I was astounded to read in Virginia Morell’s brand new book, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, that scientists once believed that animals did not feel emotions.
We have this anthropocentric tendency to deny feelings and consciousness to any beings who don’t speak our language.
Scientists also used to believe that human babies, despite their clear indications to the contrary, did not feel pain.
What seems obvious to us now (and has been proven by some very hard-to-read scientific research)–that a baby who flinches, screams, curls his toes, or cries out is in pain was dismissed by earlier generations of researchers.
It seems obvious, too, that animals feel and express emotions. Anyone who’s seen a puppy cock its head at a beetle on the sidewalk knows that dogs feel curiosity. Anyone who’s seen video footage of a chimp holding sugarcane, a look of triumph on his face, suspects that primates can feel satisfaction.
In her book, Morell describes a heartbreaking moment that made me realize just how profound animal emotion is:
“In Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, ethnologist Sultana Bashir spoke with sorrow about what fate surely lay in store for a male cheetah we were watching. Several months prior to my visit, she and other members of the Serengeti Cheetah Project had placed a radio collar on this sleek cat. We’d driven long hours over the plains, while tracking the collars ping, before Bashir spotted the cheetah among the grasses. He was standing at the base of a rocky kopje–his lookout–and crying in a piteous tone. Sometimes he climbed his rocks to gaze in the distance, other times he paced away, then suddenly swung about and climbed back to the top of his lookout. ‘Mrrrroow; mrrroowww; mrroww,’ he called, making a low bleating sound, almost like the cry of a wounded sheep. ‘That’s his distress call,’ Bashir said. ‘He’s looking for his friend. But I’m afraid he’s gone; he was elderly, and I think he’s died. Otherwise he would be here, or nearby.’
“Male cheetahs maintain large territories that overlap those of several females, and they fight other males–sometimes to the death–to secure their borders. In such battles, it helps to have a friend; indeed, a single male cheetah without a partner is almost assured of losing any fight and all his territory. We sat the with unhappy male until late in the afternoon, and he never ceased his cries. At last, he left the kopje behind and headed off at a trot into the plain’s tall grasses. What would become of him if his friend did not return, I asked. ‘He’ll go off to die, I think,’ Bashir said. ‘Another male will kill him, or he’ll stop eating, get mange–always a sign of distress in cheetahs–and become too weak to defend his territory. Really, he’ll die of a broken heart.’”
But it is of course the job of scientists to dismiss the obvious as projection and anthropomorphizing until proof in the form of well designed experiments confirms what everyone except those skeptical researchers was pretty sure of all along.
Virginia Morell’s book is full of the unexpected, information that will intrigue even the most open-minded animal lover. She writes about a scientists whose experiments show that ants can teach each other new paths to follow; how we now know that rats (rats!) can laugh; and how dolphins believe that they are far more intelligent than humans.
As interesting as the animals who Morell describes are, the human animals who study them (aka scientists) are also at the heart of this book. They are quirky, dogmatic, dedicated, and sometimes almost obsessed in their quest for better understanding of the creatures we share space with on this Earth.
Morell lives in Ashland, Oregon. When I first called her up years ago, after reading an article she wrote in National Geographic and finding out–to my delight and surprise–that we lived in the same town, I hurriedly told her how much I admired her work, how she was the kind of writer I wanted to be, and mumbled about getting together for coffee. She was gracious enough not to think me crazy. We went to Chozu’s tea house, both talked a mile a minute, and I’ve been blessed to have her as a friend and colleague ever since.
She’s speaking at Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall on February 26 at 7:30 p.m. in Ashland Oregon. Tickets, available at Bloomsbury Books, are $20/adults, $10/students. Get one quick — this event is almost sold out.
Hope to see you there!
Buy the book from Amazon.