About the Author

Josh Attenborough

Ranger

Born into a family passionate about wildlife Josh knew from a very young age that he wanted to work in the African bush. He was fortunate enough to spend his school holidays going on annual family trips to the same two destinations – ...

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34 Comments

on Do Animals Have Emotions?

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Marinda Drake
Master Tracker

Interesting Josh. I believe us as humans want to asign emotions to the animals. Living with a domestic cat you believe that they feel and think like us. It is so true that they actually just move on after a traumatic experience.

Cindy Hauert
Explorer

Depends on the animal and the circumstances. Read Frans de Waal’s book on primates’ emotions, which are very similar to ours.

Joan Schmiidt
Master Tracker

Josh, I loved the photo, leopard🤗, and I saved the lion🤗

Cindy Hauert
Explorer

If your take on how predators feel no emotion when hunting is true, and humans do, how can humans slaughter animals to eat in slaughter houses?

Linda Mansell
Senior Digital Ranger

I can only base my comments on my experience with my rescue ‘brak’ dog and not with wild animals. My dog could show joy (on greeting me even if had been out of the room for just 5 minutes or for 2 hours), anger and attack mode (whenever she saw a terrier-type dog on our walks), fear (the approaching thunder storm), utter excitement (when she saw water or a cow pat to roll in) and compassion when I was sad. Like wild animals she had instinct so I suppose the question must be, taking instinct out of the discussion, I do believe that each breed of wild animal has it’s own way of showing emotion in stressful or frightening situations. Yes they live in the moment for survival but I do think that they still store up past trauma. Look at elephants returning to the bones of poached ones and gently rearranging them … or my dog refusing to go down a path where she was once attacked by a larger dog. I think they all do remember – but humans have the need to return to traumas and relive and rehash them (that’s why therapists have a lot of clients) rather than accept them and move on with life – with just the odd reflective moment. Thank you Josh for this thought-provoking piece and I agree when you say: wild animals do have emotions and are the masters of living in the moment – which must be their recipe for survival.

Wynn Derr
Explorer

Is Josh related to the famous David Attenborough?

Best,

Wynn E Derr

Colin Macdougall
Explorer

Nice post, Josh, but what about the apparent sadness and mourning that elephants seem to show when one of the herd dies?

Irene Henkes
Senior Digital Ranger

I think you are right……….. on the other hand, why would Dudley share food with grandma?

I think there is a hiatus in your thinking somewhere, because we humans are supposed to have a feeling of empathy but we kill other creatures by the millions and not only to survive. There are people that kill just for fun and I’m not only talking about trophy hunters. There are people that torture animals for fun, so if your theory were true we humans wouldn’t be creatures that have feelings of empathy. Also you say that animals don’t dwell on the past, but that’s not entirely true either. That might apply to things that are normal in their lives like prey animals that are hunted by predators (as you mention in the story about the two impala males), but animals can certainly get traumatised and need years of therapy to get over it or don’t get over it at all (like elephants that have seen their family being killed by poachers or pets that have been abused by humans). So I think the issue of the feelings of animals is far more complicated and should be studied more to be able to make that kind of conclusions.

Definitely Betty-Lou. It is certainly a topic that needs to be studied more. This post was intended to make people think about exactly what you have commented here so that we view ourselves and other animals from a different perspective so thank you.

You’re welcome, Josh. You certainly succeeded in your goal of making people think about the subject. By the way I love the Londolozi blogposts.

Victoria Auchincloss
Master Tracker

Don’t we all show our emotions differently depending on our circumstances ? Mothers who defend their children, strangers who hep you out! We usually don’t have to worry about being dinner for someone, but I would like to think that animals have emotions! Victoria

Wian Eloff
Explorer

This is an great answer, thank you so much Ranger Josh

Dries Marais
Digital Ranger

Interesting subject, Josh, and if one considers the range of emotions that humans have that may apply to animals it becomes a challenging mind game.
Joy is a human emotion. Elephant frolicking in the water clearly displays joy. Young elephant calves playing distinctly displays joy and even the emotion of embarrassment.

Love and being affectionate is a display of emotion. Consider lion cubs and leopard cubs and their mothers. On the aother hand, A lioness simply leaving two weaker cubs behind to perish because it is too much effort to walk back and forth and bringing them all to the pride a few kilometer away may be instinct and not a lack of emotion – the instinct or emotion to ensure that the stronger pair have her attention and care and survive the journey.

