Dawn Armstrong
Special to the Tribune

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April 9, 2013
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Pet column: Animal emotions and human evolution

Animals of many species exhibit what we perceive as human-like emotions. Some of these emotions — fear, aggression, anger — are readily accepted as part of a natural survival strategy. Others — such as embarrassment, disgust and relief — are still mysteries to researchers and controversial for skeptical scientists because they are labeled in human terms. Animals appear to fall in love with each other, forming lifelong monogamous relationships. Animals have been observed to use play or humor to defuse tense situations. Some seem to exhibit a sense of justice. Friendships form between difference species. Videos of play between wild and domestic animals can be found on YouTube and other websites. The mutual bonds and emotions exhibited seem natural and genuine. Yet animal emotions have been denied for far too long.

Denial makes it easier to perform unconscionable scientific experiments on cats, dogs, as well as the primates who share 99.8 percent of human DNA and significant workings of the human brain, including the part for emotion — the amygdala. Denial makes it easier to treat working and food animals badly. The acceptance of nonhuman animal emotions has finally made irrefutable inroads among the scientific community. Complex as well as basic emotions are being scientifically documented by many researchers. A peaceable kingdom where all animals — human and non human — acknowledge relatedness and exist in harmony is a ways off, but perhaps possible.

In 1872, Darwin approached but did not delve into the subject. Peter Singer’s book, “Animal Liberation,” shocked the general public while introducing a new, more compassionate way of life for enlightened readers. In 1995, Jeffrey Moussaieff and Susan McCarthy opened the window wider with the best selling book “When Elephants Weep.” In 2000, Mary Lou Randour reintroduced the concept of animals leading humans to spirituality with “Animal Grace.” In 2002, Jane Goodall and Marc Bekoff addressed human-animal relatedness in the first chapter of “The Ten Trusts: “Rejoice that we are part of the animal kingdom, identifying the biological, emotional and intellectual similarities between non human animals and evolved human animals”. In 2003, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s book “The Pig Who Sang to the Moon” chronicled the emotional behaviors of farm animals. In 2007, he published “The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy — And Why They Matter.” In 2012, the PBS Nature series examined nonhuman animal emotions, friendships, and behaviors. These popular titles are the tip of the iceberg of a body of credible, scientifically documented articles, books and videos providing testament to animal emotions.

It is being more widely recognized that the animals of the world, wild and domestic, have much to teach humans about — and deserve reverence for — their emotional capacities. Yes, animals feel pain, they grieve for their own and for others, they play joyfully, they get angry, they even get embarrassed. Previously, scientists who worked in the field of animal emotions feared being labeled “anthropomorphic” — assigning their own human traits to their animal subjects — and thereby sabotaging the credibility of their work in the eyes of peers. Such an experience often retold involves internationally respected scientist, Jane Goodall. She tells of receiving criticism while working on her doctorate because she gave her animal subjects names instead of numbers and noted behaviors in human terms. She knew the criticism by her professors was undeserved because first she had learned from her close relationship with her dog that animals do feel. Among others, Goodall’s documented experiences in Tanzania provide ground breaking discoveries about animal habits, traits and tools and even ceremonies.

Accepting that animals feel means that humans face moral responsibility toward them. As author Mary Lou Randour points out, “carrots don’t scream but animals do.” Philosophers, leaders, pet keepers, animal trainers, rescuers, farmers, researchers, scientists and congressional representatives finally are coming together as witnesses to respect and protect universal relatedness. The ongoing effort to retire chimpanzees from the National Institutes of Health research labs is a significant signal. General acknowledgment of the need for compassionate treatment of all feeling beings is critical to advancing human evolution and the realization of a true peaceable kingdom.

Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Apr 9, 2013 09:30PM Published Apr 9, 2013 12:24AM Copyright 2013 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.