Animal Emotions and Beastly Passions: We're Not the Only Emotional Beings

We're not the only emotional animals

Posted Jun 30, 2009

As a scientist who's studied animal emotions for more than 30 years, I
consider myself very fortunate. I love what I do. I love learning about
animals, and I love sharing what my colleagues and I discover with others.
Whenever I observe or work with animals, I get to contribute to "science"
and develop social relationships at the same time, and to me, there's no
conflict between these activities.

While stories about animal emotions abound, there are many lines of
scientific support (what I call "science sense") about the nature of
animal emotions that are rapidly accumulating from behavioral and
neurobiological studies (from the emerging field called social
neuroscience using fMRIs and PET scans). Common sense and intuition also
feed into and support science sense, and the obvious conclusion is that at
least mammals experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions
ranging from pure and contagious joy shared so widely among others during
play that it is almost epidemic, to deep grief and pain. There also are
recent data that show that birds and fish also are sentient and experience
pain and suffering.

Emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species and they serve as
a social glue to bond animals with one another. Emotions also catalyze and
regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and competitors
and permit animals to protect themselves adaptively and flexibly using
various behavior patterns in a wide variety of venues.

In scientific research there are always surprises. Just when we think
we've seen it all, new scientific data appear that force us to rethink
what we know and to revise our stereotypes. For example, spindle cells,
which were long thought to exist only in humans and other great apes, have
recently been discovered in humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales and
sperm whales in the same area of their brains as spindle cells in human
brains. This brain region is linked with social organization, empathy, and
intuition about the feelings of others, as well as rapid gut reactions.
Spindle cells are important in processing emotions. It's likely that if we
seek the presence of spindle cells in other animals we will find them.

Neuroscientific research has also shown, using functional magnetic
resonance imaging, that elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain
structure in the limbic system that's important in processing emotions. We
now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely
experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore,
all mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures (for
example, the amygdala and hippocampus) and neurochemical pathways in the
limbic system that are important for feelings.

Along these lines, who would have thought that laboratory mice actually
are empathic rodents? But now we know they are. Research has shown that
mice react more strongly to painful stimuli after they observed other mice
in pain, and it turns out that they are fun-loving as well. Interestingly,
mice, used in the millions in education and research, are not considered
to be an "animal" under the federal animal welfare act in the United
States, and aren't protected from harmful research. A quote from the U.S.
federal register, volume 69, number 108, Friday June 4, 2004 states: "We
are amending the Animal Welfare Act regulations to reflect an amendment to
the act's definition of the term animal." The Farm Security and Rural
Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically
exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred
for use in research.

We know more about animal passions then we often admit, and we can no
longer ignore the pain and suffering of other beings. Many people are
faced with difficult, challenging, and frustrating questions about the use
of animals in their classrooms and research laboratories, and today we
must accept that there are compelling reasons stemming from scientific
research to limit, and perhaps stop using, animals in lieu of the numerous
highly effective non-animal alternatives that are readily available.

I often begin my lectures with the question: "Is there anyone in this
audience who thinks that dogs don't have feelings - 
 that they don't experience joy and sadness?" I've never had an
enthusiastic response to this question, even in scientific gatherings,
although on occasion a hand or two goes up slowly, usually halfway, as the
person glances around to see if anyone is watching. But if I ask, "How
many of you believe that dogs have feelings?," then almost every hand
waves wildly, and people smile and nod in vigorous agreement. Using
behavior as our guide, by analogy, we map the feelings of other beings
onto our own emotional templates, and we do it very reliably.

Recognizing that animals have emotions is important, because animals'
feelings matter. Animals are sentient beings who experience the ups and
downs of daily life, and we must respect this when we interact with them.
While we obviously have much more to learn, what we already know should be
enough to inspire changes in the way we treat other animals. We must not
simply continue with the status quo because that is what we've always done
and it's convenient to do so. What we know has changed, and so should our
relationships with animals.

Quite often, what we accept as "good welfare" isn't "good enough." Our
relationship with other animals is a complex, ambiguous, challenging, and
frustrating affair, and we must continually reassess how we should
interact with our non-human kin. Humans have enormous power to affect the
world any way we choose. Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable
animals in a wide variety of venues. There's no doubt whatsoever that,
when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it is their
emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their

Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other
animals. We must never forget that.