Are You Afraid of Knowing How Animals Feel?

What “When Elephants Weep” wants to tell you

Kim-Yun Eun-mi 2020-06-22

What emotions do animals feel? Before asking this question, the following one has to be dealt with first: Do animals have feelings? From a common-sense standpoint, naturally animals feel. It makes sense to people who have ever raised animals. However, there is a huge gap between common-sense views and scientific ones. From the evolutionary perspective in particular, as animals are living creatures to whom breeding is the single goal in life, their behaviors are motivated only by genetic interests. So, no matter what, various emotions of animals are being interpreted as merits for survival.


Moreover, many people, though admitting that animals have feelings, still underestimate them. They say that even if animals feel, they cannot feel emotions as noble as those humans feel. 


▲ “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy


The book “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals”, co-authored by a psychiatrist and a biologist, explains various emotions experienced by animals with a large number of examples. The authors point out that the argument that they have no emotions is used to justify the persecution of animals. In other words, as it is believed that only humans are able to enjoy a life full of unique and noble emotions, the abuse or persecution of animals is acceptable.


This, a kind of anthropocentrism, is analogous to the logic used to discriminate against groups like women or indigenous people. In its entry on animals, “The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics of 1908” says that “barbarians think that animals have more complex sets of thoughts and emotions and a wider range of knowledge and capacity than they actually have.” It is like arguing that only “inferior” humans, who are themselves close to animals, value beasts.


This book states that there is some reason for the scientific community to deny the emotions of animals. When anthropocentrism goes so far as to personify all animals, it hinders objective observation. All the expressions like “hunger makes wolves cruel,” “benevolent dolphins,” and “crows as calculating as humans,” are the results of personification. They can be found in TV animal programs which explain all behavior patterns of animals by reflecting them in human society. Especially by personifying the behavior patterns of male and female animals, the programs occasionally cause gender discrimination within human society on the grounds that it is “natural.” It does not make sense to compare humans with animals as there is not enough knowledge of animal life.


However, the scientific community has found it a lot harder to look deep into animals’ feelings themselves because of its great emphasis on objectivity. Jane Goodall, known as the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, confessed that she had been harshly criticized for using words such as “infancy”, “adolescence” and “excitement.” In my view, today’s research on animals focuses on intellectual capacity like language use and self-perception, but it should also explore the feelings that animals experience. Of course, emotions cannot be perfectly proven by science. The inner side of another is ultimately unfathomable. But humans try to find out how others feel, so that they can communicate with each other. This is also true for animals.


Animals feel the same emotions as humans do, such as fear, hope and despair, love and friendship, sorrow and joy, and rage and cruelty. As for friendship, it can exist between animals of different species. Horses often make friends with other animals like goats, and in rare cases, some animals even raise animals different from their species. For example, because a chimpanzee named Lucy looked bored, her keeper gave her a kitten. At first, Lucy disliked it. But by their third encounter, her attitude changed and she groomed its fur, cradled it to sleep, and took it around wherever she went.


▲ Are You Afraid of Knowing How Animals Feel?   ©Feminist Journal Ilda


When it comes to love, each animal shows a different pattern. It is generally thought that animals are divided into two types: the promiscuously mating one and the “faithful” one. But that is not true. Even the parent-child relationship in animals is considered flexible. One mother mouse adopted a baby mouse together with a baby rabbit, and there are countless cases in which dogs or cats adopted an orphaned skunk or a young pig.


Meanwhile, war breaks out even among animals that live much more peacefully than humans. Unprovoked attacks or rapes are sometimes discovered. Cruelty also exists. Some reports show that out of twelve of cats put in a cage, two were ostracized without any special reason so that they could not feed themselves without their keeper’s protection. So, people sometimes shudder at animals’ hard-heartedness. Even the altruism shown by animals, as Richard Dawkins argued, is interpreted only as a behavior that is done because of a better chance of survival genetically. However, kindness and cruelty, and sympathy and cold-heartedness coexist in animals. The evidence for one side does not disprove the existence of the other.


Such research on animals’ emotions demands that the relationship between humans and animal be newly formed. The authors strongly argue that the scientific establishment should make the practice of animal experimentation transparent and open to the public and acknowledge that animals suffer from experiments. Of course, even if animals have feelings, they cannot be the same as humans. The emotions that humans and animals feel are neither the same nor inferior or superior, just different.


Meet “an elephant who keeps a pet mouse; a chimpanzee awaiting the return of her dead baby; a bear lost in rapture as it watches the sunset; ice-skating buffalo; a parrot who means what he says; and a dolphin inventing her own games”.


By Kim-Yun Eun-mi

Published: December 13, 2005

Translated by Lee Mi-kyeong


*Original article:

기사입력 : 2020-06-22

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