COMMENTARY: Do Elephants Cry?

The science is conclusive: animals are emotional beings

One of the hottest questions in the study of animal behavior is, "Do animals have emotions?" The simple answer is, "Of course they do." Just look at them, listen to them, and, if you dare, smell the odors they emit when they interact with friends and foes. Look at their faces, tails, bodies and, most importantly, their eyes. What we see on the outside tells us a lot about what’s happening inside animals" heads and hearts.

Elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain structure that"s important in processing emotions.© Getty Images

As a scientist who’s studied animal emotions for more than 30 years, I consider myself very fortunate. Whenever I observe or work with animals, I get to contribute to science and develop social relationships at the same time, and to me, there’s no conflict between the two. While stories about animal emotions abound, there are many lines of scientific support (what I call "science sense") about the nature of animal emotions that are rapidly accumulating from behavioral and neurobiological studies (from the emerging field called social neuroscience). Common sense and intuition also feed into and support science sense and the obvious conclusion is that mammals, at the very least, experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions from pure and contagious joy during play, to deep grief and pain. Recent data also shows that birds and fish are sentient and experience pain and suffering. Prestigious scientific journals regularly publish essays on joy in rats, grief in elephants and empathy in mice.

The bottom line is that we know more about animal passions then we often admit, and we can no longer ignore the pain and suffering of other beings. Many people in higher education are faced with difficult questions about the use of animals in their classrooms and research laboratories and today we must accept that there are compelling reasons stemming from scientific research to limit and perhaps stop using animals in lieu of the numerous highly effective non-animal alternatives that are readily available.

In scientific research there are always surprises. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, new scientific data appear that force us to rethink what we know and to revise our stereotypes. For example, spindle cells, which were long thought to exist only in humans and other great apes, have recently been discovered in humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales and sperm whales in the same area of their brains as spindle cells in human brains. This brain region is linked with social organization, empathy and intuition about the feelings of others, as well as rapid gut reactions. Spindle cells are important in processing emotions. It’s likely that if we seek the presence of spindle cells in other animals we will find them. Speaking of whales, there’s also a story about a humpback whale who, after being untangled from a net in which she was caught, swam up to each of the rescuers and winked at them before swimming off. The rescuers all agreed that she was expressing gratitude.

Neuroscientific research has also shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, all mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures (for example, the amygdala and hippocampus) and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are tied to feelings

And who would have imagined that laboratory mice are actually empathic? But we now know they are. Research has shown that mice react more strongly to painful stimuli after they observe other mice in pain, and it turns out that they are fun loving as well. Interestingly, mice, used in the millions in education and research, are not considered to be "animals" under the federal animal welfare act in the U.S. and aren’t protected from harmful research. A quote from the U.S. Federal Register, volume 69, number 108, Friday June 4, 2004 states: "We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act’s definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research."


The field of animal emotions, an area of focus in the scientific discipline concerned with the study of animal minds called cognitive ethology, has changed a great deal in the last 30 years. When I first began my studies centering on the question, "What does it feel like to be a dog or a wolf?" researchers were almost all skeptics who spent their time wondering if dogs, cats, chimpanzees and other animals felt anything. Since feelings don’t fit under a microscope, these scientists usually didn’t find any—and as I like to say, I’m glad I wasn’t their dog! But today the question of real importance is not whether animals have emotions, but why animal emotions have evolved the way they have. In fact, the paradigm has shifted to such an extent that the burden of "proof" now falls to those who still argue that animals don’t experience emotions. My colleagues and I no longer have to put tentative quotes around such words as "happy" or "sad" when we write about an animal’s inner life.

Mice aren"t considered "animals" under federal law, and aren"t protected from harmful research.© Getty Images

Many researchers also recognize that we must be anthropomorphic (attribute human traits to animals) when we discuss animal emotions but that if we do it carefully and biocentrically (from the animals" point of view), we can still give due consideration to the animals" position. As Professor Robert Sapolsky, a world-renowned ethologist and neuroscientist and author of A Primate’s Memoirs notes about his anthropomorphic tendencies when he describes baboon behavior: "One hopes that the parts that are blatantly ridiculous will be perceived as such. I’ve nonetheless been stunned by some of my more humorless colleagues—to see that they were not capable of recognizing that. The broader answer, though, is I’m not anthropomorphizing. Part of the challenge in understanding the behavior of a species is that they look like us for a reason. That’s not projecting human values. That’s primatizing the generalities that we share with them." No matter what we call it, researchers agree that animals and humans share many traits, including emotions. Thus, we’re not inserting something human into animals, but we’re identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe. Being anthropomorphic is doing what’s natural and necessary to understand animal emotions.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a curious phenomen that I call anthropomorphic double-talk. If someone says that an animal is happy, no one questions it, but if someone says that an animal is unhappy, then charges of anthropomorphism are immediately raised and sceptics ask, "How do you know this?" This is especially true of people who try to justify keeping animals in zoos or using them for invasive research. Of course, seeing positive emotions is as anthropomorphic as seeing negative emotions, but some people just don’t get it.


