Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Happy Cows: A Heart-Warming Video Offers an Important Lesson

Watch rescued cows free to run gallop around with unmistakable joy and glee.

Earlier today Psychology Today writer Jessica Pierce sent me a link for a video called "Happy Cows". I expected either to see cows used in advertisements for meat or milk running around in a field of bright green grass or cows living on farms where they are raised and then slaughtered. I was most pleasantly surprised that neither was the case. What I did see, as have almost 600,000 other viewers, were cows who had been living on dairy farm running around with unmistakable joy and glee after they had been rescued from being shipped to a slaughterhouse because a dairy farmer couldn't afford to keep them.

These are happy cows, not "happy" cows

A very lesson from this video is clear to me, as if more stories or data are needed to accept that other animals have rich and deep emotional lives. These are truly happy cows, not "happy" cows. This video also reminded me about something I'd written before, namely, "Some people like to put quotation marks (scare quotes) around words such as happy, love, or grief, for example, when they talk about the emotional lives of animals, as if they're not real – as if only we have true emotions but other animals don't – or because they're not like our own. Some skeptics also like to say they're sort of like ours but not as strong or as rich. There's simply no reason to use scare quotes when talking or writing about animal emotions or to assume that their emotions aren't as important to them as ours are to us."

Oh, they're only acting "as if" they're happy

Skeptics also like use what I call the "as if" disclaimer when talking about animal emotions. They say animals act "as if" they're happy or in love or grieving but they really aren't. However, solid science flies in the face of these claims. There's no reason to assume that nonhuman animal emotions will be just like ours or that all dogs and cats will feel and express various emotions the same, or even that humans always feel they same when they're happy or in love or are grieving. There's also no good reason to think other animals are  "sort of happy" or "sort of in love" or "sort of grieving" given what we now know about the rich and deep emotional lives of a wide range of animals. We know other animals share with us structures in the limbic system that are important for processing emotions and also show similar neurochemical changes when experiencing various emotions. Detailed ethological studies also show that many animals are deeply feeling beings.

It's bad biology to rob nonhuman animals of their emotional lives. Following up on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, we know that the differences among animals are differences in degree, not kind. So, the bumper sticker for continuity simply put is "If we have something, 'they' (other animals) do too." People accept continuity when talking about anatomy and physiology and also negative emotions such as anger, but a lingering and dwindling few have been more reluctant to accept it for emotions. Indeed, the tide is changing rapidly as more and more scientists now accept that all mammals and many other animals are conscious beings as witnessed in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. 

Watch this video for an up and share it widely. It is worth countless words and will make you smile and think not only the joy these cows feel but also the pain and suffering they experience when held in reprehensible conditions on factory farms before they're brutally slaughtered.

The image above and the teaser image 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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