Do animals think? Do they experience joy, grief, even love? Do they laugh? These are some of the questions raised by Barbara J. King and Virginia Morell in their touching and provocative explorations of the latest research on animal minds and animal emotions. As Morell swiftly outlines in her introduction, the past three decades have witnessed a sea change regarding the kinds of questions that can be asked about animals and the kinds of language that can be used to describe them.
Animal research in the 20th century was dominated by the theories of Pavlov, who regarded all animal behaviors as conditioned, mechanical reactions and dismissed the very mention of animal emotions as anthropomorphism. Such views have increasingly given way to stories of animals as agents in their own right, and in these two books animals share the spotlight with their researchers as protagonists with their own special quirks and talents.
The change is significant for what it suggests about animal testing and research more generally. “It wasn’t a coincidence,” Morell notes, “that the use of animals in biomedical studies and pharmacological testing, and as industrially raised and hunted meat and fur products, grew exponentially while behaviorism flourished.” As Rene Descartes acknowledged in the 17th century, if animals are like machines, humans commit no crime in eating or killing them.
Both authors attribute many of the recent changes to Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in the wild. Untrained in scientific protocol, Goodall attributed personalities and individual life histories to the chimps she studied and referred to as “she” or “he,” but not “it.” Goodall was convinced, moreover, that it was just a matter of time before observable evidence for animals having an inner, mental life would proliferate to the point where it could not be dismissed.
For Morell and King, that time is now, and it is easy to be convinced by their well-told and often heart-wrenching stories of monkeys clinging to dead infants, dolphins rescuing swimmers from sharks, a bird traveling 8,000 miles every season to mate with his injured and immobilized partner, or a 7-year-old elephant calf slowly stroking the remains of his dead mother’s skull. This last story appears in both books and is taken from an account by researchers Cynthia Moss and Karen McComb, who study elephants in the wild. Like the other stories, it’s compelling, but its status as evidence of grief is inconclusive. Follow-up research showed that elephants do prefer the bones of other elephants to those of different species but not that they recognize one elephant’s bones over another’s. (Ivory might offer a different story, McComb admits, but that has not been tested because of the importance of keeping ivory away from poachers.)
Partial to the kinds of stories they know lay readers enjoy, the authors also draw attention to the evidentiary weakness of anecdote and the need for repeatable experiments. Both writers are hopeful that, with increasing proof of the ways humans and animals share needs and emotions, animals will receive better protection in the lab and in the wild.