Emotional Intensity in Animals

The Emotional Lives of Animals

animal emotions

Whether a few animals feel emotions less or more intensely compared to humans may depend on which emotion is involved. Animals doubtless feel pity for each other, occasionally even passing beyond the species barrier, but it appears unlikely, though not impossible, that they feel it as intricately or as intensely as humans do. For instance, it is doubtful that the dolphins care as much about humans butchering one another as some humans care about the slaughter of dolphins by other humans. Yet this may only be due to the fact they do not have the same access to information that humans do. Maybe they know and have rules of nonintervention in human matters. Perhaps they rightfully are indifferent, or take a longer view.

There are some emotions, on the one hand, that humans might experience less intensely than some animals. A lot of folks have had the feeling, for example, that some animals appear more capable of joy. Among the explanations for the popularity of watching and listening to birds is the joy of hearing birdsongs, which seem to them joyful. As Julian Huxley, describing the courtship of herons winding their long necks together, wrote: "Of this I can only say that it seemed to bring such a pitch of emotion that I could have wished to be a heron that I might experience it."

The strength of emotion in other animals has been a recurrent source of human envy. Joseph Wood Krutch writes: "It is difficult to see how one can deny that the dog, apparently beside himself at the prospect of a walk with his master, is feeling a joy the intensity of which it is beyond our power to think much less to share. In the same manner his dejection can at least seem to be no less bottomless. Maybe the kind of thought of which we're capable dims both at the same time that it causes us less victims of either. Was any man, one wonders, ever as dejected as a lost dog? Probably certain of the animals can be both more elated and more utterly desolate than any man ever was."

To analyze questions like these it is critical to treat animals as members of their own species. Treating them as either machines or people besmirches them. Recognition of their emotional lives is the first step; discerning their emotional lives are their own and not ours is the next. At the same time, if humans don't have peers as cognitive beings and creatures of elaborate cultures, as emotional beings we're anything but alone. Is there a reason why we must try to comprehend the world of animal emotions, which lives on some intangible plane between the measurable worlds of oxytocin levels in a cat's bloodstream and the cat's purring? Why not desist from hypothesizing the cat's happiness? The answer is that emotions are in a real sense where we live, what we care about. Human life can't be understood without emotions. To leave questions of animal emotion as forever out of reach and imponderable is arbitrary intellectual helplessness.