Animal Cognition and Emotions

Why does everybody think that they’re experts on animal feelings or thoughts? We really know nothing about this topic and have just started to learn over the past decade or so. So many people pronounce with absolute certainty that animals do everything by instinct and also that they have no emotions “like humans do.”

Chimps, with astonishing short-term memory, can see, remember, and repeat back a picture of numbers 1-10 randomly posted for about 1/2 second on a light board. No human can do that. Some of the larger parrots can hold (primitive) conversations, using words and phrases in their proper context. They don’t just imitate us. Divers studying manta rays report that each ray will pick out a favorite person whom the ray identifies by his eyes. This is a fish! Monitor lizards are smart enough to plan ahead and can spot prey, run ahead of it, hide, and leap out and grab it. This is a reptile! Finally, all kinds of animals express feelings in ways that are obvious. Just think about dogs and their reactions.

I think researchers have studied wild animals by observing them, recorded their behaviors, and assumed they knew everything. They make the mistake of thinking that what they have observed is the entire range of behaviors the animal is capable of when they have seen only behaviors that are typical. Confront a wild animal with a situation that does not normally occur in his daily life, and you will see thought and problem solving being brought in to deal with it. A 2-day old eaglet grabs his father’s face feathers with his beak. Dad is startled and with a toss of his head accidentally throws the baby outside of the nest bowl to the edge of the nest. The baby can’t walk yet, and adults eagles have no way to pick up and carry their young without injuring them. Dad runs back and forth between the nest bowl and the baby several times. He doesn’t know what to do. Mom flies down from an overhead branch and tells Dad to get lost. She takes a few moments to size up the situation and then digs a shallow trench from the baby to the nest bowl. She then puts her closed beak on the nest behind the baby and shovels him along until he reaches the nest bowl. Clearly, Mom had to think the situation through. She had to problem solve. There was no instinct brought to bear on the situation except her desire to save her baby.

So the next time you hear someone expounding on animal cognition or emotion, ask them how they know what they are talking about. Chances are, they will fall back on thoughtless cliches without providing any real proof.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Shut up.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Aren’t humans just another animal species anyways ?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’ve known people who’ve studied animal behavior and they tell me that trying to avoid anthropomorphizing behavior is one of their biggest challenges. It’s very hard to intuit an emotional response from physical behavior.

    Our best hope of learning about the emotions of animals is with signing apes and the future of verbal communication with dolphins. It’s pretty exciting.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The day I meet a pig smart enough not to become bacon, I’ll buy him an iTunes gift card. Until then he’s on my plate.