Swimming off the coast of Argentina, a female right whale singles out just one of the suitors that are hotly pursuing her. After mating, the two cetaceans linger side by side, stroking one another with their flippers and finally rolling together in what looks like an embrace. The whales then depart, flippers touching, and swim slowly side by side, diving and surfacing in perfect unison until they disappear from sight.
In Tanzania, primatologists studying chimpanzee behavior record the death of Flo, a troop's 50-year-old matriarch. Throughout the following day, Flo's son, Flint, sits beside his mother's lifeless body, occasionally taking her hand and whimpering. Over the next few weeks, Flint grows increasingly listless,withdrawing from the troop -- despite his siblings' efforts to bring him back -- and refusing food. Three weeks after Flo's death, the formerly healthy young chimp is dead, too.
A grief - stricken chimpanzee? Leviathans in love? Most people, raised on Disney versions of sentient and passionate beasts, would say that these tales, both true, simply confirm their suspicions that animals can feel intense, humanlike emotions.
Still, the idea of animals feeling emotions remains controversial among many scientists. Researchers' skepticism is fueled in part by their professional aversion to anothropomorphism, the very nonscientific tendency to attribute human qualities to nonhumans. Many scientists also say that it is impossible to prove animals have emotions using standard scientific methods -- repeatable observations that can be manipulated in controlled experiments -- leading them to conclude that such feelings must not exist. Today, however, amid mounting evidence to the contrary, “ the tide is turning radically and rapidly,” says Bekoff, who is at the forefront of this movement.
Even the most strident skeptics of animal passion agree that many creatures experience fear -- which some scientists define as a “ primary” emotion that contrasts with “ secondary” emotions such as love and grief. Unlike these more complex feelings, fear is instinctive, they say,and requires no conscious thought.
But beyond such instinctual emotions and their predictable behavioral responses, the possibility of more complex animal feelings -- those that entail mental processing -- is difficult to demonstrate.
Because feelings are intangible, and so tough to study scientifically, “ most researchers don't even want to talk about animal emotions,” says Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of Affective Neuroscience. Within his field, Panksepp is a rare exception, who believes that similarities between the brains of humans and other animals suggest that at least some creatures have true feelings. “ Imagine where we'd be in physics if we hadn't inferred what's inside the atom,” says Panksepp. “ Most of what goes on in nature is invisible, yet we don't deny that it exists.”
The new case for animal emotions comes in part from the growing acceptability of field observations, particularly when they are taken in aggregate. The latest contribution to this body of knowledge is a new book, The Smile of a Dolphin, which presents personal reports from more than 50 researchers who have spent their careers studying animals -- from cats, dogs, bears, and chimps to birds, iguanas, and fish. Edited by Bekoff, who says it will finally “ legitimize” research on animal emotions.
Skeptics remain unconviced. “ A whale may behave as if it's in love, but you can't prove what it's feeling, if anything,” says neuroscientist LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain. He maintains that the question of feeling boils down to whether or not animals are conscious. And though animals “ may have snapshots of self? awareness,” he says, “ the movie we call consciousness is not there.” Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison, agrees that higher primates, including apes and chimps, are the only animals that have demonstrated self-consciousness so far. Still, he believes that there are other creatures that “ may at least have antecedents of feelings.”
Or probably more, say Bekoff and his colleagues. Their most convincing argument, perhaps, comes from the theory of evolution, widely accepted by biologists of all stripes. Citing similarities in the brain anatomy and chemistry of humans and other animals, neuroscientist Siviy asks:“ If you believe in evolution by natural selection, how can you believe that feelings suddenly appeared, out of the blue, with human beings?” Goodall says scientists who use animals to study the human brain, then deny that animals have feelings, are “ illogical.”
In the end, what difference does it really make? According to many scientists, resolving the debate over animal emotions could turn out to be much more than an intellectual exercise. If animals do indeed experience a wide range of feelings, it has profound implications for how humans and animals will interact in the future. Bekoff, hopes that greater understanding of what animals are feeling will spur more stringent rules on how animals should be treated, everywhere from zoos and circuses to farms and backyards.