Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

"What In the World Do My Essays Have To Do With Psychology?"

Knowing about nonhuman animals has everything to do with human psychology

Every now and again I receive personal emails about my essays asking if and how what I write has anything to do with human psychology. A few people have not so politely asked me to stop writing because there's no relevance whatsoever to their interests and I took it that they were assuming that everyone else agreed with their views, whereas other people have written and thanked me for making them think more about who other animals are and who we are. Comments also are posted online asking the same question - "What in the world do my essays have to do with psychology?"

It's crystal clear that knowing about the incredible lives of nonhuman animals, their emotions and behavior, has everything to do with many aspects of human psychology. One only has to look, for example, at the comments on some of my essays that show clearly how our interactions with other animals reflect human attitudes, beliefs, and desires. The comments for my essay on how killing wolves makes some people happy are especially revealing as are comments on essays dealing with on the use of animals for food (see also) and entertainment. The recent bloodbath in Ohio also reflects human attitudes toward animals (see also).

Knowing that other animals are sentient beings who experience unbounded joy and deep pain and suffering and even extreme psychological disorders including PTSD means that we should really care about what happens to them but often it doesn't. Witness that more than 99% of animals used in horrific research are not protected by the Federal Animal Welfare Act and that billions of sentient animals are mercilessly slaughtered for unneeded meals or are terribly abused in the name of entertainment. Urban animals also are mercilessly killed although we have freely moved into their homes and living rooms. Recognizing that our intrusions into their lives has made life very tough on them should foster coexistence, as it has with my friend a red fox who regularly comes by to say hello to me each morning. He hangs out near my office and offers deep inspiration. I've also had many other fascinating encounters with animals with whom I share my home.

Other research also reflects clearly how what we know, think, feel, and believe about animals is closely related to human psychology. Consider, for example, the excellent research of my colleague Hal Herzog who also writes for Psychology Today and the growing field of conservation psychology defined as "the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world." Of course, animals are a major component of the natural world. A summary of research in this field can be found in Susan Clayton and Gene Myers' outstanding book called Conservation Psychology: Understand and Promoting Human Care For Nature. Changing our attitudes and beliefs about other animals really is a social movement and a Nick Cooney's book Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change also shows how our beliefs inform our actions. For those who want more Thomas Ryan's Animals and Social Work: A Moral Introduction is an excellent read. 

As I write my new book I'm always making numerous outlines so here are some rough notes that summarize why learning about the nature and importance of the human-animal bond is so important.

-- Gaining knowledge about our interrelationships with animals is incredibly important for learning not only about who they are but also for learning about who we are as big-brained, big-footed, over-producing, over-consuming, and invasive mammals. I don't mean this in a pejorative way but that's really who we are, and as our population soars we will interact with other animals even more, even if we don't want to or realize its happening.

-- Whether or not we realize it, and our behavior all too often indicates we don't, animals are a vital part of our daily lives and we are constantly factoring them into decisions about how we choose to live in the world. People all over the world are showing increasing interest in learning how to coexist with other animals when taking them into our homes as companions, when living in close proximity to them, and when considering how to conserve what little of the precious natural world remains. Knowing about how their well-being and ours are closely tied together will make it easier to choose to coexist. It's a win-win situation and we as they will benefit from our learning more about the bonds we form.

-- When we realize how influential and deeply meaningful our close and reciprocal connections with other animals are and accept them for who they are - sentient, intelligent, and moral beings - we will have to treat them better and offer more compassion and empathy in the numerous venues in which we interact with them (as food and clothing and in research, education, and entertainment). Mounting evidence shows that we (and they) are basically good and well-meaning individuals and we must harness these positive traits to develop regulations and laws that not only affect their well-being but also ours. These practical aspects associated with learning more about the nature and strength of human-animal bonds are to some the most urgent reason for developing human-animal study programs.

We simply can't go on intruding into the lives of other animals as if they didn't matter. We lose when they lose. We can do just about anything we want to other animals. They're merely property in the eyes of the law and enjoy little to no legal standing. This, in and of itself, tells us lots about human psychology

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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