It’s bad biology to argue against the existence

of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology and social neuroscience support the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. Emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species and they serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another. Emotions also catalyze and regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and competitors and permit animals to protect themselves adaptively and flexibly using various behavior patterns in a wide variety of venues. Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity, that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind, argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy, and even moral behavior. In practice, continuity allows us to connect the "evolutionary dots" among different species to highlight similarities in evolved traits including individual feelings and passions. What we have since learned about animal emotions and empathy fits in well with what we know about the lifestyle of different species—how complex their social interactions and social networks are. Emotions, empathy, and knowing right from wrong are keys to survival, without which animals—both human and nonhuman—would perish. That’s how important they are. The borders between "them" (animals) and "us" are murky and permeable.


Studying animal emotions addresses a number of big questions concerning how science is conducted. Many skeptics feel that we are so uncertain about whether other animals have any sort of emotional life that they prefer to put off weighing in until we know more. For some, this really means waiting until we are absolutely sure. But science is never as certain as many would like it to be. Climate change researcher Henry Pollack says it well in his book Uncertain Science
Uncertain World:
"Because uncertainty never disappears, decisions about the future, big and small, must always be made in the absence of certainty. Waiting until uncertainty is eliminated is an implicit endorsement of the status quo, and often an excuse for maintaining it.
Uncertainty, far from being a barrier to progress, is actually a strong stimulus for, and an important ingredient of, creativity."

Concerning animal sentience, which includes emotions, veterinarian John Webster notes in his book Animal Sentience and Animal Welfare, "The nature of science is that it never (well, hardly ever) yields answers that are complete and unequivocal, but the consensus among scientists is that most, if not all the animals that we use for our own purposes, whether for food, for fun or for scientific procedures, are sentient. The simplest definition of animal sentience is "Feelings that matter.""

I often begin my lectures with the question: "Is there anyone in this audience who thinks that dogs don’t have feelings—that they don’t experience joy and sadness?" I’ve never had an enthusiastic response to this question, even in scientific gatherings, although on occasion a hand or two goes up slowly, usually halfway, as the person glances around to see if anyone is watching. But if I ask, "How many of you believe that dogs have feelings?" then almost every hand waves wildly and people smile and nod in vigorous agreement. Using behavior as our guide, by analogy we map the feelings of other beings onto our own emotional templates, and we do it very reliably.

Researchers who conduct invasive work have to ask themselves, "Would I do this to my dog?"© Getty Images


When people tell me that they love animals because they’re feeling beings and then go on to abuse them, I tell them that I’m glad they don’t love me. Recognizing that animals have emotions is important because animals" feelings matter. Animals are sentient beings experiencing the ups and downs of daily life, and we must respect this when we interact with them. While we obviously have much more to learn, what we already know should be enough to inspire changes in the way we treat other animals. We must not simply continue with the status quo because that is what we’ve always done and it’s convenient to do so. What we know has changed, and so should our relationships with animals. Quite often what we accept as "good welfare" isn’t "good enough."

Our relationship with other animals is a complex, ambiguous, challenging and frustrating affair, and we must continually reassess how we should interact with our nonhuman kin. Part of this reassessment involves asking difficult questions. Thus, I often ask researchers who conduct invasive work "Would you do that to your dog?" Some are startled to hear this question, but it’s a very important one to ask because if someone won’t do something to their dog that they do daily to other dogs or to mice, rats, cats, monkeys, pigs, cows, elephants or chimpanzees, we need to know why.

Humans have enormous power to affect the world any way we choose. Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable animals in a wide variety of venues. However, we also know that we’re not the only sentient creatures with feelings, and with the knowledge that what hurts us hurts them comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, and compassion. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf.

Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget this.

MARC BEKOFF is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. All of this material is discussed in his book The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter (New World Library, California, 2007).

CONTACTS: Marc Bekoff; Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals