Weird Science: Animals and Love

What the hell is your cat thinking?

When I walk into my house at the end of a long day at work, my dog comes to greet me, wagging her tail and occasionally offering a slight jump of excitement (which is all she can manage — she’s nine). She barks at my mom when it’s time for her to cook dinner, almost demanding for her to go to the kitchen.

When we first got her, we thought she was nervous about being in a new house. She wouldn’t roll on her back for a tummy-scratch and always seemed eager to please, as if making sure we wouldn’t send her away again.

Did my dog ever feel any of these emotions? Was she nervous at first? Does she want my mom to make dinner? Is she happy to see me?

It is a common practice for people to impress human emotions on to the animals in our lives. We think of them as other members of the family, and believe they’re happy, sad, and anxious like the rest of us. Some even think our animals do the same, that they see us as simply large overgrown dogs that are part of their pack.

Using human characteristics in reference to non-human beings and objects is called anthropomorphism, and it’s a topic that many scientists wrestle with day to day. The huge question at hand is whether animals experience emotions like humans do.

There are two examples that can be used as either proof or disproof of the theory of animal emotions. First, we turn to the giants of Africa and Asia: the elephant. If your knowledge of the African bush is limited to Disney’s version of The Lion King, the first thing you may think of relating to elephants is the idea of an elephant graveyard.

The theory was that when an elephant knew its time was running out, it would head to a certain ‘sacred’ ground where it would die and decompose with the bones of hundreds of its ancestors surrounding it. Unfortunately, that’s completely a myth. (Even I didn’t know that until I started writing this.)

Elephants do seem to mourn the loss of another member of their family. They generally live in matriarchal packs that join up with the males for mating season, but sometimes they form a larger family group. When one their members dies, field researchers have seen elephants kicking up dust in a possible attempt to bury the deceased.

Often, elephants will take the tusks of the deceased member and carry it by their trunk with them for a certain amount of time, eventually dropping it and moving on. They do cry, supposedly in light of tragedy, but the scientific soundness of this theory is often questioned. It is also said that when an elephant passes by the site of the death of a family member, it will pause for a moment.

Some people say that elephant joy is easy to see as well. When greeting a family member or ‘friend,’ an elephant will wave its ears, trumpet loudly, and occasionally urinate on each other. Some say this is a sign that the elephant is happy to see each other.

I pose these examples with trepidation, as most of the information on elephant emotions (at least on the Internet) seems to be sappy articles written by people who describe in detail the different personalities of elephants they have lived around. Something always along the lines of, “That elephant is the quiet, shy type, while this one is a playful trouble-maker.” All of the examples I have given to you so far can be seen as either evidence for elephant emotion or evidence for the lack thereof.

Are the elephants actually trying to bury their dead for some elephant psychological reason, or is it to keep scavengers away from the food of the rest of the pack? Do elephants cry for the same reasons people do, or is it a physical reaction that has nothing to do with emotion?

How can you tell if an elephant is pausing in memorial as opposed to taking a momentary scan of the horizon for predators? Do the elephants greet each other because of their happiness of seeing each other, or as a way of showing pack hierarchy?

The problem with trying to figure out whether elephants are exhibiting emotions or simply reacting physically is that they can’t tell us what they are thinking (if anything). When Penny Patterson started to teach her baby gorilla Hanabi-ko (more recently named as Koko) sign language more than 25 years ago, she set out to answer this question.

Koko has been subject of much media attention through out the 80s and 90s, and is known somewhat affectionately as “the talking gorilla.” She can sign around 1,000 different words, and understands around 2,000 spoken English words.

Her IQ is supposedly between 75 to 95 (the average human IQ is 85 to 115). Koko used to also have a companion, a gray silverback gorilla named Michael, who died in 2000. When he was alive, he used around 600 signs.

There are two specific instances which are possibly the most illustrative of gorillas’ emotional capabilities. One occurred way back in 1985, when Koko’s kitten died. Koko had “asked” Penny for a pet cat, and received a tail-less gray-and-white tabby cat that she named “All-Ball.” All-Ball escaped one day and got run over by a car.

In response to Penny’s questions about the cat, Koko replied “Sleep cat,” “Cry,” “sad,” and “frown.” She still signs “frown” and “sad” when she sees pictures of All-Ball. (Koko has since had several kittens, including “Lipstick” and “Smoky”). The story of Koko’s kitten was written as a very popular children’s book back in the 80s.

Michael also had a very important moment when he seemed to recount the killings of his mother in the jungle by poachers. He seemed very despondent one morning, and when Penny asked him what was wrong, he signed such things as “loud noise,” “red,” and “scared.”

The legitimacy of the conversations that Koko has is highly debated. Often, it seems like Penny’s interpretations of what Koko is signing has gone beyond what’s scientifically sound. There is a famous AOL live chat with Koko, which has often been used to show the liberal assumptions made about Koko’s signs.

For instance, one question asked whether Koko likes to chat with other people. Koko replied, “fine nipple,” to which Penny interpreted that she was trying to say people, which sounds like nipple. (Seems like Koko might be very good at charades.)

Even the animals that seem to be able to communicate with us aren’t answering all our questions. We can never expect for a gorilla to say in perfect English syntax, “I miss my kitten,” nor can we expect to draw anything except speculation from an elephant pausing at the site of his loved one’s death. Even if animals feel emotions, who is to say they feel the same as humans do? Would happiness in a dog be the same as happiness in a person?

Emotion in itself is something that science cannot explain. What causes intense depression in one person may not affect someone else at all. Science can measure hormones, activity in certain parts of the brain, but it can’t measure sadness.

This is what intrigues me about the idea of animal emotions. Personally, I believe unconditionally that animals have emotions. But it is like faith; I can’t prove it, and I can’t really explain it without using vague terms.

Descartes argued that animals and machines are no different from each other; neither has a conscience and thus can never react to the world the same way that humans do. As we move forward in technology, the issue of anthropomorphism becomes more important — what happens if artificial life reaches a point where we impress our own emotions onto what is, unarguably, a machine? Will protesters appear that wear computer chip bikinis and demand for the rights of computers?

Maybe not, but 200 years ago, who would have believed that people would be doing the same for animals?

Article © 2002 by Katie Klimas