Saturday, April 9, 2011

Animals and Emotion

Recently, a fellow blogger made a post called "What do Cats Want?"  In it, she mentioned that a cognitive scientist in a podcast had stated that all cats wanted was food.    (There are many good things about her post - you should definitely read it if you have not yet.  I'm only going to address the issue of the cognitive scientist here!)

She, like me, like the other responders on her blog, and no doubt like the readers of THIS blog, took exception to that theory.  This might be a teensy bit unfair to that cognitive scientist, since I did not actually listen to his podcast, but I am guessing that he falls firmly into the camp believes that "animals are just animals and are incapable of emotion."  (Makes it much easier to eat them if you believe that, doesn't it?  It certainly would make it easier to turn a blind eye to other things too - dog fighting, disposable race track dogs and horses, neglect...)

So the hapless scientist has served as a springboard into my topic.  Do animals feel emotion?

And I fall into the camp that says "Hell yes."

My own animals give me a wide array of examples - Argos does not cavort about in joy, tail "helicoptering" in pleasure when I come home, just because I give him food.  As previously mentioned a few posts back,  he doesn't really care that much for food.  He would rather spend the day with me, or with my husband. He will starve himself for the privilege of being with us.  Multiple meals.  He gets terribly depressed when we leave him at home.  Not because he doesn't have any food, because he usually has at least something in his food bowl when we walk out the door.  No, he's genuinely sad that we're leaving him.

The cats don't start purring as soon as we walk into the room because they're hungry - they free feed for the most part.  No, they're happy to see us.  They greet us as they would another cat.  Well, as they would greet another member of the pride.

They get angry with us too - if we take one of our rare overnight trips somewhere, we leave the cats at home.  When we get back, sometimes they're not speaking to us for awhile.  We have to patiently wait it out until the cats have decided that we have been punished enough, and deign to let us pet them again.  It's not because of food, because they had food given to them while we were gone.

The empathy that Argos is capable of would put many humans to shame.  He knows when one of us is sad, and sticks to our side like glue.  He curled up around me and watched me worriedly the other night, when I was grieving for Guido. He made it clear that he knew that I was sad and that made him sad too, but that he was going to stick by my side.  Even though there was food in the other room.

But we don't even need to look at the animals in my household to know, if we let ourselves, that animals feel emotion.

One experience that left a big impact on me was a day trip that my husband and I took when we still lived in Massachusetts - to a place called Wolf Hollow.  The public could come here and observe a living wolf pack in as natural of a setting as possible.  You could watch the way that the wolf pack interacted with one another, and it was fascinating to me.  At the time that we were there, the alpha male of the pack had recently died, so just consisted of the alpha female and her adult offspring - there were no pups at the time.  The wolves were just coming out of a mourning period and were resuming a more normal life again.  But the volunteers explained to us that immediately after the alpha male's death, the wolves mourned.  They lay in the grass and didn't play or run like they usually did.  I think they said that the period of mourning lasted a week.

I know that many of you could give me examples of how your animal friends express emotion as well.  I don't need a scientist to tell me whether or not animals care about anything except for food - I have the evidence that I have seen with my own eyes, and you could never convince me otherwise.


  1. When we lost our elder Retriever, Xena, in October, I anticipated mourning from the rest of our pack. Tanner checked her crate and dish daily and seemed somber. Patches, our cat who grew up with Xena from kittenhood, still sleeps at the door to her crate. Tell me she doesn't miss Xena!

    Next weekend while I'm playing on this hop, I'll also be hosting one at my blog. I'd love to have you join in to help homeless bunny friends find furever homes. Check it out

  2. I have to think that anyone who truly lives with and spends time with their pets on a daily basis doesn't even have a question in their mind. Animals feel emotion. Thats just fact.

  3. If this is what the scientist thinks then he can't have ever had a pet, not even a guinea pig! I know I sometimes foist my own emotions and thoughts onto my dogs but to say they don't have any of their own is totally ridiculous.

  4. This is Penelope's Mom, for a change. When Penelope's companion of 10 years passed away in November, she was despondant. She lost 2 pounds (She only weighs 7) and she yeoweled as she walked around the house looking for him. Siamese are very loud. It was not until we got a new kitten (Kozmo) that she got better. At first she was angry at Kozmothis new little interloper, but he has helped her work through her grief, gain back some of the weight she lost and she joyously chases him around the house and wacks him with her paws.
    With 2 dogs and 2 cats, I can tell you they are very emotional!

  5. Carnivores, I deeply appreciate your contributions very much -- as ever. I like that you point out that denial and emotional distancing are helpful to create comfort, in order to tolerate the most awful things. It is a tendency, isn't it, a most dangerous and terrible one in my view.

    And your readers' stories show, so clearly, that heart, observation, and experience can indeed outweigh emotional deadening and preconceptions. Very encouraging; that's why I'm so grateful to be a part of this community.

    The odd thing about the interview I was writing about was that the interviewer herself -- and this is why I love to listen to her, she's Ginger Campbell, MD -- said that animals HAVE minds, there can be no doubt -- and those of us who are companions to animals just KNOW that. And as I recall, at that point the scientist **agreed** with her.

    So -- ambiguity and complexity abound.

    Anybody willing to clear this up for us, if you've got the juice & time for it:

    The podcast is always rewarding (tho in unexpected ways sometimes).

  6. Of COURSE animals feel emotion. I could fill your blog with instances proving it, but I don't have to, since you already know :)

    I would have loved to have seen the Wolf Hollow place. Wolves have always been my favorite animal - purely coincidental I have a Malamute now, haha - and I could spend days there just observing.

    I've always known/believed that animals are capable of certain emotions - happiness, fear, sadness, loneliness, etc. but it wasn't until Layla that I realized they're capable of empathy, too. When I get stomach cramps (which are positively debilitating, to the point where I need to Lamaze breathe to get through them), she brings over her favorite toy and lays it on my belly. I thought it could have been a coincidence, since I was laying on the couch and my stomach would be in the middle of the couch. Except now, that I've hurt my foot and am stuck on the couch, she lays her toy next to my injured foot. Coincidence? I think not.

  7. I have not read it all the way through myself but I believe this is a transcript of the podcast in question.

    I don't think he was saying that animals are incapable of emotion. Here is a snippet of the conversation in the pdf above. Campbell is the interviewer, Shapiro is the scientist in question.
    Dr. Campbell: Just as an aside, it seems to me like the more we learn about animals, the more I am inclined to attribute at least many mammals to having minds, myself.
    Dr. Shapiro: Yes, certainly. I was just reading a study today about macaque
    monkeys expressing uncertainty about certain things. And you think of uncertainty or lack of confidence as a uniquely human trait. But it turns out macaques experience this, as well.
    --->> End snip