A Beautiful Mind: Exploring the Emotional Lives of Animals

By on August 2, 2010 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Jonathan Balcombe speaks at Taking Action for Animals
Pete Marovich/The HSUS
Balcombe at Taking Action for Animals.

I’ve heard Jonathan Balcombe speak before, and read his books, including his latest work, “Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals." Based on that experience, I knew he’d have much to offer attendees at this year’s Taking Action for Animals conference, where we invited him to speak. We also published a Q&A with him earlier this year in All Animals, The HSUS’s member magazine. In this telling interview, Jonathan is joined by fellow ethologist Marc Bekoff, author of “The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint.” Together, they offer moving insight into the animal mind, and underscore the moral implications of what we have learned from the close study of animal behavior.

In case you didn’t catch the All Animals interview I wanted to share a portion of it with you today, and you can download the full article here or find it in your March/April issue of the magazine.

Q: Have you ever had any “eureka” moments while studying animal behavior?
BALCOMBE: Six years ago, when I was bird watching at a nature center in Assateague, Va., I watched two crows fly over and land on a decrepit billboard, and their interaction was clearly pleasurable: One of them was soliciting a neck rub from the other repeatedly and giving the [other] one a neck rub. They looked like best buddies or maybe a mated pair. That made me think about animal pleasure, which none of my biology teachers addressed, because science has essentially neglected that huge subject. And so I am grateful to those crows because they lit a little light bulb over my head, and life has never been the same.

Q: Why choose animal pleasure as a topic of study?
BALCOMBE: We need to recognize the richness of animal lives—that it isn’t just about avoiding pain but also about seeking pleasure. And that has huge moral implications: that life has intrinsic value if you can feel pleasure. Pleasure is pretty distinctive in animals, and there is quite a lot of really great research out there—rigorous studies with repeated, carefully designed data sets and analyses. For example, rats exhibit laughter and mirth when given neck rubs or being tickled, and a horse’s heart rate goes down significantly when he is brushed in certain places where he may be groomed naturally by another horse.

Q: Why choose animal morals as a topic of study?
BEKOFF: It became clear to me that when animals play, there are rules of the game and there is a moral to it and an ethical mood. When they violate the moral code, they pay for it. If animals are moral, it ups the ante in the sense of who they are. Not only are they smart, adaptable, and emotional, but they know right from wrong, and that sends a strong message for their cognitive emotional skills.

Q: Why are some scientists averse to exploring the possibility of animal morality and emotional experience?
BALCOMBE: It’s threatening to us because it requires us to revisit the whole paradigm of our relationship with animals. If animals are moral and have virtue and a sense of ethics, then how can we continue to treat them the way we do, to keep them in cages and slaughter them by the billions?

Q: Why are people so drawn to stories about animals, especially those that pose the possibilities of rich emotional lives?
BEKOFF: Because people are feeling an incredible distance from nature and animals. They get busy and their lives are fractured. I have always said that we have old brains and new bottlenecks: We have Paleolithic brains, and we are living in new times, and new times are ripping us away from nature. And people miss it, and the rubber band is expanding, if you will, such that it’s going to snap pretty soon.
BALCOMBE: We are all animals, and we know what it’s like to be an animal. We experience it in every living, breathing moment. I see a squirrel outside running along the fence, and I’m just captivated. I know that squirrel isn’t just alive—she has a life and she has experiences and emotions.


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