Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Do Animals Have Emotions?

Posted by lisagbrown on April 19, 2009

facial-expressions1My blog entries are inspired by many things: movies, books, news stories, and sometimes, conversations. Recently, someone asked me “how we can know that animals have emotions?” As I began to answer, I was reminded that nearly a year ago I wrote a blog post called Can Animals Think? That post was also inspired by a conversation. On the surface, these two questions — “do animals have emotions” and “can animals think” — are very similar. And on reflection, I realized that at their core each of these queries is rooted in one larger, more philosophical question — how can we prove anything about animals if we can’t ever get inside their heads?

The obstacle of inhabiting the mind of another species is one that has long been a source of both friction and inspiration for animal studies scholars. We may never have the technology to know what is inside the mind of another species, but we seem to forget that we can’t achieve such a feat with other humans either. Yet we rarely cast doubt on the ability of other humans to feel emotions or to think. The only way I know for sure that a person is happy, sad or thoughtful is if they tell me they are, or if I manage to read their behaviors well. And with the absence of language, there is no reason not to similarly interpret some animal behaviors as emotion, as well.

There is a wonderful story about Washoe, one of the first chimps to be taught sign language. The popular event has been recounted many times — One of the women who worked with Washoe had been pregnant and then was absent for a few days. Washoe was upset with the woman for her apparent abandonment, and did her best to ignore and snub the woman upon her return. However, when the woman finally got Washoe’s attention, the woman signed to her, “my baby died.” Washoe, who had lost several babies herself, simply signed the word “cry.”

Rarely has something occurred in human-animal communication that so clearly and evocatively lays to rest the question of whether animals experience emotions. Further still, this example demonstrates Washoe’s ability to empathize — that is, she appears to experience, understand and expect the emotion of her human friend, because Washoe herself had experienced a similar tragedy.

We humans rarely trust her own interpretive skills when it comes to animals, accusing ourselves and each other of anthropomorphism (assigning human qualities to nonhumans), so one reason why this story is so important is because Washoe herself tells us what she is thinking and feeling. We do not have to guess.

There are examples of emotion all around the animal kingdom — mourning in death, laughter in play, fear, jealousy, affection, pride. Some people argue that what we perceive as emotions in animals are merely behavioral manifestations of instinct. But couldn’t we say the same for own behaviors and emotions? If we are to assume that what we perceive as animal emotions are merely instinctual behaviors, then we must turn the lens back upon ourselves. We don’t know to what extent our behaviors are driven by instinct, but that doesn’t make the emotions we feel any less powerful, palpable, or real.

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2 Responses to “Do Animals Have Emotions?”

  1. redstarcafe said

    Lisa, you are so correct about turning the lens back upon ourselves.

    I wonder if our denial of the obvious is more than just blind ignorance – a necessary mechanism to distance ourselves from those we use by seeing them as not-us. Just as we distance ourselves from others of our own species when we need to justify our actions.

  2. A great piece… particularly this:
    “We don’t know to what extent our behaviors are driven by instinct, but that doesn’t make the emotions we feel any less powerful, palpable, or real.”

    And I think the reason why we disassociate ourselves from inflicting harm to others is best coined in the phrase “willfull ingorance”. It must be part of our self protection coping skills… to be able to disengage from another’s suffering. Too bad this “ability” exists as it prevents our full potential…. empathy being a virture.

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