Columns: Animal Heartbreak

by Sid Feddema

An Interview with Animal Behavior Expert Professor Dr. Marc Bekoff

When I speak to Marc Bekoff – the voluble and colorful professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Boulder – he is preparing to release his latest in a long line of books. It’s titled The Animal’s Agenda, and it tackles the same issues that he has been tirelessly advocating throughout his extensive career: the proper recognition of the inner lives and rights of “non-human animals” with the goal of improving the treatment that they receive at the hands of humans. His list of accolades and honors is absurdly long, so to name just a few: he is a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, a past Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2000 he was awarded the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. He is also a member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute.

I called Marc to discuss what the latest science has to say about animal emotion, and particularly to learn about how that quintessentially human sensation – heartbreak – manifests itself in our fellow creatures. He turned out to be a valuable resource. He speaks with enthusiasm for his subject matter, and peppers our conversation with anecdotes from his long career as an observer of animal behavior.

What do people most commonly misunderstand about the emotional lives of animals?

The first thing people misunderstand about animals is that each individual’s feelings and emotions are equally important to them. Humans shouldn’t be the template against whom nonhuman animals are measured. People will sometimes say to me, “Surely dog grief or chimpanzee grief or elephant joy aren’t the same as our grief or our joy,” and of course they’re not. My experience of joy or grief is likely very different from yours, but it doesn’t mean that I experience ‘true’ joy and grief and you don’t, or vice versa.

Another misunderstanding is that people think smarter animals – whatever that means – suffer more than less intelligent animals. We hear a lot about dogs and chimpanzees and dolphins and great apes, and many believe that they’re smarter and therefore they suffer more than mice or fish or birds. But there’s absolutely no correlation that we know of between how smart an individual is and how much they suffer. Once again, you can look at humans. There’s no reason to think that a less bright individual is going to suffer less than a brighter human being.

Can you cite a few examples that are illustrative of the ways that animals express heartbreak?

Many people who share their homes with dogs are familiar with how dogs respond when their dog friend dies. The surviving dog might not really “know” that his or her buddy died, but their behavior changes. They mope around, they show a loss in appetite, they play less – they behave exactly like many humans do when they lose a friend or family member, and you can detect it in their behavior.

I have two great stories from my own personal experience. I was riding my bike into town with a friend of mine one afternoon and we came around the corner, and there was a dead magpie in the middle of the road surrounded by four or five others. So we stopped and we watched as each magpie went and examined the corpse. I was mesmerized by it. They flew off, one by one, and brought back some pine needles and twigs and laid them on and around the corpse, and then, almost imperceptibly, the birds seemed to nod their heads forward, and then they flew off. I was astounded, and I asked my friend Rod, “Did we really see what we just saw?” And he said yes. He was as amazed as I was. This is a very interesting observation of grief in an animal that many wouldn’t expect to show grief. There are countless stories out there where crows, ravens, magpies, and even sparrows show grief at the loss of a group member.

Another example came the first day I went into the field, in Northern Kenya’s Samburu reserve. I was with an elephant expert named Iain Douglas Hamilton. We approached a group of elephants, and I could just feel a heavy sense of grief – they were walking around with their heads and their tails down. So I asked Iain, “What happened? There’s something wrong here.” And he said that the matriarch, the oldest female in the group, had recently died. The elephants were grieving. There’s just no other word for it. The oldest female in an elephant group is a leader. She keeps the individuals together – I like to think of her serving as “social glue” – and she has a great depth of traditional knowledge about the group. They were mourning that loss.

Dr. Marc Bekoff

Dr. Marc Bekoff

Do you see any problems with anthropomorphizing animals?

I don’t worry about anthropomorphizing. We have to use human language to explain and to interpret what we see. But we have to do it carefully, of course. I developed this idea that I call biocentric anthropomorphism, which basically means putting yourself in the shoes – or maybe in the paws – of another animal, and carefully observing them. It means that when we take the individual’s point of view we pay careful attention to what they are doing and the context in which they are doing it. In this way their emotions and behavior become more accessible to us.

What I worry about much more is that people might take a more mechanistic view of animal behavior and refuse to use the words because they are so resistant to anthropomorphizing, so they say things like, “That elephant is ‘quote’ in love, or ‘quote’ grieving, or ‘quote’ embarrassed.” I don’t know what those quotes mean. They also say things like, “The dog is acting ‘as if’ he’s happy or sad.” The ‘as if’ disclaimer serves the same function as the quotation marks, meaning the dog really isn’t feeling anything but just looks like she is. This perspective tells us absolutely nothing about what the dog really is feeling.

For the elephants, the magpies, and the dogs with whom I’ve lived – it’s easy to see a radical change in their behavior that is associated with a loss, and so I feel very comfortable calling that grief. There’s dog grief, magpie grief, elephant grief and human grief. Individuals grieve in different ways, but they are all still experiencing grief.

What about non-anecdotal evidence for animal emotion?

