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November 22, 2017

Can Animals Cry With Emotion?

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{Credit: By Mr. T. W. Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons}
As children, we are raised on films and books starring anthropomorphised animals who are endowed with emotions and feelings that we can relate to as young developing people. But why is that when we enter the school system - learn about biology and science and psychology - we come to strip animals of this ability to feel and suffer from basic pain and emotion?

Even that statement is not particularly true, especially if we become pet lovers, because we adamantly believe our cats and dogs, rats and parrots - our pets - love us, miss us, and can feel when we hurt them and yet strip this ability for emotion and feeling from animals who are not pets, such as apes, elephants, lions and tigers, and animals that form part of our food system.

We are told by the scientific world that when we believe our cats are 'happy' when they purr, it is a projection of our emotions onto the animal and there is no scientific way to determine such happiness. Indeed, scientists even warn of anthropomophising animals too much by assigning human motivations to their actions - such as when a rhesus monkey in a zoo appeared to commit suicide by tying a rope into a noose and hanging himself in 1936 or when Peter the dolphin deliberately suffocated himself after being moved from a NASA-funded animal-human language project in the Virgin Islands and the human he fell in love with.



But the personal experiences of many people who work with animals cannot help but disagree. Veterinarian Jonathan Cracknell, who has travelled the world to treat animals traumatised by captive conditions, says one cannot help but get a 'gut feeling' about why animals behave in particular ways. He points to such examples as crows deliberately sliding down a snowy slope over and over again or monkeys taking a dip in water when it is hot outside as evidence that not all animal behaviour is geared towards some animalistic, instinctual motivation. There are dozens of examples online: this veal calf enjoying falling snowflakes, a baby elephant appearing to sob uncontrollably after being rejected by its mother, or a dog so sad at being returned to a shelter that it refused to leave its cell. Or what about the bellowing of mommy cows whose calves are taken away from them so we can drink their milk instead or a dolphin fighting to save her baby captured by catchers in Taiji?

Scientists love to point to the activation of reward centres in dogs' brains as the real reason they choose to spend time with their owners, but surely these pleasurable motivations can also be assigned to humans - why else would we choose to spend our time with a particular person or become addicted to alcohol? What is it that makes humans believe we are any more complex than the animals with whom we share this world?

What about an emotional response such as crying, largely regarded as something only humans can do? Can animals also cry with emotion? Many biologists say the tears we sometimes see in the eyes of distressed animals are nothing more than a biological reaction to stimuli and does not mean the animal is feeling unhappy. While some concede that we may never know whether the animal is indeed feeling sad, they warn that we should guard against believing animals experience emotion as we do. This is a paradoxical point of view because it allows for the existence of animals' emotions and yet denies that they have them at all. It still places humans at the top of the emotional pyramid, so to speak, because we are simply 'better than', 'more evolved than', 'more intelligent than' the animal other.

But should there be any prerequisites to having emotion? Do we have to have a big brain? Dolphins have a big brain, indeed bigger than ours.

Brain size comparisons {Credit: By CNX OpenStax [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

Do we have to have control over our instincts? Even carnivores do not kill whenever they want, and sometimes kill because they can (just like us).



Do we have to walk upright and speak a translatable language? Gorillas and chimpanzees can walk upright and can be taught sign language.



To me, it all seems that our anthropocentric belief systems are what is holding us back from believing we share a world with animals who feel and experience as richly as we do. We need to strip notions of superiority if we ever hope to become true stewards of this world and the creatures we share it with.

Further Reading:

The Dolphin Who Killed Himself Over a Broken Heart
Are Humans the Only Primates That Cry?
Do Animals Cry?
Why Are Humans the Only Animals That Cry?

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