Can we talk about animal emotions now? (part 1)

In her first blog about animal emotions Georgina Allen describes current knowledge on emotions and how they relate to animal welfare.

Lately, more and more discussions have been had around animals having complex, intelligent emotions and the implications of this. In fact, various researchers in animal welfare have been gently pushing this concept for many years now. From attesting that animals grieve to ravens potentially having theory of mind, animal sentience and the capacity for many species to be able to experience complex emotional intelligence is becoming increasingly accepted.

With our current knowledge of how emotions are derived, this shouldn't come as a surprise. The ability to have a spectrum of emotions doesn't necessarily require a complex cognitive process, in fact all mammals share the same structures within the limbic system that are essential in the manifestation of emotions, and while birds have some structural differences, they are functionally the same.

What are emotions, and how do they relate to animal welfare?

Emotions are effectively our stabilisers, directing us along a path that in the past ensured our survival. They have evolved to be more than that now; helping us and other animals have rich, deep and complex lives. From the perspective of animal welfare, we need to be recognising these emotional dimensions experienced by other nonhuman species and doing more to ensure the positive expression of emotions for those in our care. Like us, an animal's emotional capacity is greater than trying to avoid negative experiences. We should be trying to not only minimise these negative experiences, but provide for those rewarding behaviours that animals find emotionally positive too. It is simply not enough to just ensure animals have good physical health, are being kept in clean and safe environments and can carry out basic behaviours.

However, if emotions are so important to animal welfare, why haven't we talked about them before?

Our emotional capacity is linked to our sentience or consciousness and Charles Darwin actually wrote about animal consciousness in 1872 but for most of the 20th century we showed little inclination to scientifically explore the inner lives of animals. In fact, many researchers saw emotions as superfluous or irrelevant for humans too. More recently, while emotions have more readily been discussed, animal welfare scientists have tended to focus on the negative emotions as they can often provide the more measurable behaviours or indices. However, by mitigating negative emotions that may result in a more neutral state of welfare, it does not necessarily create a positive state - a state that the animal itself will be actively seeking.

But as we start considering the promotion of positive emotions more when talking about welfare, are we falling into a trap of applying our own perceptions of emotions on animals? Feelings, particularly positive ones are fairly inaccessible from a measurable and scientific perspective, and the anthropomorphism accusations start getting floated, putting even the most savvy of scientists on edge. Well, while a degree of anthropomorphism is required to talk about animal emotions, this is simply because we as humans, can only really think within in our own conceptual and subjective norms. The German biologist, Gordon Burghardt introduced the term "critical anthropomorphism" which essentially is using your own human intuition and understanding as a starting point for understanding animal cognition. So given the evidence, what we perceive as happiness in other species could in fact be exactly just that.

What then does this really mean for the animals we care for, and can we use it in our day-to-day management of them? Read on, in Georgina's second blog 'Can we talk about animal emotions now? (part 2)'.


* This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog belong solely to the blog owner and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.