Do Animals Feel Emotion?

    An average day of a human fills to the brim with varying emotions. Whether it is frustration when the barista gets a coffee order wrong, happiness when meetings with friends, or sadness after failing a test. Regardless, everyone feels and expresses emotions throughout their life. Is it the same for animals? Do they feel empathy, and have a consciousness? The short answer is yes. One only needs to look at a dog wagging its tail to come to that conclusion, but it’s also backed up with research.  Animals get excited, happy, and scared, in the same way, humans do.

    In a Netherlands zoo, an elderly chimpanzee, Mama, was close to taking her last breath, weak and dying. Biology professor, Jan van Hooff, who had known the primate for four decades, entered her enclosure—something usually too dangerous to attempt because of the strength of chimpanzees and the chance of violent attacks. During their encounter, she grinned, then reached and embraced him, and rhythmically petted the back of his head in a comforting gesture that chimpanzees use to quiet whimpering infants. She was happy to see her companion. As primate behavior researcher, Frans de Waal wrote in his book, Mama’s Last Hug, “She was letting him know not to worry.” Succeeding her death, the other chimpanzees were touching, washing, and grooming her body, actions similar to what humans do after death. In another instance, a younger female, Kuif, couldn’t produce enough milk to keep her babies alive and was very grateful when DeWaal approached her and taught her how to feed an infant with a bottle. Kuif even learned how to remove the bottle when the baby needed to burp. Following this, every time DeWaal saw Kuif, he was showered with affections and expressions that seemed to thank him.

    Emotions aren’t restricted to only primates either. The University of Bristol in England’s Michael Mendl, an animal welfare researcher and psychologist Elizabeth Paul, focused on studying a well-known factor of human psychology: people’s emotive states, negative or positive, and how it biases their thoughts and decisions. First, they taught rats to associate one tone with a positive connotation that included a tasty treat and one with a negative stimulus (an unpleasant noise.) The rats learned to press a lever when they heard the “positive” tone and vice versa. The rats were then either placed in a predictable living environment or the others in a variable one. A few days later, when researchers played a beep with a wavelength right between the positive and negative tone, the animals living in the pleasing environment pressed the lever quickly, showing they were optimistic. On the contrary, those that lived in unpredictability left the lever alone or took longer to press it, which showed their pessimistic tendencies. The researcher’s results proved that the rats’ behaviors could mean that they judged the tone based on whether they felt good about the world and acted with bias. Since this study, scientists have used this test and other variations to measure positive and negative affect in 22 different species, including mammals, birds, and insects.

    Studies in this area are still being experimented with. Interest isn’t the only reason to study emotions in animals. Understanding how animals feel and react to different situations can help us improve the lives of those in our care.