Animal Writes
28 January 2001 Issue
An Emotion Filled Call From The Wild

By Tim Friend, USA TODAY
Contributed by Marc Bekoff - [email protected] 

Warning: The following story is about behavior in animals that strongly resembles emotional behavior in humans, and it contains statements that may be offensive to some members of the human race. First potentially offensive statement: It's OK for scientists to describe animal behavior in human terms. That's according to Marc Bekoff, editor of a book titled The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions (Discovery Books, $35).

The book is a collection of essays about animals written by more than 50 animal behavior scientists. Their observations are the sort they normally would only tell a friend privately over a beer; reading the book is like pulling a chair up to the table to listen in. The issue here is anthropomorphism - the ascribing of human characteristics to non-human things, such as animals or pieces of wood. Scientists take a dim view of anthropomorphism. An animal behavior researcher (they're called ethologists) would no more tell a scientific audience that a dog is happy than you would say a stick is happy. For the ethologist, the "A" word is taboo. Dirty. Nasty. Ethologists have a somewhat derogatory term for non-scientists who because of their lack of education and scientific discipline anthropomorphize animals. They call such people "pet owners." In The Smile of a Dolphin, however, the "A" word is employed with apologetic abundance as ethologists, including Bernd Wrsig (ravens), John Fentress (wolves) and Richard Wrangham (primates) reveal their private anthropomorphic moments.

Perhaps it was safety in numbers that provided the courage for the ethologists to make this mass confession. Or maybe the time has arrived to acknowledge that animals are more complex emotionally and cognitively than scientific-minded humans have given them credit for over the past several centuries, says Bekoff, who has studied animal play behavior for 30 years at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"It has made me feel good that people who have the book are saying, 'Wow, it's about time scientists came out of the closet,'" says Bekoff, who has an agenda with the book: "If more scientists and more members of the public learn that animals have rich, emotional lives, then perhaps society will do more to find alternatives to animals for biomedical research."

Bekoff says that animals experience human-type emotions when caged and used in invasive experiments; ignoring those emotions helps justify experiments he considers cruel and unethical. Most scientists, however, are uncomfortable mixing political agendas with science. Bennet Galef of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, says scientists must be careful that scientific truths and, more important, uncertainties are not twisted to further a particular agenda. Galef is the reigning king curmudgeon of ethology. His expertise is in animal culture, or the lack of evidence for it. When it comes to emotions, he doesn't believe a book full of anecdotes is proof of anything. "I personally believe that animals do have emotional states, but our job as scientists is not to know it, it is to show it," Galef says. "Science is a game I play, and it has certain rules. The rule isn't to look at a dog and say that he is happy. I don't find Marc Bekoff's way logically satisfying."

But part of the power of Bekoff's book is that he lets other scientists tell stories to bolster the notion that animals do experience emotions. True, there is no scientific proof in the traditional laboratory sense. Readers of the book will have to settle for a non-scientific intuitive sense that something rich and not so foreign to our human experience is going on in the wild.

In the book, Christine Drea of Duke University describes the powerful maternal-type bond she formed with a young male hyena she named Phoenix. Drea cared for Phoenix from birth and raised him in her office at Duke. Eventually, he was moved into a hyena enclosure and learned to socialize with members of his own species. Even so, whenever Drea called his name, Phoenix would issue all sorts of vocalizations associated with excitement and affection. One time, he was in such a tizzy after having been beaten up by an older, dominant female that he wouldn't let anyone examine him. But when he heard Drea's voice, he let out a pitiful whine. Drea writes: "Before I was even fully seated, he crawled into my lap (which he'd long since outgrown), turned over on his back, stared up at me with bewildered eyes. . . . As I consoled him and checked for cuts, he lowered his head, closed his eyes and fell sound asleep. In scientific terms, he was a low-ranking hyena who had suffered the stress and acute changes in circulating cortisol concentrations brought on by social interactions with higher-ranking animals. In layman's terms, he was merely a frightened hyena who needed comforting."

And that brings us to the No. 2 potentially offensive statement: Social animals, those that invest a lot of time in rearing their young and form bonds with other members of their species, experience emotions such as love, joy, grief, shame, fear and frustration. Admittedly, there is confusion among scientists about how to define emotions and whether animals have some means of controlling emotions. Another question: If an animal appears happy or sad, does it actually feel happy or sad? If it's impossible at times to know what a fellow human is thinking, how can we figure out what an animal is experiencing internally?

No one claims to have the answers, says Richard Wrangham of Harvard, author of the 1997 book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence . Wrangham specializes in the study of aggression. He has conducted 30 years of field observations of chimpanzees and also operates a full slate of laboratory experiments to test hypotheses he develops in the field. Wrangham says that, as a rule, animals can be quite aggressive when it comes to food. But he relates a story that would indicate animals can employ restraint and deception. He saw two chimpanzees eye an infant baboon in the care of its mother; the mother was feeding on fruit in a tree. Chimpanzees will kill and eat baby baboons. Wrangham watched the chimpanzees inch steadily closer to the infant by behaving with remarkable nonchalance for 25 minutes. Finally, when the chimpanzees were very close still appearing to ignore the baboons they struck with lightning-quick ferocity and took the infant from the mother.

The paranoia about being anthropomorphic about animal behavior was in full display among a panel of ethologists at a recent meeting of the Smithsonian Associates program in Washington, D.C. Wrangham and Fentress expressed nervousness at speaking so openly about animal behavior in humanlike terms. The paranoia harks back at least to the 17th century to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher who helped develop the objective scientific method of study, which remains the standard for scientific inquiry today. Descartes believed that animals are the slaves of their emotions and lack any of the type of control observed by Wrangham in the predatory chimpanzees. In Descartes' view, animals are essentially machines that behave automatically and lack souls and because they lack souls, they cannot feel pain. Descartes was instrumental in launching the use of animals for scientific research.

In 1879, Charles Darwin published a book, On the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. The book is not highly regarded by today's ethologists, but it was a landmark because it stated that animals experience emotions. Darwin believed emotions evolved in both animals and humans for the purpose of furthering social bonds in group-living animals. No one paid much attention to Darwin's book, and now, more than 100 years later, scientists are still arguing whether animals feel sadness, happiness and even pain.

"The only difference between now and 1879 is that scientists today can say dopamine," Galef says. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in a great many human emotional states. Bekoff says that the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of humans and other vertebrates are similar enough to hypothesize that if dopamine makes a human feel good or happy, it is doing the same in a dog or a rat. Many scientists now agree with Darwin that emotions evolved to strengthen the bonds linking social animals. Studies are being conducted that Bekoff says may one day provide the evidence to back up what seems obvious to pet owners - that a dog's happy face is indeed saying, "Don't worry, be happy."

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