Recently, ranger Josh Attenborough and I got involved in a discussion on whether or not animals have emotions. We discovered that it is a veritable wormhole, with no easy or conclusive answer.
You may have read his take on the matter in “Do Animals have Emotions?”.
Here is my retort and what I hope can be an ongoing discussion in this forum, but let’s not let “emotions” get too high.
Simply put – in my opinion – yes animals do have emotions, a slightly contrary take to Josh, but hear me out.
The real question in my mind is can we call what they feel “emotion”? Or at least in the same way that we call ours…
I will leave that up to you. For me the question is whether these emotions – the ones that you and I feel everyday – are instinct or behavioural traits we are taught? Numerous studies have been done and after reading many, this is my take…
In layman’s terms, humans have Primary emotions, which are our most basic ones, generated by some external stimulus eg. fear in response to seeing a predator.
These are felt intuitively, and therefore without thinking.
Secondary emotions are more complex, sometimes made up of a combination of primary emotions. They have a cognitive element. For example, ‘sadness’ is a primary emotion but ‘regret’ might be a secondary emotion. I believe these secondary emotion are what we as humans have taught one another and are absent within animals.
Charles Darwin once noted that the variability in the sounds that birds make is suggestive of emotions that we too feel: soft notes while calmly nesting their eggs; harsh sounds when attacking an enemy. Birds so frequently respond to events in tones like we might use, which makes imply their primary emotions are similar to our own.
The stimulus/reaction of loss has to occur in my opinion, it’s the process of recovery that animals experience differently to us.
Humans may take years to recover from a loss, sometimes never recovering fully. The basic instinct to survive in wildlife is far greater than the instinct to remain in a state of emotion. The reaction of developing a secondary emotion hasn’t been taught, it simply hasn’t been witnessed, where we as humans are encapsulated by these very emotions in our everyday lives from a young age. This is where Josh and I are on the same page, and as he put it, “I believe animals feel in the moment but do not dwell on the past or plan for the future based on these emotions.”
A common question we hear from guests is, ‘Is it only Elephants that mourn?’
While it is true that they will touch and smell a carcass – or even just a spot where another elephant died years ago – I have seen monkeys in the Kruger National Park carrying their dead infants, and the constant calling of an impala ewe as a leopard drags its lifeless lamb away.
There is another story closer to home: I will never forget that very shortly after I arrived at Londolozi, the younger Tailless lioness died. Her sole remaining relative, her niece the current Tsalala female, stayed within only a short distance of where the Tailless female had died for a long time, sometimes contact calling.
If we observe enough, there is evidence to show that many animals show some form of what we know as mourning. Now, I don’t know if they know it as “mourning’’ but instinct kicks in to hang onto something they have lost.
Where we go wrong is looking at animal emotions from our own limited perspective. Their behaviour, often instinctive, we interpret as being founded upon emotion, whereas it is more often than not simply reactive, in the moment.
It’s a complex topic, but as we slowly explore it, it creates more and more of discussion and for me, fascination. What’s your take?