Where neurobiological or hormonal studies have been done, including with fMRIs, you see very similar patterns in the brains and bodies of non-humans as you do in humans. And this makes sense – we are descended from these animals or we share common descendants with these animals, so of course we would expect to see similarities.

Why should humans be more concerned with the range of animal emotion than they are?

First, from a scientific point of view, it will help us to appreciate other animals as the beings they are, not necessarily in comparison to one another or in comparison to humans, but biologically and evolutionarily. It’s really interesting to ask these questions: What do animals think? What do they feel? Why have these emotions evolved? There are plenty of questions for which we have no answers right now, and learning these things will teach us more not only about the animals, but also about ourselves.

But second, as we learn that animals are sentient and conscious beings, we can’t escape the conclusion that we need to treat them far better than we do. Discovering that animals feel grief and joy and other emotions means that we need to consider their perspective, and not mistreat them as is so often done.

In our new book, titled The Animals’ Agenda, we talk about what we call the ‘knowledge gap’. The regulations and laws for how we treat non-human animals lag far behind the science. We know that mice and rats display empathy, but according to the Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), lab mice and rats are not animals, and they are excluded from the protections the AWA extends to other animals. That’s a fact.

To ground a conversation about animal abuse I frequently ask the question: Would you do it to your dog? People get very offended (as they should) when dogs are treated in a certain way, yet they don’t blink when factory farm cows and pigs or laboratory monkeys or mice or rats are treated in horrific ways. As time goes on we are obliged to apply what we know and use this information on behalf of the animals.

It doesn’t seem to me that our behavior can be attributed to ignorance anymore. Are we choosing to ignore available evidence because it’s inconvenient to us?

I wrote a paper not too long ago asking this question. Where are all the scientists who know that rats and mice are really animals? The fact is they don’t say anything so that they can continue on their merry way, and there’s a lot of money involved in the lab animal breeding industry. Ignoring the fact that lab rats and mice really are animals serves them well because then mice and rats are not covered by the AWA, so they can do just about anything they want to them. I know people will say that there are humane regulations, but believe me: laboratory animals can be willfully tortured, I mean brutally treated, and the researchers have no responsibility or requirement to treat them better.

That’s why I do what I do. We wrote The Animals’ Agenda to get the word out. A good analogy is climate change. You have all this data, and then you have the climate change deniers who look at the data and they deny it or they ignore what we know. There’s a parallel situation with the study of animal emotions and sentience, and their ability to feel pain. That’s one of my big missions: to put it out there and tell people exactly what we’re learning and why this information needs to be used on behalf of the animals.

Which evolutionary explanations for heartbreak or grief do you find to be the most convincing?

One explanation is that grief brings animals together, reinforcing the social bonds at a time when they are under great stress. When a leader or mate in a group dies, the social relationships among the surviving individuals is restructured, and grief might help with reinforcing, maintaining, and developing new social bonds. It also could be their own way of telling the other individuals that it’s all going to be okay – “We miss mom, we miss the patriarch, we miss a particular group member, but it’s very important for us to stay together and to maintain our bonds or re-establish new bonds.” One thing people ignore is that in humans, when a member of a family passes away, things change. You lose a bread winner, you lose a person who had an important role, and you have to reform the relationships amongst the survivors. Well, so too do non-humans.

I wrote an article recounting a time I saw a female fox burying her mate. I noticed she had kids around, and she was burying her husband very carefully – patting the ground and putting pine needles by his corpse. She then went up the hill and interacted with her children. Now, I don’t know for sure why she was doing it, but there’s no reason to think that non-human animals don’t have some notion of respect, or of honoring their dead. We surely shouldn’t discount that.

We often think of our emotions as being something that sets us apart from other animals, forgetting that they originate in structures that we’ve inherited from our evolutionary forbears. Can you expand on this a bit?

There’s no doubt that there are evolutionary precursors for what we call our emotions. These biological characteristics or adaptations, amongst which I would include our emotions, didn’t just appear de novo – out of the blue. If you believe in biology and evolution, you can’t dispute that. You can’t just say that all of a sudden – poof – humans felt joy and no other animals did, or humans felt grief and no other animals did. It’s just wrong.

That’s why I’m very careful to say that our emotional lives are not necessarily deeper and richer than those of other animals. In fact, some people have argued that non-human animals display their emotions much more freely and in much richer form than we do because they are not constrained by worrying about whether they’re grieving too much or having too much fun, or something like that.

Now, we don’t really know that, but I think that’s a good counter-argument to people saying, “Oh no, our emotional lives mean more to us, we experience deeper joy or deeper grief.” That’s not the case at all. There’s a phrase in one of my books, “Emotions are gifts from our ancestors.” Our emotional responses are rooted in millions of years of animal’s feelings, and those structures are still with us. That’s why when I ask this question, it’s not if animals have emotions but why animals have emotions, and indeed why we have emotions. 


Interview by Sid Feddema


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