Aggression is an emotion quite apart from a command and control perspective. There is an unexpected amount of aggression to be experienced when lion stalk and kill their prey – you can see it in their eyes – brute hate for the adversary; most of their prey are indeed adversaries, but not all. I have come to understand and accept that no predator-prey (food) interaction is totally successful unless there is an amount of contained aggression in the predator. I have come to believe that the human hunter for food – to be totally successful in his quest for meat must experience the same to increase his success rate.

The feeling of entitlement is an emotional response – and that is more than often overtly displayed in aggressive behaviour with humans aa well as animals. Nyala are always my reference for this – particularly those where farmers set out food for them to attract them closer to human habitation. I am totally opposed to the practice as it mostly is not because of a lack of food in their habitat but from a compulsion to have control over a wild animal – in fact calling them in like Pavlovs food bell. Then, regularly, when the human (and mostly the farmer’s wife) is at the feeding area wthout food a nyala bull will kill her. This happens every year in South Africa.

Londolozi is well known for its resolute bush-bashing efforts for close-up approaches on animals to be “in their face” when these retire away form even others of the same specie for a time of seclusion. Whether the mating encounter may be true instinct or a mix of emotion and instinct one would never know – however I always wonder what emotion exists with the private pair when the Landrovers have boxed in the mating lion or leopard… and whether their instinct is so strong that the emotion of disdain for the emotion of voyeurism by the human intruders is suppressed.

I greatly enjoyed this piece of arm’s length observation.

Regards

Dries

Tammy Hynes
Explorer

I’m sorry but I do believe animals have emotions just on a different level than us, a lot of times I think a higher level. No they don’t plan the way we do but I’ve seen lioness lose there cubs to male lions. The next time they were going to lose new cubs they took them and left, living a very hard life to save those cubs. Us that not planning on a past experience. Unfortunately they don’t have the luxury to plan as we do on emotions, there daily life is one that could be over that day, starve to death, fight to death. Have you seen the lioness lost from her pride for 3days, she stayed in the same spot roaring. In day three she sees a pride coming down the road peeks bout untill she’s sure it’s her pride. Once both realize they are there family both start running towards each other tails wagging lots of face rubbing then they all layed around for the day enjoying there found lionesses company. Heart warming. I know people who wouldn’t wait three days for there own mother. The things you speak if are hard wired and getting harder because I’d humans. It’s not like we let them live there lives the way they were ment to

Christa Blessing
Master Tracker

Very interesting thoughts which explain the behavior of wild animals well. Though I think that a lion fighting for food and in this way for survival also shows a lot of emotions, though not what we would call positive ones.
You could have maybe discussions or presentations in the evening at Londolozi once in a while where things like this could be presented and discussed.

Francesca Doria
Master Tracker

Hello I’m an ethologist. As Frans de Waal stressed “love is a biological imperative ” so lioness Ma di Tau fought against a whole pride and attacked a buffalo bull to defend her offspring. The story of Mañana I’ve watched the documentary , it is really unique and beautifully described with lots of emotion on both sides. Also the peculiar relationship between her and John Varty. In some way it seems that wild animals adapt their emotional behaviour as well as their imperative to survive, mate and thrive. If someone hasn’t seen it I advice Kamunyak the blessed lioness – a documentary by well known ecologist Shaba Douglas-Hamilton, about a lioness that “adopted” oryx calves in Kenya. Thank you Josh such posts are a blessing

Denise Vouri
Guest contributor

I guess it comes down to each of our perceptions about what we witness in animal behavior-especially those in the wild. I can imagine love amongst lions when I see mothers with cubs, but maybe it’s just instinctive behavior….the same as when wild dogs hunt, then regurgitate food to feed their pups—is that nurturing and compassion to share food or just an instinctive action? Who knows?……..

Hi Denise. The example of wild dogs and feeding their pups could be them showing compassion or it could be the instinct to take care of the pack so that it is as big as possible leading to more successful hunts and ultimately the continuance of the packs survival. Or it could be a combination of the two. I guess this is why it is such an interesting topic – because we don’t know. Thank you for your input.

Super interesting, I’ve never heard this perspective before!

Food for thought… such an interesting subject if one contemplates some of the behaviours of the different species observed over time…. some so unpredictable. Fascinating! 🧐

Michael and Terri Klauber
Guest contributor

Josh, what an interesting perspective on wildlife and emotions. We think you are right that they don’t dwell on past experiences, other than the training they get in their childhood. We have seen elephants and the compassion that they show towards each other, as well lions and leopards with their young. There are clearly some species that we can see that in, while others may never show it in a way that we can experience!

Definitely Michael and Terri. I think the animals that we can see that compassion in are those that are more closely related to us ie. mammals. This is not to say other species are not showing compassion, it is just that we can not perceive it which is what I think you are getting at. Thank you!

