Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Odd Couples: Compassion Doesn't Know Species Lines

A PBS documentary shows how animals you'd never imagine can become close friends

It's widely accepted that many nonhuman animals (animals) are conscious beings who display and feel a wide array of emotions including joy, happiness, pleasure, love, empathy, compassion, and sadness and profound grief. Among mammals this isn't at all surprising because all mammals, including humans, share the same structures and neurochemicals in the limbic system that are important in processing and expressing what they're feeling. 

Slowly but surely we're hearing about more and more observations of strong emotional attachments that cross species lines. These friendships, unlikely friendships (see and) in a good number of cases, show that emotions including joy, love, empathy, compassion, kindness, and grief can readily be shared by improbable friends including predators and prey such as a cat and a bird, a snake and a hamster, and a lioness and a baby oryx. And, of course, the best examples of emotions being shared between different species are those close and enduring relationships we humans form with the companion animals with whom we share our homes and with those nonhumans with whom we work closely to rehabilitate when they're in need. 

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On November 7 the PBS Nature documentary called "Animal Odd Couples" will air with some of the most amazing footage of these unexpected and improbable relationships. A description of the program accompanied by a short video is as follows: "Are animals capable of feeling complex emotions? Recent observations of unexpected cross-species relationships in zoos and animal sanctuaries around the world may provide some answers. Endearing interactions between a cheetah and a retriever, a lion and a coyote, a dog and a deer, a goat and a horse, and even a tortoise and a goose offer captivating glimpses of supportive connections in the animal world. Each interspecies pair challenges the conventional wisdom that humans are the only species capable of feeling compassion and forming long-lasting friendships. Animal behavior experts weigh in with their opinions, and animal caretakers share their personal experiences with cross-species relationships in this compelling tale of unlikely animal couples."

Consider, for example, love. In this documentary we learn "Love apparently knows no boundaries in the animal kingdom. A lion befriends a coyote. A goat guides a blind horse. A goose romances a tortoise, and so on." The growing number of stories of unlikely animal pairings including enduring animal relationships has generated a good deal of scientific interest about interspecies bonds and animal altruism

I'm pleased to be in this documentary and I noted “a lot of people find these cross-species relationships surprising because they don’t appreciate the richness of the emotional lives of non-human animals, that non-human animals experience the same emotions we do.” 

I highly recommend "Animal Odd Couples" because it's based on solid science (see and also) and the videos of the animals are truly outstanding. I'm sure future research will reveal that close relationships between odd couples, strange bedfellows, are more common than previously thought, that empathy, compassion, and kindness cross species lines, and that "humans have no monopoly on moral behavior" (see also and and). 

The teaser image of a dog and a friendly cheetah, truly an odd couple, can be seen here.

 

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

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