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The Emotional Lives of Animals

YES! Magazine    Yobo Member
March 7th, 2011



Credit: Hillary Kladke/WikiMedia

By Marc Bekoff

Scientific research shows that many animals are very intelligent and have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs are able to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes and warn humans of impending heart attacks and strokes. Elephants, whales, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and alligators use low-frequency sounds to communicate over long distances, often miles; and bats, dolphins, whales, frogs, and various rodents use high-frequency sounds to find food, communicate with others, and navigate.

Many animals also display wide-ranging emotions, including joy, happiness, empathy, compassion, grief, and even resentment and embarrassment. It’s not surprising that animals—especially, but not only, mammals—share many emotions with us because we also share brain structures—located in the limbic system—that are the seat of our emotions. In many ways, human emotions are the gifts of our animal ancestors.

Grief in magpies and red foxes: Saying goodbye to a friend

Many animals display profound grief at the loss or absence of a relative or companion. Sea lion mothers wail when watching their babies being eaten by killer whales. People have reported dolphins struggling to save a dead calf by pushing its body to the surface of the water. Chimpanzees and elephants grieve the loss of family and friends, and gorillas hold wakes for the dead. Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo, witnessed a wake for a female gorilla, Babs, who had died of cancer at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. She says the gorilla’s longtime mate howled and banged his chest; picked up a piece of celery, Babs’ favorite food; put it in her hand; and tried to get her to wake up.

I once happened upon what seemed to be a magpie funeral service. A magpie had been hit by a car. Four of his flock mates stood around him silently and pecked gently at his body. One, then another, flew off and brought back pine needles and twigs and laid them by his body. They all stood vigil for a time, nodded their heads, and flew off.

Foxes photo by Paul Huber

Photo by Paul Huber

I also watched a red fox bury her mate after a cougar had killed him. She gently laid dirt and twigs over his body, stopped, looked to make sure he was all covered, patted down the dirt and twigs with her forepaws, stood silently for a moment, then trotted off, tail down and ears laid back against her head. After publishing my stories I got emails from people all over the world who had seen similar behavior in various birds and mammals.

Empathy Among Elephants

A few years ago while I was watching elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya with elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, I noticed a teenaged female, Babyl, who walked very slowly and had difficulty taking each step. I learned she’d been crippled for years, but the other members of her herd never left her behind. They’d walk a while, then stop and look around to see where she was. If Babyl lagged, some would wait for her. If she’d been left alone, she would have fallen prey to a lion or other predator. Sometimes the matriarch would even feed Babyl. Babyl’s friends had nothing to gain by helping her, as she could do nothing for them. Nonetheless, they adjusted their behavior to allow Babyl to remain with the group.

Waterfall Dances: Do animals have spiritual experiences?

Do animals marvel at their surroundings, have a sense of awe when they see a rainbow, or wonder where lightning comes from? Sometimes a chimpanzee, usually an adult male, will dance at a waterfall with total abandon. Jane Goodall describes a chimpanzee approaching a waterfall with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal. “As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last 10 or 15 minutes.” After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. Chimpanzees also dance at the onset of heavy rains and during violent gusts of wind.

In June 2006, Jane and I visited a chimpanzee sanctuary near Girona, Spain. We were told that Marco, one of the rescued chimpanzees, does a dance during thunderstorms during which he looks like he’s in a trance.

Shirley and Jenny: Remembering Friends

Elephants photo by Evan Long

Photo by Evan Long

Elephants have strong feelings. They also have great memory. They live in matriarchal societies in which strong social bonds among individuals endure for decades. Shirley and Jenny, two female elephants, were reunited after living apart for 22 years. They were brought separately to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., to live out their lives in peace, absent the abuse they had suffered in the entertainment industry. When Shirley was introduced to Jenny, there was an urgency in Jenny’s behavior. She wanted to get into the same stall with Shirley. They roared at each other, the traditional elephant greeting among friends when they reunite. Rather than being cautious and uncertain about one another, they touched through the bars separating them and remained in close contact. Their keepers were intrigued by how outgoing the elephants were. A search of records showed that Shirley and Jenny had lived together in a circus 22 years before, when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was in her 20s. They still remembered one another when they were inadvertently reunited.

