Emotional Animals


Today at lunchtime my coworkers and I had a debate on the controversial topic: “Do animals have emotions?”  I say no.  “But Joy, aren’t you a self-described animal lover?” you may ask.  Well, yes, yes I am.  And as much as I’d like to believe animals have emotions, I just can’t. 

Although I don’t believe animals have feelings, I do believe we humans tend to anthropomorphize our pets. Anthropomorphism is defined as “attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.”  A big cause of this, in my opinion, are all of those Disney movies we watched as children!  You know the ones, with singing fish, frogs, dogs, bears, cats, lions, meerkats, warthogs, hyenas, crabs, ants, toys, trees, and yes even furniture and appliances

This has affected me in embarrassing ways from a young age.  As a child I would feel guilt about bringing only one stuffed animal to camp.  What if the others at home felt rejected?  All right, I’m not going to lie…I still fight that feeling when I only hug the neck of my stuffed rhinoceros and not Rupert the monkey, too.  (He wears a sweater vest, it’s SO cute!)  Anyway.  I also had this guilt about my clothing.  Sometimes I wore certain t-shirts because I felt bad for them (thank goodness I’m over that).  Even now when I kill a spider, I wonder if its family is plotting their revenge on me (hello, James and the Giant Peach). 

So of course if we were raised believing our toaster has aspirations to sing on Broadway and the ant scouting out my picnic is only trying to feed his family of twelve children, we will also believe our dogs and cats experience emotions such as love, grief, jealousy, and spite.  When I come home from work and my poodle greets me at the door, wiggling her backside and smiling up at me, I like to think she does it because she loves me and enjoys my company.

But…the rational side of me just won’t believe it.  I remember learning somewhere in my educational journey that animals just don’t have that part in a human’s brain which enables them to feel complex emotions.  Sure, they can feel fear and pleasure, those emotions that are directly related to our primal instincts.  But depression?  Infatuation?  I don’t think so.  Instead, I think we see animals’ behaviors and interpret them to mean whatever we want them to.  When we see a chimp grinning from ear to ear, we think he must have a jovial, clown-like personality.  But did you know chimps actually smile when they feel stressed or nervous? 

Luckily, I found this article in the Seattle Times that discussed the issue, and this quote to back me up: “[University of Washington researcher Jim Ha] doesn’t deny that many animals, including, dogs, cats, primates and even crows have simple, physiologically triggered responses. But higher emotions, such as grief, love, jealousy, envy and spite come from a different part of the brain and require more than just a burst of brain chemicals. They require a neocortex, a key part of the brain used for higher cognition, which animals have in varying degrees.”  That’s what I’m saying!  Thanks, Jim.

This may be hard for some of you to read.  No one likes to think that the dog they’ve grown up with doesn’t actually love them…but hey, I don’t know exactly where I stand on the issue anyway.  Especially when I think back to the movie “March of the Penguins” when they sent up those bleating cries to the heavens as they mourned their lost young.  (If you ever want to laugh your butt off, ask me to do my impression of it…) 

What do you think?  Do animals have feelings?  Discuss!


5 thoughts on “Emotional Animals

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  1. I think this is a wonderful article, and you’ve done a great job in being unbiased. Also in response to what Sheena said, the article does mention that the key component is the neocortex, and some animals may have that in varying degrees. However, no animal, has the ability to smile the way we do.


  2. One fine day, Zhuang Zi and his friend, Hui Zi were strolling on the Bridge of Hao…

    Zhuang Zi: “Look at how happy the fish are just swimming around in the river.”
    Hui Zi: “How do you know they are happy? You are not a fish.”
    Zhuang Zi: “And you are not me. How do you know I don’t know the fish are happy?”
    Hui Zi: “Of course I’m not you, and I don’t know what you think; but I do know that you’re not a fish, and so you couldn’t possibly know the fish are happy.”
    Zhuang Zi: “Look, when you asked me how I knew the fish were happy, you already knew that I knew the fish were happy. I knew it from my feelings standing on this bridge.”

    ZhuangZi (369?-286? b.c.)


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