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Minds of Their Own

Exploring the emotional and moral lives of animals

All Animals magazine, Mar/Apr 2010

  • Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe have devoted their lives to exploring the emotional and moral lives of animals. The HSUS

  • Jonathan Balcombe's eureka moment came when he saw two crows giving each other neck rubs. Nikhil Gangavane/Dreamstime

  • Seeing a squirrel running along a fence captivates Balcombe, whose new book on the inner lives of animals is out in March. Bruce McQueen/Dreamstime

  • In his new book The Animal Manifesto, Balcombe describes empathy observed among elephants. Media Bakery

Humans have long tried to imagine what other species think and how they may feel, projecting our own perspectives and emotions onto the animal experience. The sight of a hawk spiraling effortlessly on an updraft or two horses cantering side by side in a field is enough to inspire wonder about the inner lives of other creatures. And people observing their pets’ activities and moods view the existence of cat and dog emotions—in the form of joy, grief, even jealousy—as beyond question.

What seems blatantly apparent to many animal lovers, however, is often challenged by scientists as nothing more than sentimental anthropomorphism. Portrayal of animals as lesser beings without thought or emotion dates at least as far back as the days of Aristotle.

But ethologists engaged in the study of animal behavior are drawing from a growing body of evidence to build a case to the contrary. On the forefront of the burgeoning field are scientists and authors Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe. After years of researching the emotions of animals, Bekoff began exploring the concepts of morality and justice in their societies, basing his work on animals’ adherence to their own sets of rules and the application of punishment in their play. Balcombe studies the capacity for pleasure in animals, a concept rarely considered within the scientific community.

Now teaching a course on animal minds and behavior for Humane Society University, the two authors have new books out this year. Bekoff’s latest, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint, was published in February; Balcombe’s new book, Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, is out in March. In the interviews excerpted here, Bekoff and Balcombe spoke with writer Ruthanne Johnson about their work and its implications for our relationships with animals.

Q: What are the origins of your connection to animals?
BEKOFF: I was always asking my parents about what animals were thinking and feeling. When I was about 3 years old, I yelled at a man for yelling at his dog, and [the man] chased my father. I don’t really know where it came from, but I was raised in a very compassionate home with a really compassionate mother.
BALCOMBE: If there is an animal gene, I was born with it. At the age of 3, I remember petting a kangaroo [at a sanctuary]. That was a meaningful experience for me.

Q: So you weren’t the kind of kid who pulled wings off flies?
BALCOMBE: No, I was the kid who pulled the arms off of people who pulled the wings off flies! I can remember being deeply disturbed with kids stepping on crickets or caterpillars, and coming to the defense of the animal. I guess it’s empathy for another being caught up in the struggle of life, like we are.
BEKOFF: A lot of people thought I was nuts to swim against the tide. They would say that play behavior is a waste of time to study [and that] you don’t want to start talking about animal protection. But the thing that vindicated me is that I have done good science. And I was never in their face, and I think that comes back to my belief in compassion. I didn’t yell at them; I just said, basically, you do what you want to do, and I will do what I want to do, and time will tell if I made a good choice. And it did.

Q: What were some of your first scientific studies of animals?
BEKOFF: Coyotes were the first animals I began to seriously study. Watching them in the field and seeing how smart and emotional they are—and how attached to one another—made me realize how important it was to access their world in order to observe authentic behavior and to see how adaptable they are.
BALCOMBE: When I went to grad school, I gravitated to bats because they are not popular and they are largely misunderstood. The first really strong evidence of something we call reciprocal altruism—where individuals actually keep track of what friends do for them and then they give back to their friends—comes from studies of vampire bats. It showed that individuals will share blood with others, regurgitating it to others who are perhaps ill or to a mother giving birth who cannot leave the roost to forage that night. So they work together as a group and help each other through tough times, and these are values that humans hold really high.

Q: Have you ever had any “eureka” moments while studying animal behavior?
BALCOMBE: Six years ago, when I was bird watching at a nature center in Assateague, Va., I watched two crows fly over and land on a decrepit billboard, and their interaction was clearly pleasurable: One of them was soliciting a neck rub from the other repeatedly and giving the [other] one a neck rub. They looked like best buddies or maybe a mated pair. That made me think about animal pleasure, which none of my biology teachers addressed, because science has essentially neglected that huge subject. And so I am grateful to those crows because they lit a little light bulb over my head, and life has never been the same.

Q: Why choose animal pleasure as a topic of study?
BALCOMBE: We need to recognize the richness of animal lives—that it isn’t just about avoiding pain but also about seeking pleasure. And that has huge moral implications: that life has intrinsic value if you can feel pleasure. Pleasure is pretty distinctive in animals, and there is quite a lot of really great research out there—rigorous studies with repeated, carefully designed data sets and analyses. For example, rats exhibit laughter andmirth when given neck rubs or being tickled, and a horse’s heart rate goes down significantly when he is brushed in certain places where he may be groomed naturally by another horse.

Q: Why choose animal morals as a topic of study?
BEKOFF: It became clear tome that when animals play, there are rules of the game and there is a moral to it and an ethical mood. When they violate the moral code, they pay for it. If animals are moral, it ups the ante in the sense of who they are. Not only are they smart, adaptable, and emotional, but they know right from wrong, and that sends a strong message for their cognitive emotional skills.

Q: Why are some scientists averse to exploring the possibility of animal morality and emotional experience?
BALCOMBE: It’s threatening to us because it requires us to revisit the whole paradigm of our relationship with animals. If animals are moral and have virtue and a sense of ethics, then how can we continue to treat them the way we do, to keep them in cages and slaughter them by the billions?

Q: Why are people so drawn to stories about animals, especially those that pose the possibilities of rich emotional lives?
BEKOFF: Because people are feeling an incredible distance from nature and animals. They get busy and their lives are fractured. I have always said that we have old brains and new bottlenecks: We have Paleolithic brains, and we are living in new times, and new times are ripping us away from nature. And people miss it, and the rubber band is expanding, if you will, such that it’s going to snap pretty soon.
BALCOMBE: We are all animals, and we know what it’s like to be an animal. We experience it in every living, breathing moment. I see a squirrel outside running along the fence, and I’m just captivated. I know that squirrel isn’t just alive—she has a life and she has experiences and emotions.

Q: What do you hope your students will take away from your Humane Society University course?
BEKOFF: A better appreciation for animals, not what they are but who they are, and an appreciation for their cognitive, emotional, and moral lives. I also hope this creates an army of animal protection advocates.