Over the last month I’ve been asked a few times whether animals have emotions. This is of course quite a difficult question to answer due to its complexity and not one that can be properly explored in a short blog post, but let us contemplate it even if we are just scratching the surface.
My simple answer – animals do not experience emotions the way that we do. My reasoning – because everything in the wild has evolved to survive for as long as possible with the purpose of passing on their genes through having offspring. If a female cheetah felt empathy, it would not teach its cubs how to hunt by allowing them to play with captured live prey. If a leopard loved, it would not attack its sister for being in its territory. If a male lion had compassion, it would not chase his pride off of a kill they had made forcing them to go hungry.
These are just a few examples of many that illustrate the harshness of survival in the bush and which support the side that animals lack an emotional spectrum. But what about the evidence that backs the opposing theory? Lions contact calling their recently deceased cubs, elephants sweating profusely from their temporal glands upon recognising a separated herd member and leopards which are supposedly solitary animals adopting orphan cubs and sharing kills.
Both sides are convincing hence the depth of the debate which I appreciate. This leads me to my not so simple answer – animals experience emotions in the form of a response to external stimuli, however they do not alter their behaviour going forward based on these past emotions. To put that differently, I believe animals feel in the moment but do not dwell on the past or plan for the future based on these emotions. For example if two male impala are attacked whilst fighting with each other for the right to mate with a harem of females and somehow both escape, I doubt they would be too scarred by the attack that they would stop competing for future dominance and mating rights. It is far more likely that the ordeal is erased from the impala’s memory so that those emotions of panic and fear do not block their instinct to pass on their genes.
Compare this to how people react to a stressful experience and how we store the trauma, which ends up with us reliving that experience sometime down the line. Whether this has been a strength or weakness in our evolution as a species is another topic entirely but with such a big emphasis being placed on mindfulness, the practice of paying attention in the present moment, and the health benefits to this, perhaps we can take a page from the bush’s book because as far as I can tell, wild animals are the masters of living in the moment.