Marc Bekoff is an exceptional ethologist who has written and lectured widely on the subject of animals’ emotions. I heard him speak some years ago when he discussed grief in animals, not just elephants and dolphins as you might imagine, but in foxes and magpies, sea lions and others. In one of his books, he shares this: ‘If I assume that animals have subjective feelings of pain, fear, hunger and the like, and if I am mistaken in doing so, no harm will have been done; but if I assume the contrary, when in fact animals do have such feelings, then I open the way to unlimited cruelties… Animals must have the benefit of the doubt, if indeed there be any doubt’.
Animals have emotions. It’s really no surprise or secret, but from the regular headlines proclaiming that scientists have just found [insert species] feels [insert emotion] you would think that each revelation is, indeed, huge news. Research published just this month, for example, found that pigs have personalities and that they express themselves through vocalising. Really?! If only they’d asked a five-year-old, they would have got the same answer and saved themselves a fortune.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of sharing their home with a non-human animal will know for absolute certain that their companion has a rich range of emotions. Some, like my dog Alfie, are easy for apes like me to understand. I can, for example, see ‘dare I hope?’ when I get my coat on, apprehension when a dog she doesn’t know runs towards her, and pure joy when she spots a friend. The rabbits who live with us – both rescued after being abandoned – are less easy to read. Their facial expressions don’t change all that much, but I spend a lot of time with them, and can understand something of what they are feeling from the way they move and position their bodies: the alert pose, totally still, with ears pricked forward says they are concerned that there is something they have not yet identified approaching; the head pushed down, ears pressed back, is a plea, ‘please groom me’; the leaping and jumping and belting around the garden at high velocity screams ‘LIFE IS GOOD!‘ Of course they feel a lot more than that and if I don’t understand everything they feel or express to one another, then that is my ignorance, not their lack of emotion.
At Farm Sanctuary in the US, a pig named Hope, who struggled with mobility problems, was befriended by a younger pig called Johnny. He looked out for her, protected her to ensure no other pigs stole her food, and kept her warm at night. When Hope died of old age, Johnny was devastated, and died suddenly, even though he was only young. Now, why would we think that a pig does not grieve for her piglets dying right in front of her while she lies trapped inside a farrowing crate? Of course she does.
If you’ve read anything of the dairy industry, you’ll know that cows bellow for their calves when they are taken away. Sheep do, too. I once lived next door to a farm and was woken early one morning by the sheep calling and calling. It was deafening. Later that day, while they continued to call, I bumped into the farmer and asked what was going on. ‘They always do that when we take the lambs’, she said. I remember replying ‘They must really miss them’ and she looked at me as though I had just said the most amusing thing she had ever heard, but I can’t think of anything less funny than calling and calling for a child who will never come back.
Jeffrey Masson, author of the wonderful book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon writes that many people cannot conceive of a chicken as a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, let alone an individual. They are somehow bottom of the pecking order of animals we care about, and ‘it’ is all they are accorded. But of course chickens have personalities and preferences, and different ways of expressing themselves. Dolly, one of my rescued battery hens, celebrated every egg she laid with a tremendous ballyhoo of exclamations. She was pushy and demanding – once she had regained her health – and loved nothing better than to fly past my face at speed as I opened the back door to go in search of her favourite food (spaghetti) in her preferred eating location (my lounge rug). Her friend Hilda was a gentler soul, and got her pleasures from more chicken-like pursuits, such as sunbathing and scratching up my flowerbeds. Both were happy, but they expressed it differently. In the unit where they had been incarcerated, neither would have known what happiness was, and it was wonderful to watch them discover what a good life meant to them.
In all the propaganda about high welfare in British farming, there is no talk of happiness. For scientists, measurable outcomes are all that’s important. So when research found that broken bones were more prevalent in free-range hens than battery caged birds, it was announced – by some – that cages are better for the birds and make them happier. But good welfare isn’t having a bit of rope to play with inside a filthy unit, or staying healthy just long enough to reach optimum slaughter weight. It is having the freedom and opportunity to find out whether you are the kind of person who wants to sleep in the sun, or eat spaghetti off a rug.