A Historical Perspective on Studies of Animal Emotions

An interview with Dr. Anne Rose about her book "In the Hearts of the Beasts."

Posted May 08, 2020

"The history of the American science of animal emotions reveals the ability of animals to teach and scientists to learn."

I recently learned about a book by Pennsylvania State University distinguished historian Dr. Anne Rose titled In the Hearts of the Beasts: How American Behavioral Scientists Rediscovered the Emotions of Animals. The title immediately grabbed my attention, because I've spent many years studying and reflecting about the rich and deep emotional lives of a wide variety of nonhuman animals (animals), and they have taught me many valuable lessons about how they feel about the worlds in which they live and that we must take their feelings into account in our interactions with them. I've also been very interested in the history of the study of animal emotions, and I was pleased that Dr. Rose could take the time to answer a few questions about her latest book.

Why did you write In the Hearts of the Beasts?

"My book aims to see the science of animal emotions as part of a shared history of humans and animals."

This is not the book I intended to write—and I’m happy it turned out differently. My question remained the same: Why did people pay more and more attention to the emotions over the course of the 20th century? I knew that 19th-century Americans were notoriously sentimental and that experts today write volumes about emotion. In between, the intelligence tests and behavioral theory of the early psychologists skipped over the emotions as unimportant.

 Oxford University Press
Dr. Anne Rose's book "In the Heart of Beasts"
Source: Oxford University Press

But I did not plan to study animals. After two years of reading general statements about emotion by American psychologists, mostly clustered in the 1920s, I was profoundly bored. These theories of feeling seemed to go in circles, unconnected with any living creature. I rarely have flashes of insight, but the morning I woke up thinking I needed to concentrate on animals was one of them.  

Perhaps I had an instinct that looking for past interest in animal emotions would make my project more concrete, but at the time, I just thought: I really like animals. I had been the little girl (one of the millions) who begged for a dog and then predictably adopted dog after dog as a grown-up. Only later in my research did I discover how exciting the science of animal emotions has been. But from that first day, I was never bored again. The animals documented in this emerging 20th-century science were consistently surprising.

These are some of the questions I stumbled on: What is an emotion—a matter of physiology, mental awareness, or both? Do animals have consciousness, and do they need some kind of mind to experience emotions? Which animals, among the vast number of species, have emotions, and what variations are there across the evolutionary spectrum? How can human researchers, inescapably locked into our own nervous systems, ever know what other animals feel?

The animal scientists I studied were well aware of these issues. I have tried to explain how the work of these men and women, embedded in their professional and personal lives, set them on an intellectual path that led to a rough general consensus that animals have emotions. And of course, the animals helped the science! They were the sparks all along.

What are some of the topics you weave into the text, and what are some of your general messages?

At its core, my book is about behavior experiments involving animals that were conducted by Americans during the 20th century. Although that may sound obvious, my reliance on experiments—in the lab and field—connects with my major theme: the value of a historical perspective on day-to-day scientific work requiring human-animal interaction.

My book is about history, which comes with disadvantages and advantages. I do not conduct animal behavior experiments, although I am—I hope—a good casual observer of animals. Having read many pages of experiments performed over a long stretch of time, however, gives me a sense of how practices, controversies, and conclusions evolved. 

I believe modern scientific thinking is the outcome of this history. Animal study was an unusually physiology-friendly corner of psychology, for example, arguably opening one path to today’s neurobiology of behavior. The so-called cognitive revolution, which included the notion that a mind may be more than a brain, also played out in strenuous debates in the field beginning in the 1970s about animal consciousness.

Throughout, I use experiments as a kind of window on the emotional experiences of animals. We will never truly know what is in their hearts, but reports by human observers are unexpectedly revealing. The work never went quite as planned, and scientists chattered in print about the upsets and anomalies caused by independent-minded animal subjects. 

Around 1900, John B. Watson had to suspend learning trials when a mother rat became distraught after he took her babies away. Two decades later, Karl Lashley noticed that rats are naturally curious—eager to explore a maze even without the food lures that stimulus-response theory said they required. Accidental insights like these gradually established animal emotions as a legitimate subject. In the 1960s, Frank Beach tested the amorous preferences of dogs and produced a serious article with a funny title, “Locks and Beagles.”

Not every animal that caught the attention of scientists was a rat, dog, or even a mammal. During the Great Depression, Margaret Morse Nice, a self-trained expert with four daughters in tow, recorded the year-by-year mating habits of song sparrows in a wooded acre behind her house. The same decade, C. Ray Carpenter, unable to land an academic job, had to switch from lab work on the sex drives of birds to soft-money expeditions to Panama to observe howler monkeys and Sumatra to search out orangutans. Ant species fascinated William Morton Wheeler, and bats Donald Griffin. 

Diverse as the researchers and their favorite animals were, the humans shared a gut-level love of nature and passion for science. By modern standards, they were not consistently humane. But by the lights of their day, they were dedicated and sincere.

How does this book relate to your current projects?

At the moment, I am riveted by my family history. With a few boxes of memorabilia, I am amazed at how much you can learn from an account book or a few postmarked envelopes sent to the same person at different addresses. There are also messages about animals. 

One great-grandfather, a civil engineer who earned a degree in the field in 1881 and then worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, kept chickens within the city limits of Washington, D.C., into the 1920s. Eating the eggs, I think, was just one motive. I am guessing that the chickens reminded him of his home in upstate New York, where his own grandfather had been a farmer. 

He never said much about the chickens in his letters, except whether they were laying or not. But his urban chickenyard clearly had a personal and indeed emotional meaning for him. Likewise, my book aims to see the science of animal emotions as part of a shared history of humans and animals.


Beausoleil, N.J., Stratton, R.B., Guesgen, M.J., Sutherland, M.A., Johnson, C.B. Scientific evaluation of animal emotions: Brief history and recent New Zealand contributionsJournal of New Zealand Studies NS22 63-71, 2016. 

Bekoff, Marc. The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy ― and Why They Matter. New World Library, Novato, California. 2008.

_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.

_____. Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation. New World Library, Novato, California. 2013. 

_____. Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart. Oxford University Press, New York.

_____. (editor) The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions. Discovery Books, 2000.

_____ and Jessica Pierce. The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. Beacon Press, Boston.

Blum, Deborah. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. Basic Books, New York, 2011.

Livni, Ephram. What the study of animal emotions shows us about being human. Quartz, 2019.