To the scientific community, an animal is essentially still perceived as nothing much more than a robot with an array of chemical processes, without the ability to register much more than the crudest pain or fear—certainly none of the more complicated human feelings such as excitement, boredom, annoyance, anger or suspicion.
Mark S. Blumberg, of the University of Iowa, and Greta Sokoloff, of Indiana University in Bloomington, number among the most vocal proponents of the behaviorist view, claiming that the idea that animals process emotion is pure fiction and ‘anthropomorphic’.
A variation of this theme is the suggestion that animals have a kind of ‘animal consciousness’ that is far less sophisticated than ours.
So it came as a shock to many in the field when researchers at the University of Stirling in the UK published stills in Current Biology last week from video footage they’d taken showing how chimpanzees in a UK safari park handle both the deaths of their children and one of their senior members.
What made this footage so precious and rare was the fact that very few researchers have been witness to the response of chimps at the very moment of death among one of their group members.
The evidence to date had showed that chimpanzees react in a noisy, frenzied manner to the traumatic death of one of their members. Nevertheless, in this instance the dying and ultimate passing of the old female was dealt with in a highly dignified and empathetic manner.
In the days before the old chimp’s death, the group focused attentively on her, offering much caressing and grooming. As soon as she died, they attempted to test her for signs of life. Although the group grew quiet and left quietly shortly after her passing, her adult daughter returned and spent the night with her. All of the others avoided sleeping on the platform where she’d died, even though previously it had been one of their favorite spots.
For some days afterwards, the chimps comported themselves with a subdued dignity – as though they were part of a funeral cortege.
“We found several similarities between the chimpanzee’s behavior toward the dying female, and their behavior after her death, and some reactions of humans when faced with the demise of an elderly group member or relative,’ said James Anderson of the U of Stirling team.
Although chimps are not thought to have a religious beliefs or rituals surrounding death, they certainly were acting like they did.
After death do us part
In the other study, a University of Oxford team observed the rituals surrounding five deaths among an isolated community of chimpanzees in the forests near Bossou, Guinea.
When two infants died, the mothers continued to carry their babies’ corpses on their backs for weeks, even months. Even though the bodies had mummified, the mothers continued to groom them, brought them into their nests during rest periods, and carried them always on their backs throughout the course of the day.
This extended ritual enabled them to gradually ‘let go’ of their attachment to the infant’s earthly presence. As time when on, they allowed others to handle them, separated from the bodies for longer and even consented to having other young chimps carry off and ‘play’ with the corpses.
Human beings have been credited as the only species with the ability to reason, speak language, make and use tools and to create cultural variation.
Increasingly, scientists are having to concede that animals have sentience — the ability to have a conscious experience, to compare and understand experience, to have an internal representation of what is going on in their lives — in effect, to know that they know.
In fact, as these studies demonstrate, animals display an array of sophisticated emotion as well as a great degree of self-awareness, possibly even a sense of larger consciousness after death.
The boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think, ” says Anderson.
‘Specism’ — our usual attitude to animal emotion — is also being challenged with the advent of sophisticated brain-imaging technologies. A number of scientists, in studying the brains of both animals and humans, have discovered remarkable similarities in emotional biology between species.
We now know that the brain biochemistry connected with certain sophisticated human feelings is found in a range of other species.
According to Jaak Panksepp, professor emeritus of the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, animals display evidence of a vast array of secondary ‘social’ emotions: separation distress; sexual attraction and lust; social attachment and bonding; and play.
These secondary emotions are of the more complicated variety as they require reflection and choice — a weighing up of the effects of different actions.
Panksepp and others now believe that secondary emotion is not a uniquely human trait. As noted animal scientist Temple Grandin says, the difference between animal and human emotions is a matter of degree, rather than of kind.
Through understanding that animals lead complex emotional lives, have passionate relationships with each other and adore their children, and may even have a respect for death must come a moral obligation to change the way we treat animals — for testing in science, for food or as adornment, or purely as an object of our amusement.
Perhaps our most important lesson as beings tortured by choice and cognitive reasoning is to learn from an animal’s purity of emotion. Unconditional love comes naturally to a dog or cat; animals aren’t ambivalent or repressed about their emotions.
As Grandin says, there’s no such thing as a love-hate relationship in the animal kingdom. “If an animal loves you, he loves you, no matter what. He doesn’t care what you look like or how much money you make.”