Do Animals Have Personalities?
Besides anecdotal evidence, there is scientific research to support the idea that animals exhibit individual and consistent behavior across a variety of situations. Using game-theory models, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have suggested that fish, bird, and mammal “personalities” may be linked to evolutionary survival and reproduction.
But is personality just about consistent behavior, or is it also about emotion? Scott Blais is the cofounder and director of operations at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. With over 2,700 acres, it is the largest natural-habitat refuge for endangered Asian and African elephants in the United States. A unique operation whose number one priority is the respect, health, and privacy of the animals, the Sanctuary centers on the basic assumption that every elephant has distinct needs and personalities.
When talking about “the girls,” as the caretakers at the Sanctuary (which hosts females primarily) call the elephants, Blais says, “Some have trust issues; some have more social needs; some just want you to stand close to them.” Ned, who passed away in May 2009, was a gentle soul. Shirley is the “grandmother” of the group. Billie, who had a reputation as “dangerous” in her circus days, is insecure but increasingly cooperative and dependent on her best friends, Frieda and Liz. She also loves back rubs. Tange is coming into her own after the passing of her longtime friend Zula; Blais describes this situation as similar to what a person might go through after a spouse dies.
While Blais believes it’s foolish for humans to assume animals don’t have the capacity for happiness and sadness, he draws his conclusions about the elephants’ personalities from watching their behavior. He may not always know what motivates their behavior, he says, but he’s confident they feel emotion and “they are as individual as people or dogs or cats.”