A Grateful Whale

In December 2005 a 50-foot, 50-ton, female humpback whale got tangled in crab lines and was in danger of drowning. After a team of divers freed her, she nuzzled each of her rescuers in turn and flapped around in what one whale expert said was “a rare and remarkable encounter.” James Moskito, one of the rescuers, recalled that, “It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing it was free and that we had helped it.” He said the whale “stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had some fun.” Mike Menigoz, another of the divers, was also deeply touched by the encounter: “The whale was doing little dives, and the guys were rubbing shoulders with it … . I don’t know for sure what it was thinking, but it’s something I will always remember.”

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7 Responses to “The Emotional Lives of Animals”

  • Rick says:

    I have observed what appeared to be grieving by three captive female gorillas that lost their silverback. Some might argue their behaviors changed due to the loss of the group leader though I would say it was more than that-likely grief because, at that point, the social structure didn’t fall apart. Instead the dominant female now held the roll of leader. And we have heard ‘grieving’ gorillas emit vocalizations consistent with gorillas that are showing behaviors which with humans would be define as lethargic/sad/grieving.

    Several observed gorilla deaths have been followed by what appears to be either part or the entire group showing an interest in the dead gorilla with some group members pocking, smelling or touching the animal.

  • Darryl Mason says:

    i set a trap to catch a mouse that was causing too much noise and chaos at night. I left the trap on the bench where I knew (from droppings) the mouse had roamed before. About 3am, the trap snapped shut and this terrible squealing filled the house. When i turned on the light, the mouse had its head trapped, but there was another mouse, younger, smaller, by its side. That was the one making all the noise. It didn’t run when I turned on the light, it stayed by the trapped mouse’s side and continued to try and free its friend by shoving its snout under the bar of the trap.

    It refused to run even when I picked up the trapped mouse, by then dead. It sat there and watched me carry away its friend, shrieking in what I presumed was a mouse’s version of grief, despair. I reset the trap & waited, knowing the rescuer mouse wouldn’t, literally, fall into the same trap. It didn’t.

    The next day the rescuer mouse was floating dead in the pool.

    Probably a coincidence. A grief-struck mouse, who watched its friend die and couldn’t save it, wouldn’t go and commit suicide.

    Would it?

  • Tracy says:

    awww this article is beautiful, thank you. I was especially moved by the behaviour you saw in the magpies and the fox. I wish that everyone could see the oneness.

  • Denise says:

    I am the mother of a one year old raccoon kit. She was wild born and was found covered in ticks at about 2 months old. We have made much progress on trust and other issues over the last several months. When she has her romping time, she wants nothing to do with me.
    Which brings me to my story… She was out for her romp time as normal doing her own thing. I had just had a fight with my son and I was very upset and crying. She climbed onto my bed, crawled into my lap and reached herself up as if to give me a hug, which I so desperately needed at that moment. I dont care anybody says, she knew I needed a hug.

  • SallyAnn says:

    What a wonderful, informative article–very much appreciated

  • karen says:

    I have a tortoise a Spekki hinged species. Found in the bush newly hatched out and about to be eaten by baboons. Brought it home and following year released it and she returned, this happened every time I tried to set her free. One time I too was very upset and emotional about an event I took her on my stomach as I lay upon my bed and she stayed totally still which she never ever does. Once I had stopped crying and got my act together again she moved off. Coincidence? I don’t think so

  • Bring on a coalition of “intelligent” animal lovers
    to bring awareness to President Obama of God’s
    Animal Rights on this planet, and for him to stop
    being an apathetic human toward all what The Devine
    Creato has created to life in peace on this planet.
    Tell him also that eating too much animal flesh
    can cause the health system to fall on their knees,
    not only for forgiveness by complete financial
    bankruptcy. Make his understand that animals have
    the very same emotions as we do, but don’t
    advertise it as humans do GOD LOVE THE ANIMALS AND
    THE GOOD HUMANS WHO CARE FOR THEM.

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