We might expect to find close, enduring and endearing emotional relationships between members of the same species, but improbable relationships also occur between animals of wildly different species, even between animals who are normally predator and prey! Such is the case for Aochan, a rat snake, who befriended a dwarf hamster named Gohan at Tokyo’s Mutsugoro Okoku Zoo, and a lioness in northern Kenya who adopted a baby oryx (usually an appetizer before a larger meal) on five different occasions.
It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and social neuroscience support the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. (Here I focus on mammals, although there are data showing that birds and perhaps fish experience various emotions as well as pain and suffering.)
Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind – argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy and moral behavior. Continuity allows us to connect the evolutionary dots among different species to highlight similarities in evolved traits, including individual feelings and passions. All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures, such as the amygdala and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings.
Mirror neurons help explain feelings such as empathy. Research on these neurons supports the notion that individuals can feel the feelings of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand another individual’s behavior by imagining ourselves performing the same behavior and then mentally projecting ourselves into the other individual’s shoes.
To what degree various species share this capability remains to be seen, but there is compelling evidence that humans are not alone in possessing it. Diana monkeys and chimpanzees help one another acquire food, and elephants comfort others in distress. Mirror neurons also help explain observations of rhesus monkeys who won’t accept food if another monkey suffers when they do so, and empathic mice who react more strongly to painful stimuli after they observed other mice in pain.
The borders between “them” and “us” are murky and permeable, and the study of animal emotions helps inform the big question of just who we are. Another big question for which answers are revealed by studying animal passions is, “Can animals be moral beings?” In my development of the phenomenon that I call “wild justice,” I argue that they can. Many animals know right from wrong and live according to a moral code.
When people tell me that they love animals because they’re feeling beings and then go on to abuse them, I tell them that I’m glad they don’t love me. I often ask researchers who conduct invasive work with animals or people who work on factory farms, “Would you do that to your dog?” Some are startled to hear this question, but if people won’t do something to their own dog that they do daily to other dogs or to mice, rats, cats, monkeys, pigs, cows, elephants or chimpanzees, we need to know why. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf.
Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget this. When it comes to animal welfare, we can always do better. Most of the time, “good welfare” is not good enough.
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