A very thought provoking blog Josh, ( as an aside Wynn Derr, Josh is the son of David Attenborough – just not the one you are thinking of), surely as in humans there are different individuals with differing levels of empathy so one leopard as in the case of the Dudley may be willing to share a kill with an older family member, where the majority would not.
Other more empathetic animals such as elephants and primates will as a species display much higher levels of empathy, but I suspect some more than others.
The point made that as a species, humans kill or slaughter way more than any other species is a good one and I suspect that we are able to “accept” this because we hide behind so called civilisation where our meat is presented in pristine shrink wrapped plastic and as such we don’t associate with the whole slaughter process.
More questions than answers, but thought provoking never the less.

Lisa Antell
Digital Tracker

Very interesting….I DO think that animals feel loss, pain, grieving, fear…..but I also do think that they are emotions of the moment that drive the correct adaptive behavioral response…..and then they move on to continue their own daily survival….

Kara Taylor
Master Tracker

A very interesting and hot topic. I believe that they absolutely do experience emotions but quickly move on from them as survival demands it – it is a harsh reality for animals but to think they don’t experience any makes them seem less then the intelligent beings that they are.

Couldn’t agree more Kara. Thank you!

Paul Canales
Digital Tracker

Love your post Josh! As I was reading it, I was coming to a particular conclusion that I was going to share in the comments. However, you reached the same conclusion! Bravo!

Johanna Browne
Senior Digital Ranger

You are confusing emotion and compassion with a lack of understanding (from the animal) of the nature of life and life giving of itself to others for survival. I think of the many stories of hippos chasing off crocodiles to save a gazelle and the depression they went into when it would die anyway. The lioness who protected a baby gazelle keeping it safe until her pride felt differently. Wolves who go into deep depression when one of their pack is killed. Or Anna Breytenbach’s story of a pack of wolves hunting down a herd of deer all day, separating out a fawn, only to have the alpha wolf let it go because it was not the deer’s time. Animals have a far greater understanding of life and it’s circle then we do. Animals communicate, we have separated ourselves with spoken language. There are so many sources of examples but science refuses to believe anything other than humans cornering the market on emotions and intelligence when in fact we are the lowest of the animals in understanding and compassion. They actually don’t just move on after a tragic experience-SO many examples of this in the news. The dolphin who tried to carry her dead calf around for weeks after it passed and grieved terribly. Elephants in captivity who lost their mates to death only to sink in deep depression. We have SO much to learn from animals. Yet I have to ask how much compassion a trophy hunter has, a soldier after mowing down the enemy, racists, bigots etc… humans are the best at turning off feelings and getting on with life in a cold and ruthless way. Listen to Anna, read Lyall Watson, Google compassionate animal stories. As an animal behavioralist and communicator I have learned we aren’t nearly as smart as we think they are and being humble is a good way to start listening.

Thank you for your lengthy and in detail comment Johanna. I really do appreciate your views. It certainly is a contentious topic with so many moving parts that it is hard to express ones opinions in a single piece of writing – which I’m sure you can understand. I couldn’t agree with you more that we have a lot to learn from animals, in fact I believe we have the most to learn from animals. Their connection to Mother Nature and the fact that they have been in existence for far longer than humans have (although we are also animals but I believe we have grown apart from Nature to some extent) make them the perfect models on how to live in balance with the earth.
Thank you once again for your thoughtful comment Johanna!

Cally Staniland
Master Tracker

A thought provoking blog Josh, but I tend to disagree with some of your views, particularly that of emotions of fear, love, hatred and kindness. However I do agree that we humans could certainly learn a lot from our bush friends …not only about living in the moment but their honest approach in dealing with every situation.

Corne Pruis
Explorer

Very good article ! Thank you – learnt a lot !

Joanne Wadsworth Kelley
Master Tracker

Very thought provoking topic that illicit many opinions. None of which can be proven either way. It does stir the pot though with opinions and I have my own as well. Love the images with this post!

Tammy Hynes
Explorer

I’ve seen humans chase there sister/brother out if there home but still love them. As for not sharing a kill take a group of kids who are not fed often due to neglect seen many a story where they Gord food. What about the lioness who would hold kills open so her sister who had a healed broken jaw could get at the tender meat because she couldn’t eat the tough meat. Just because another species dies things differently does not mean they don’t have emotions. Elephants are a great example of having emotions morn there dead, help each other. The lost lioness who found her pride after 3 days, so much joy then among those lions all of them. The death of a cub has to be such a sad time for there morhers

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