The question of what non-human animals experience is front and center in the zeitgeist. The acclaimed book An Immense World, by science journalist Ed Yong, delves into the remarkable sensory capacities and perceptions of other creatures. When Animals Dream, by philosopher David Peña-Guzman, looks at dreaming as evidence of mind. And other popular works—from naturalist Carl Safina’s Beyond Words and biologist Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows to journalist Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus and primatologist Frans de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug—argue that many non-human animals are individuals with lives that matter to them. 

These observations are significant, because the degree of care and concern we give to animals seems to depend on how we picture their inner lives. Most recently, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book Justice for Animals, argues that we human beings owe other animals—as individual persons—the freedom to live out their lives according to their full capabilities.

As animals ourselves, but as animals who prize our capacity to think (Homo sapiens means a “wise,” “knowing,” or “discerning” human being), we tend to judge and give consideration to other animals based on their smarts. Instead, I want to suggest that their capacity to feel and express feelings is what is truly essential. Emotion, it turns out, may even endow our fellow creatures with what we could term a “spiritual” life.

Emotion in non-human animals

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Emotion is displayed by animals all around us. Dolphins and orcas—both highly social species—demonstrate playfulness and loneliness, cheerfulness and affection. Elephants, who also live in close-knit groups, give every appearance of joy and sorrow. They seem to mourn their dead, and unfortunately experience something close to post-traumatic stress disorder. Baboons can become depressed, monkeys angry, pigs and calves terrified, and parrots cranky. Octopuses and crows clearly seem to prefer certain people. Fishes seek out caresses to relieve stress. And rats apparently enjoy being tickled!

Interestingly enough, while rats are commonly considered ugly and disgusting, in experiments a rat will show compassion by coming to the aid of a fellow rat in distress, even when it means having to share a treasured piece of chocolate. Not all humans demonstrate this trait.

The “poster children” for non-human emotions, in any case, are elephants, dolphins, and orcas.

Start with the way African elephants belonging to the same group greet one another after a separation. They rush together, flapping their ears and spinning in circles, emitting a loud chorus of rumbles and roars. One zoologist is convinced that “elephants feel a deep sense of joy at being reunited with friends. Their vocalizations express something like: “Wow! It’s simply fantastic to be with you again.” 

Elephants appear to be highly empathic; researchers have witnessed them assisting others who are injured. They also become agitated at the death of one of their own, and behave in a way that indicates grief. One well-documented case is of a matriarch named Eleanor. Weakened by age, Eleanor kept collapsing, and a fellow matriarch, Grace, kept trying to lift her onto her feet. Grace appeared distraught, her facial glands streaming. There are even examples of elephants becoming disconsolate when they come across the body of another species. In one instance, a young, orphaned elephant shrieked and moaned when it discovered the remains of its rhinoceros companion, killed by poachers.

The stories that marine biologists tell about orcas and dolphins are equally striking. One orphaned orca named Luna showed up in British Columbia’s Nootka Sound, miles from where he’d been born. He immediately began interacting with the local boaters and fishermen. For example, Luna would stay alongside a docked boat for hours as the people on it were busy delivering supplies and equipment. When the people left, he would leave, too. Yet if just one person remained aboard sleeping, Luna would often stay with the boat all night.

Once, Luna played a bit too energetically with a boat’s outboard engine. The skipper said, “Hey, Luna, could you leave that alone for a while?” And Luna immediately backed away. “A sense washed over me,” said the skipper, “that this orca was just as aware of living as I was: that he could perceive all the details that I could perceive, the feeling of atmosphere and sea, the texture of emotions.” 

On an equally poignant note, female bottlenose dolphins have been observed carrying dead calves—presumably their babies—on their back for days or even weeks. Observers infer it’s an expression of maternal grief. On one occasion, the mom was accompanied by four other dolphins—perhaps family members who were providing emotional support.

Lessons for us humans

There are several important lessons to be drawn here. First, it’s likely that numerous species feel their way through life because, as Charles Darwin asserted, differences between species are a matter of degree, not kind. Second, non-human animals are individuals with personalities. In Balcombe’s words, they have biographies, not merely biologies. Third, other animals may be more aware of feelings than we are, feel them more intensely, or experience different shades of feeling than we do. I call this “living closer to the bone.” Other creatures might well have stronger, more immediate feelings because, unlike us, they don’t appear to ruminate or analyze. Even if they can’t tell us what they’re experiencing, we would be foolish to rule this out. 

A swimming surgeonfish Fish seek out physical touch to relieve stress. © Bernard DUPONT / CC BY-SA 2.0

Other animals may even have perceptions we would recognize as spiritual, in the secular sense: beholding others as individuals who have value, understanding and acting on the deep connectedness among living creatures, and being able to transcend everyday existence through a sense of awe or beauty. (Vicki Zakrzewski described spirituality this way in a recent article for Greater Good.)

Consider that emotion always relates to our sense of ourselves in relationship with others. We’re moved to express sorrow, elation, loneliness, love…or jealousy, shame, indignation, fury. We demonstrate devotion to others or disdain. We have fun together, we mourn, we express gratitude. We try to help, we try to rescue. 

It boils down to “fellow feeling.” To the extent any individual of any species displays fellow feeling, I would argue, it is demonstrating spirituality. 

Three illustrative cases

A trio of anecdotes points up what I mean.

The first is what primatologist Jane Goodall experienced in the Gombe forest in the midst of her celebrated study of chimps in the 1960s. One particular day, she recalls, “Lost in awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness. It seemed to me that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself.” Goodall’s perception—of the unity of all nature—is something I wonder if other animals experience themselves. She, for one, is convinced that chimps can be spiritual.

The second account is from the late naturalist Adriaan Kortlandt. He once observed a wild chimp in the Congo “gaze at an especially beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors, and forsaking his customary evening meal in the process.” Was this chimp lost in reverie, marveling at the changing sky?

The last story appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. A female humpback whale became ensnared in an appalling tangle of crab traps and weighted fishing lines, part of humankind’s voluminous seaborne waste. Literally hundreds of yards of nylon rope were tightly wrapped around her body and her tail; one of the lines was in her mouth. The whale was badly cut and struggling to stay afloat. (Each of the dozen crab traps that hung off her weighed a full 90 pounds.) 

A rescue team dove underneath her, spending hours cutting away the ropes. It was a dangerous enterprise since one slap of the 50-foot whale’s tail could kill. Most remarkably, once the huge animal realized she was free, she hung around rather than leave the scene. Swimming in a large circle, she nuzzled each diver in turn until she had touched them all. One of the divers said, “It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it. . . . I never felt threatened.”

To me, these are all instances of spirituality on display.

Understanding others, understanding ourselves

The late, great neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp believed that “at the basic emotional level, all mammals are remarkably similar.” I suspect that, the more we learn about fish, birds, reptiles, cephalopods, and even insects, we will recognize further elemental similarities of feeling.

As rapidly as our species is despoiling and destroying nature, we must open our minds to new possibilities. A whopping dose of humility is in order—moving past the presumption that, because humans have tremendous mental powers, we must be the pinnacle of evolution and somehow separate from all other emoting creatures. 

Salvation lies in recognizing and respecting our core similarities. We must engage our compassion to preserve and protect nature’s other emotional and spiritual beings.

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