When People Become Animals

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When People Become Animals

By John Thompson on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
August 2010

The cost of that assumed "specialness," though, has been appalling. For so many, many years, it has kept us from being a part of the wonderful animal kingdom. No wonder isolation and loneliness are such widespread complaints among humans.

Perhaps a "coming out" party for humans will soon be appropriate, as we emerge from feeling separate and superior to other animals.

First we learned that genetically all animals are quite similar. In fact, over 90 percent of our genes are identical to those of dogs. We're even a closer match with chimpanzees.

Now, another brick in the wall between species is crumbling. Investigators in the relatively new field of trans-species psychology are reporting on the many ways that we are emotionally similar to our non-human friends.

Dr. Gay Bradshaw, who heads the Oregon-based Kerulos Center, is one of those who find astonishing similarities. Her insights helped explain the bizarre escalation of violent behavior in African and Asian elephants.

Elephants have a very close, interactive family relationship. But humans, for a variety of reasons including wanting more territory for themselves, have been purposely slaughtering pachyderms in full view of family members. And elephants do remember.

The resultant broken families lose their structure and teenagers, carrying that awful recollection and lacking the social bonds, guidance, and discipline they would have received from elders, run rampant. Does that sound familiar in human terms?

On the lighter side, researchers are finding that many species have a sense of humor. Rodents, dogs, chimps and others laugh! Some enjoy playing practical jokes on their peers.

A BBC News article cites Prof. Jaak Pankseep of Bowling Green State University in Ohio as suggesting that laughter came before speech in our evolution. "Neural circuits for laughter exist in ‘ancient' parts of our brain, whose general structure is shared amongst many animals," Dr. Panskeep says.

For a long time scientists have been afraid to ascribe "emotions" to other species who use visual cues similar to ours. It would have jeopardized one's credibility to do so. But no longer.

Now, it is acceptable to say that a dog listless and deflated on the floor with his head between his legs is feeling sad. Or that a bird can have the blues. Or a wolf can be angry with one of its pack mates. Even rattlesnakes are now known to have special friends they like to cuddle with in the den.

Observers are also taking note of an array of individual personalities demonstrated by octopuses.

Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University report that chimpanzees offer an arm around the shoulder or hugs and kisses to another chimp who is sad. And it helps, they say. Other work at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland shows that sheep have a range of emotions, including empathy.

In a stunning project supervised by Scottish Agricultural College professor Françoise Wemelsfelder, people who had no experience with animals could accurately discern what individual pigs were feeling, suggesting that there really is an emotional continuity between species.

This commonality between people and other animals makes sense, too. "Emotions allow us to bond with others, regulate our social interactions, and make it possible to behave flexibly in different situations. We are not the only animals that need to do these things, so why should we be the only ones with emotions?" writes Christine Kenneally in the May 21, 2008 issue of New Scientist.

So all of our avoidance of this reality was really to fool ourselves. It gave us an illusion of being special; the only species in a long hierarchy of living things that possesses that unique capacity for emotions. Erasing this barrier leaves scientists with the sometimes uncomfortable job of rethinking many assumptions. It also threatens the philosophical presumption of man's superiority, a notion that has become increasingly tenuous.

The cost of that assumed "specialness," though, has been appalling. For so many, many years, it has kept us from being a part of the wonderful animal kingdom. No wonder isolation and loneliness are such widespread complaints among humans.