The Depth of Animal Emotions
On January 14, we adopted a new dog. He was found tied to a tree a week earlier and brought to the veterinary clinic where my husband works. There he waited for his family to retrieve him. No one came, which meant, at week’s end, he needed a new home. About a year old, dirty, thin and matted, Henry Hershel (as we’re calling him) joined our crew of two dogs and a cat. He wasted no time in endearing himself to us and seemed very happy to join our family. Because I work at home, I’m with the animals most of the time. Henry Hershel is now always by my side, curled in a ball by my feet at my desk when I work, hovering by me when I make dinner and under the table when we eat.
After my husband neutered him and Henry Herschel had to rest after surgery, I left him in the office with the Institute for Humane Education’s office manager, Amy Morley, when I took the other dogs for a hike. Since we share the same building, it didn’t seem like it would be stressful for him to be with Amy, whom he clearly liked from the moment he met her. But while he may have liked Amy, Henry Hershel had bonded so strongly with us that he cried when I was gone, seemingly inconsolable for the few hours I was away.
A week after we adopted him, we went out for a couple of hours, leaving all the dogs at home, and my husband set up his computer to videotape our living room in our absence. Given Henry Hershel’s sadness when we left him with Amy, we wondered how he’d do when left in the house with the other dogs. Stealth videotaping seemed like a good way to find out. When we returned there was nothing amiss. The dogs all greeted us happily, and there were no chewed pillows or furniture, and no accidents on the floor. Nothing would indicate that Henry Hershel had been at all upset by our absence. But then we watched the video. Henry Hershel cried plaintively when we were gone, settling down for a while only to howl after 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes, and so on. Here’s a one minute clip of him with our dog Elsie in the background
It’s amazing to me that there are people who believe that animals don’t feel. Henry Hershel shows every sign of feeling as deeply, if not more deeply, than humans. Whether what he was feeling during our absence was sorrow, fear, loneliness, yearning, anxiety, longing, worry, loss, or some combination of these or other emotions, I cannot be sure, but he is certainly feeling something. His utter delight upon our return offers a glimpse into his other, more positive feelings. Like us, his spectrum of emotions is wide.
So I ask myself: What are our obligations and responsibilities to other animals, whether dogs, or other mammals like pigs, rabbits or rats, or birds like parrots or chickens, who are able to suffer, delight, bond, love, fear and experience a range of other emotions in varying degrees? And I always come back to this: To the best of our abilities, I believe that we ought to cause the least amount of suffering we possibly can to all sentient beings, human and nonhuman. If we don’t have to kill or cause harm, I believe we ought not to. If we can bring happiness, I believe we ought to do so to the best of our ability. This, to me, is an inevitable extension of the golden rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and an essential element of the MOGO principle to do the most good and the least harm to others.
I hope that Henry Hershel will soon come to realize that we will always come home after a few hours; that he needn’t worry or mourn. We won’t be tying him up to any trees. We won’t abandon him. We’ll love him with all our hearts for the rest of his life.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image copyight Zoe Weil.