Science looks into the emotional lives of animals

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Marc Bekoff is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is a Fellow of the Animal Behaviour Society and a past Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's main areas of research include animal behaviour, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), behavioural ecology, and compassionate conservation. He has published extensively on human-animal interactions and animal protection including more than 1000 essays and 30 books.

One of these books Marc co-wrote with Jane Goodall. He is an ambassador for Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots program and is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute.

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Marc's work has been featured on 48 Hours, in Time Magazine, Life Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife, Orion, Scientific American, Ranger Rick, National Geographic Kids, on NPR, BBC, Fox, NaturGEO, in a National Geographic Society television, CNN, Good Morning America, and 20/20.

What an inspiration. His scientific work is unrefutably of the uttermost importance in our growing understanding of the complexity of animals and his dedication to raising our awareness with such heart makes him someone I look up to with deep gratitude.

Drawing from your vast experience studying animal behaviour, can you tell me a little about the emotional lives of animals?

I study animal emotions and I love what I do. Over the course of my career, I’ve studied a wide variety of animals – coyotes, wolves, dogs, Adélie penguins, archer fish, western evening grosbeaks, and Steller’s jays – and I’ve tackled a wide range of questions, dealing with everything from social behavior, social organization, and social development to communication, play, antipredatory behavior, aggression, parental behavior, and morality. To me, the evidence for animal emotions is impossible to deny, and it is widely supported by our current knowledge in animal behavior, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology.

There is no doubt that animals have emotions that are rich, deep and wide-ranging. Animals experience deep and pure joy, happiness and enduring grief, sadness and PTSD. We also know animals experience jealousy and resentment.

Many animals display their feelings openly, publicly, for anyone to see. And when we pay attention, what we see outside tells us lots about what’s happening inside an individual’s head and heart. As we’ll find, careful scientific research is validating what we intuitively understand: that animals feel, and their emotions areas important to them as ours are to us.

A few years ago my friend Rod and I were riding our bicycles around Boulder, Colorado, when we witnessed a very interesting encounter among five magpies. Magpies are corvids, a very intelligent family of birds. One magpie had obviously been hit by a car and was lying dead on the side of the road. The four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it – just as an elephant noses the carcass of another elephant – and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.

Were these birds thinking about what they were doing? Were they showing magpie respect for their friend? Of were they merely acting as if they cared? Were they just animal automatons? I feel comfortable answering these questions, in order: yes, yes, no, no. Rod was astounded by how deliberate the birds were. He asked me if this was normal magpie behavior, and I told him that I’d never seen anything like this before and hadn’t read any accounts of grieving magpies. We can’t know what they were actually thinking of feeling, but reading their actions there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend. ( BOOK EXCERPT FROM MARC'S EMOTIONAL LIVES OF ANIMALS)

Why do their emotions matter to us?

Animals are sentient beings with emotions and that demands that we treat them with respect and dignity.

They care about how they and their family and friends are treated and we should never be causing internal harm, suffering and death.

Once we agree that animal emotions exist and that they matter – which is what a great many people already believe – then what? Then we must consider ethics. We must look to our actions and see if they are consistent with our knowledge and beliefs. I feel strongly that ethics should always inform science. We should always strive to merge knowledge, action, and compassion. Indeed, that is always the heart of the matter.

Many people associate intelligence and consciousness to some animals but exclude it from others-especially farm animals. What is your opinion regarding farm animals?

Farm animals are intelligent and conscious just as dogs, cats and other companion animals, just as great apes and cetaceans etc etc

Farm animals get a bad rap but there are many studies, lots of research, showing just how smart and emotional they are and a recent study shows how pigs display empathy. We also know chickens and other birds who are egregiously mistreated as "food animals" also are very emotional beings and show empathy. There was some nice research down at the University of Bristol in the UK confirming this.

All mammals share parts of the nervous system that are related to experiencing a wide array of emotions. Cows are mammals too. The temperature of their nose and the position of their ears correlate to their emotional state.

Even if the animals were not as "intelligent", people conflate the lack of intelligence with the ability to suffer but this doesn't equate. I hate to say it but stupid people do not suffer less than bright people...

I do lots of work in China, and people will say to me, "Oh thats where they eat cats and dogs" and I say "Yes and I just left America where they eat cows and pigs." It gets pretty quiet. Im not trying to be an a*s, I'm just trying to make people realise their lack of consistency.

If you wouldn't put your dog on a factory farm, why do you do something that subjects a cow or pig excruciating pain and suffering. 

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May you describe a particular strong connection you have had with an animal you were studying in the past?

I have had many. A cat named Speedo changed my life. I was doing a doctoral research project when Speedo, an intelligent cat, looked at me and asked "Why me?". I couldn't find the words to tell him why or how badly I felt for torturing and then killing him but relieving him from his pain and removing him from his throughly undignified existence, for which I was responsible, was all I could do. I would never do this sort of research again and I dropped out of the prestigious MD/Phd programme.

Of course on a more positive note, I've come to love many of the animals I've studies in non-invasive research including coyotes, dogs, penguins and other birds.

‘Dare to look into the sunken eyes of animals who are afraid or feeling all sorts of pain, and then try to deny to yourself and to others that these individuals are feeling anything.’ 

Can you elaborate on the Case For Compassionate Conservation?

The guiding principle "First do no harm" stresses the importance of individual nonhuman animals (animals), is gaining increasing global attention because most animals need considerably more protection than they are currently receiving and many people, including researchers, can no longer justify or stomach harming and killing animals "in the name of conservation." It builds on an agenda that calls for "doing science while respecting animals" and for protecting animals because they are intrinsically valuable and do not only have instrumental value because of what they can do for us.

Compassionate conservation basically takes the stand that the lives of every single individual matter. To read more click here.

What is your spiritual perspective on the interrelationship between humans and animals?

We are all inter-connected-we suffer the indignities to which we expose other animals to.

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What is your opinion on the best diet with everything you know about animals?

Vegan because there is no intentional harm inflicted.

I was not always vegan but after doing research and seeing I was being inconsistent I went "cold-tofu" over night. I like to remind people it's "who" they are eating, not "what".

I don't think the whole world is going to go vegan so I encourage others to do the best they can and cut down on the amount of meat consumption. If normally you eat 3 hamburgers a week, try to cut down to one and choose them raised from an ethical farm instead of a factory farm. However I still believe it is wrong to raise animals to serve them up as meals, as ethically it just doesn't need to be done.

Not only is there the emotional debate with eating animals but there is also the negative environmental impact that raising animals for food is having on our planet.

With a lifetime of going deep into the minds, hearts, spirits, and souls of animals, giving you a profound insight into their lives, what insights have you had into ours?

We are basically good, kind, nice, empathic and compassionate beings/mammals.

Animals have taught me about responsibility, compassion, caring and the value of deep friendships and interconnections.

What are three practical ways you recommend we can rethink our many daily decisions for “expanding our compassion footprint,” and affect change for the better?

  • Stop causing intentional harm by not eating and wearing dead animals and stop using any product that is animal tested.
  • Respect each and every individual animal, human and nonhuman.
  • Teach the children well.

"Peaceful coexistence with other animals and their homes, grounded in compassion, is needed in an increasingly human-dominated world if society is to preserve and conserve nature in holistic and humane ways."