Do animals experience emotion like we do? (Think Mr. G and Jellybean)

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 27, 2014 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

Mr. G and Jellybean appeared on YouTube a little over a month ago and became viral-video stars. Footage of the reunion of the goat and the donkey — viewed nearly 6 million times — was a clear example, some said, of how animals experience emotions, just like you and me.


The pair were rescued from a Southern California animal hoarder, then sent to separate animal sanctuaries. Mr. G ended up at Animal Place in Grass Valley, Calif. There, the goat lay — depressed, the staff said. He refused to eat or go outside, remaining in a corner for days.

So Animal Place fetched Jellybean and brought him to live with Mr. G, who immediately perked up, trotted outside to see the donkey and began eating. Happy. And still happy, Animal Place told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week.

Mr. G and Jellybean

Although the video is touching, are these animals experiencing genuine emotion — or is it an example of people projecting their feelings onto animals? Are we anthropomorphizing Mr. G?

After viewing the video, we asked several experts on animal behavior whether animals had the ability to experience emotion the way people do. In other words, do dogs smile? Do rats laugh? Do ducks mourn lost friends?

The answers: Yes, yes and yes.

Laughing out loud

“I do firmly believe that an array of birds and mammals feel their lives deeply,” anthropologist Barbara J. King told the Los Angeles Times by email.

This isn’t a new topic. Charles Darwin wrote about animal emotions back in 1872, studying dogs who grinned — and monkeys who chuckled when tickled.

“If a young chimpanzee be tickled — and the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children — a more decided chuckling or laughing sound is uttered; though the laughter is sometimes noiseless,” he wrote in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.”

Young orangutans, “when tickled, likewise grin and make a chuckling sound. … As soon as their laughter ceases, an expression may be detected passing over their faces, which … may be called a smile.”

Dogs have been known to smile as well as laugh, said Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Famous is the submissive smile,” Dodman told The Times. “When you think about it, a smile is a gesture of appeasement. (‘I am friendly — I will not hurt you’), just like the submissive smile of dogs.

“Dogs do genuinely seem to smile and look happy when they are joyous and/or amused. Dog laughter has been recorded as a sort of huffing sound that they make when they are playing or happy. When played back to shelter dogs, they pay attention to the sound, stop barking and act calmer.”

Even rats laugh.

According to a 2012 study, rats laughed when tickled (which may make you wonder just how much time scientists spend tickling animals). What the study surmised was that a laughing rat was a more optimistic rat.

Signs of sadness

Grief also has been observed among various species.

“There is evidence that, even if the animal doesn’t have the same cognitive abilities as humans, they still feel loss,” said Melissa Bain, of UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

King, of the College of William and Mary, wrote “How Animals Grieve.” She said she sought “visible evidence of altered behavior in an animal who lives on when a group-mate or close companion has died.”

“Baboon, elephant, dolphin, dog and house cat survivors — and, surprisingly to me, duck survivors too — may withdraw from social relationships, fail to eat or sleep properly, and/or express highly unusual body language, vocalizations or gestures in the days and weeks after a relative or friend’s death.”

But not all animals experience all emotions, Bain said.

Although animals do express feelings, she said, “it’s hard to say whether they display them in the same way people do. And it depends on the animal — mammal versus earthworm. It appears that they need higher levels of neurological function.”

King agreed.

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