Yes! Animals have feelings!

 It wasn’t so long ago the idea of animals having feelings was scientific heresy. Researchers accepted that animals experience negative emotions, such as fear and rage, yet most stood lockstep against the notion that animals might also feel positive emotions.
Recent research has been proving them wrong. Pet owners have sensed all along that their dogs and cats have feelings, but there’s now irrefutable evidence that wildlife of all stripes also experience empathy, joy, grief and love. Even gratitude. Some hardliners still adamantly disagree, but they’re becoming outnumbered — it seems there’s more to animals than instinct and, it turns out, Homo sapiens aren’t as unique as we thought.
Anecdotal reports of animals’ emotions have been around for ages, but a dozen years ago neurobiologists began discovering physical evidence, such as specific nerve cells that are associated with empathy in both humans and non-human primates. They’ve also found a brain cell that’s common to humans, other primates and whales which plays a part in empathy, intuition and feelings for others.
This shouldn’t surprise us, says author/scientist Jonathan Balcombe in his book, Pleasurable Kingdom,’ since humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes share many of the same physical characteristics: a bony skeleton, nervous system, central brain, circulatory system, hormones, etc. All this, plus a sensory system that includes sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. Balcombe and other scientists believe it stands to reason that humans and animals would react in similar ways.
They don’t deny that animals react simply and automatically to certain stimuli. Nor do they think animal emotions are equivalent to human emotions. But their research is telling us there’s more mental and emotional complexity to animals, deeper dimensions that give them more fulfilling lives than we ever imagined. Here’s a sampling.
(© P.J. Malsbury)

P.J. Malsbury)

Joy and play
While play often serves the purpose of allowing wildlife to fine-tune skills they’ll need for survival, there’s no doubt it’s fun for them. In our own yards we can observe young squirrels playfully romping and wrestling, and rabbits chasing each other, running and leaping. Anthropologist Mary Thurston tells about an adult male squirrel who pulls towels off patio chairs and hops and twists until he is completely covered. His behavior seems to be just for the joy of it because there’s no survival, mating or food behavior associated with it.

Numerous other observed instances offer proof that animals play and experience something akin to joy. Primatologist Jane Goodall tells of Marcus, a rescued chimp who loves to dance in heavy rainfall, swinging and swaying rhythmically. Junior, an orangutan at the St. Louis Zoo will clean up his cage in return for getting to play with a whistle. Researchers at Dian Fossey’s Rwandan research station have watched young gorillas wrestle with their Labrador retriever pets. When rats are playfully tickled, they squeal² with glee and show an increase in the production of dopamine, which is associated with the pleasure center of the brain (in humans, too). The rats also ran to the tickler whenever they sensed they were going to be tickled.

Otters seem to be having “fun” as they repeatedly use muddy, sloping embankments for “slippery slides” into water or to play-slide on ice in winter. “Pigface,” a Nile softshell turtle who lives at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, plays with toys by pushing, pulling, shaking and nosing them around. A wood turtle has reportedly devised a fun activity for himself by repeatedly climbing up and sliding down a board into water.

Dolphins (who, it has recently been discovered, call each other by name) blow hoop-shaped bubbles from their blow-holes, move them around and change their size. Dolphins also play tug-of-war with seaweed. Captive octopuses have been observed playing with plastic bottles and a Lego, passing them from tentacle to tentacle. Wild Reindeer eat hallucinogenic mushrooms for the “high” it gives them.

Haven’t we all seen photos of ape mothers tenderly cradling their babies? Huge Polar Bear mothers carefully holding and protecting a newborn no larger than a mouse? Two lovebirds, mated for life, who stay near each other day and night?

A mare, upon seeing a daughter return after a two-year absence, whinnied and screamed from two fields away, and they reunited with a show of great joy. There’s a adult bull living in a herd of cows in Germany who goes his own way until midday, at which time he always goes to graze near his mother.


Octopus playing and opening a container with screw-on lid. (Matthias Kabel / Wiki; CC BY-SA 3.0)

There’s evidence that love, or something like it, is also felt within groups of whales, dolphins, hyenas, foxes and mongooses. Birds, too. A male Barn swallow stayed with his mate after she struck a window and fell to the ground, seemingly dead. A few minutes later she revived and they flew away together. Greylag Geese mate for life and may spend dozens of years together. When one dies, the other appears to mourn, with sunken eyes and hanging his head. Many birds “nuzzle” each other and bring their bill tips together as in a kiss.  

In the news from time to time we see a story about one species who “adopts” a different species — a dog raising an orphaned goat, a pig playing mother to a kitten. Recently, a French bulldog nursed a Bengal tiger. This form of empathy, or at least the “mother” instinct, seems to be a rather common phenomenon.

Empathy shows up in other ways, too. Researchers have observed elephants slowing down their walking pace to accommodate a crippled member, Blue jays delivering food to an old jay who was losing his eyesight, even a mouse helping a weaker sibling to survive. In Alaska, one of two orphaned Grizzly bears took salmon to her injured brother until he recovered. Other reports include the story of a Dunnock (small European bird) who struck a window and died, whereupon his two companions dragged his body to a shallow channel of water and repeatedly lifted his neck. Were they fond friends trying to revive him?

One expert observer tells the story of watching four magpies as they tried to rouse and feed a fifth one who had been struck dead by a car. When that failed, they stood vigil over their dead companion for several seconds before flying away, suggesting a moment of grief. Gorillas have been known to hold wakes. A llama owner reports one of her llamas stayed in his barn and wailed for two days following the death of an older companion. Cows sometimes bellow for days when their calves are taken from them.

Nearly all primate mothers react with intense grief if their infant dies, sometimes carrying the dead body for days or weeks. Grief is strongly felt by their young, too. Goodall tells the story of an 8-year-old chimpanzee, Gombe, whose mother died. He’d had an unusually close bond with his mother and was inconsolable. He was old enough to care for himself, but so depressed he wouldn’t eat. Within a few weeks he curled up and died near the spot where his mother’s body had lain.

At Sea Life Park in Hawaii, when one of two dolphins who performed together died, her companion wouldn’t open his eyes for days. The park took pity on him and introduced a new young dolphin. He allowed her to swim with him, but for the first week, whichever side she was swimming on, he kept that eye closed, seemingly unable to bear another dolphin taking his friend’s place. The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., a refuge for African and Asian elephants, describes elephants suffering obvious intense grief over the death of a companion.

In December 2005, a 45-foot-long female Humpback whale got tangled in crab lines off the coast of California. Hundreds of yards of lines loaded with heavy weights wrapped around her body, tail and mouth. The weight kept pulling her down, making it difficult for her to keep her blowhole above water to breathe. Four divers spent an hour cutting the lines away from her body, including the one tangled around her mouth. A single sweep of her tail would have easily killed a diver, but the whale allowed them to help. After the whale was freed, she swam around the divers in what appeared to be “joyous circles” and then gently nuzzled each diver separately before swimming away. The divers said they felt no fear and thought they were being thanked.

¹ Pleasurable Kingdom (Macmillan, 2006), the source of many of the accounts on this page.
² It takes ultrasonic equipment to hear their sounds.
* Top photo: Red Fox pups at play. (© Steve Byland / Big Stock)