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4 wild facts about animals’ (very real) emotions

Updated: Jan 13

Every animal lover knows it’s true: Animals are capable of complex, and very real, emotions. Our society doesn’t quite accept this—yet—but research is continuing to put forth evidence way beyond the anecdotal. The latest? A study revealing dogs’ amazing capability to recognize human emotions (more on this below).

But dogs are not the only ones. Here are four amazing facts about all species of animals and their complex, humanlike emotions:

1. Dogs and human emotions: Dog owners (me included) could probably have already told these researchers this, but now science confirms evidence of what animal lovers already know: Dogs are able to recognize the emotions on our faces! The study, which you can read more about here, confirmed that dogs clearly understand the difference between happy and angry expressions. The study didn’t look at cats or other animals, but my sister Charlotte reports her Persian Paddington is totally clued into her emotions; he always pads over gently in support if she’s feeling blue.

2. A whale’s complex emotional center: Recent research points to a highly complex “limbic system” in whales that may even be more complex than humans’. The limbic system supports emotion, memory and other brain functions—and it’s so highly developed in whales that neurobiologist Lori Marino was inspired to co-author the “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans,” which states that cetaceans have the right to “life, liberty and well-being.” Marino is also director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which works to gain “legal rights for members of species other than our own.” This article delves even deeper into whales’ and dolphins’ advanced communication, cognition and emotions.

3. Marc Beckoff’s comprehensive research into animal emotions: Marc Beckoff—author, award-winning scientist, behavioral ecologist and columnist on animal emotions for Psychology Today, who also wrote a nice endorsement for my first book Animal Reiki—has spent his life documenting and researching animals and their very real emotions. His book The Emotional Lives of Animals, which shares scientific and anecdotal case studies of all types of animals feeling joy, sorrow, embarrassment, humor, altruism, empathy and more—questions the ethics of using animals for food, experiments and the like. (I recommend everyone read this and share it!) He’s also co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This recent article by Beckoff in Huffington Post argues research on rats should be “abolished once and for all.”

4. Jane Goodall’s life’s work revealing chimpanzees as emotional creatures: As noted above, conservationist Jane Goodall co-founded EETA with Beckoff. And after 50-plus years in the field, her observations have concluded without a doubt that wild chimpanzees are not just biologically close to humans in their DNA—they share a wide-ranging, and very human, emotional capacity as well. Here’s a TED Talk from Goodall about what really separates humans from chimpanzees (hint: it’s just language):

And on a parting note, enjoy this TED Talk on moral behaviors observed in animals:

What are your thoughts on the emotions of animals?

{For more on the subject, check out this, this and this.}

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