Research in the past couple of decades has finally confirmed what many have known for some time – that animals do indeed feel and have varying levels of emotional intelligence. Emotion is not an exclusively human characteristic. This is crucial in understanding the ethics behind a more benevolent and compassionate attitude towards the rest of life on the planet.
In his fantastic book titled “Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals,” ethologist Jonathan Balcombe sheds light on the discoveries made in recent years on animal behaviour, as well as offering profound insights into the inner emotional lives of animals.
A fascinating Newcastle University study showed that European starlings became pessimistic after being confined in barren cages. One group of starlings were housed socially with other birds for ten days in an environmentally rich cage with water baths and branches, whilst other starlings were left alone in smaller, barren cages.
They were then trained to forage by pulling the lids off of dishes in which worms were placed. White lids contained regular worms, whereas dark grey lids contained foul-tasting, quinine-flavoured worms. Both groups soon learned not to bother flipping the dark grey lids.
Then, dishes were introduced that had light grey lids. The starlings from the social, environmentally enriched group were far more likely to flip the light grey lids and sample the worm inside. Balcombe explains that the “starlings’ responses mirror those of humans suffering from depression or anxiety, who are also known to have more negative expectations and judgements about events and to interpret ambiguous stimuli unfavorably.”
What studies such as these show is that humans are far from being the only species that have moods and feelings. Other animals have attitudes, expectations and emotional states that shaped by previous experiences. Anyone who has rescued a cat or dog that has suffered past trauma knows that they behave very differently and have different behavioural responses compared to others that have had stress-free, healthy, happy upbringings.
The implications of these sort of findings are far-reaching. If animals do indeed have rich inner emotional lives, then the way we treat them and the impact it has on their well-being is far more cruel and devastating that we ever would have previously assumed. As we break down the self-imposed barriers between ourselves and other species we can gradually began to look upon our fellow creatures with compassion, paving the way for mutual co-existence as opposed to dominion over the rest of life.
See also: Cognitive Intelligence in Fellow Animals