Not so long ago, the 16th century philosopher, Rene Descartes described animals as red-blooded machines without thoughts or wishes. We have come a long way since then. Step by step scientists have discovered intelligence, self-will, ego and emotions in all animals, even insects. At every point these discoveries have been challenged, again and again, and when the doubters finally cave in, in the face of overwhelming evidence, they leave a ‘But’ at the end. Something that animals do not have.
One of the biggest ‘buts’ was Complex Emotions: kindness, pity, surprise, empathy, cowardice, courage, amusement, pride, depression, anticipation, shame, modesty, caution, patience, anger, composure, stress, envy, jealousy, goodwill, disgust, regret. The ability to tell lies.
One by one experiments have shown that animals possess all these complex emotions. In the book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, for example, primate expert Frans de Waal proves that non-human animals can be inherently good, caring, and even, in our definition, moral.
In a famous 1958 experiment, hungry rats that were only fed if they pulled a lever to shock their littermates, refused to do so, showing that the rodents have a sense of empathy and compassion for their fellows.
Scientists at the University of Chicago enclosed some rats in small, confining enclosures—like transparent coffins. The tiny prisons could only be opened from outside. The scientists discovered that free rats would go out of their way to release their trapped comrades.
The rats even did this when tempted by chocolate chips—a favourite food of both rats and human beings. The free rats would resist these treats until after they released the trapped rats. Then both would share the reward. So, rats turn out to be nicer than most humans – certainly nicer than the ones who experiment ceaselessly on them.
In a study by Steiner and Redish in 2015, rats showed that they could feel regret when not choosing a better available option. Both, their behaviour and their brain patterns, changed exactly the same way that humans change. Regret is the introspective recognition that a previously chosen action led to a less desirable outcome than an alternative action would have. Humans with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex of the brain do not express regret – and nor do rats.
Jealousy describes the negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity, fear, and anxiety that occur when an interloper threatens an important relationship. Jealousy requires the cognitive ability to determine self-esteem and weigh the rival’s threats.
In a study by Harris et al, scientists adapted a paradigm, from human infant studies, to examine jealousy in companion dogs. They had people lavish attention on objects, one of which was a realistic-looking stuffed dog that barked and whined, in front of their companion dogs. The interactions, and the dog responses, were recorded and analysed. Nearly all of the dogs pushed at either the stuffed dog or the owner and almost a third attempted to get between the object and their owner.
Significantly, they did not exhibit these behaviours to the same degree when the object of affection was not dog-like!
Empathy is the capacity to recognise and react to emotions that are being experienced by another. Reimert et al in Physiology and Behaviour, 2013, correlated a number of behaviours in pigs with positive (feeding and group housing) and negative (social isolation) events. They demonstrated that when one pig was happy with his surroundings, it had the effect of lightening the mood of other pigs. But when one pig was kept badly, and it reacted negatively to its surroundings, all the pigs reacted in the same way. The effects were not just limited to visible behaviour. Even cortisol levels in the pigs’ saliva confirmed their emotional state. The pigs were thus clearly demonstrating empathy.
Crayfish, that had been exposed to shock giving electric field in a dark maze, showed huge signs of anxiety when placed there again even after the electric field has been removed. . The stressed animals had increased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. The animals calmed down when they were injected with an anxiety removing drug chlordiazepoxide and they entered the dark as normal. Anxiety is believed to occur in all vertebrates. Now we know it extends to invertebrate species as well. In this study, published in Science magazine, crayfish feel just as much anxiety as us.
Have you heard of the expression ‘rolling your eyes.’ It is something that humans do (I do it often) to express annoyance combined with frustration at a situation.
In a study by Sandem and Braastad, commercial dairy cows were food-deprived, and then either allowed access to food, or kept in a frustrating position where they could smell and see food, but not gain access to it. Behaviours thought to be associated with a negative emotional state and the cow’s percentage of visible eye white were recorded during the study. All food-deprived cows showed at least one of these behaviours: aggressiveness , vocalisation, and head shaking. None of the fed cows had this. But even more interesting: the percentage of white of the total visible eye area was larger than normal in the food-deprived cows, gradually increasing until 4 minutes after test starts, while it was lower than normal in the cows that were fed.
It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animal emotions are different from humans. If you watch mammals, or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They are frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love, or any of the emotions in between. Animals have very similar survival circuitry: for example, the brain regions that tell an animal to run away from a threat are the same, even if that animal runs on two legs, four legs or takes flight. Whenever we eat or abuse an animal in any way, remember, it is just us in another form.
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi is minister in the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yoy can join her animal welfare movement. You may contact her at email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org