them with kindness, love, and respect. When Elephants Weep is an important work that all animal lovers should read, providing much ammunition in our fight against complacent carnivores and speciesists who think the world is ours to destroy.

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This review originally appeared in "Life Giving Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP)

Steve Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, a long time vegan and animal rights activist, and author of numerous books and articles in the areas of social theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Some of his writings are posted at

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