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THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF ANIMALS: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and  Empathy–and Why They Matter, by Marc Bekoff, is similar to Jeffrey Masson‘s ALTRUISTIC ARMADILLOS, ZENLIKE ZEBRAS (which I reviewed last year) and PLEASURABLE KINGDOM, by Jonathan Balcombe (which I wrote about in 2006) in that it’s a useful tool to combat speciesism.

Without ever using the word "speciesism," Bekoff demonstrates that the emotions we are so certain are unique to humans are indeed not (e.g., love, grief, joy, embarrassment, jealousy), and also some cognitive capacities, such as thinking about the future and living by a moral code, are not unique to humans either.

Before I list some of my favorite quotes, I must say that Bekoff does not believe we should be using animals, however in the interim he believes we should work to improve their welfare and their living conditions while we are using them (135). Also, there are many instances of calling an animal "it" (18, 33, 150),  and euphemisms such as "put to sleep" (16).

And now, to the favorites:

  • It’s because animals have emotions that we’re so drawn to them; lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication (15).
  • Rather than presuming that fish feel less than mice and that mice feel less than chimpanzees, or that rats aren’t as emotional as dogs or wolves, or in general that animals feel less (and know less and suffer less) than humans, let’s assume that numerous animals do experience rich emotions and do suffer all sorts of pain, perhaps even to a greater degree than humans (22).
  • [H]umans can be selfish, unfair, and uncaring, and their moral codes can sometimes be self-servingly hypocritical. Just take a cursory glance at the front page of the newspaper: the murder of a family during a robbery is considered unacceptable, but not so killing in self-defense or as part of a distant, "justified" war. Humans can lie, steal, and cheat, and they can justify their actions so they never feel "wrong." At times, indeed, it can be hard to imagine how anyone could consider humans morally "above" any other animal beings (91).
  • [I]t is becoming clear that many moral behaviors originate in emotional centers in the brain–a neural architecture that humans share with other animals (104).
  • [The] "survival of the fittest" mentality, which pervades so much thinking and theorizing, is increasingly not supported by current research as being the prime mover in evolution. . . . Animals certainly still compete, but cooperation is central in the evolution of social behavior, and this alone makes it key for survival (107).
  • Cognitive ethology  . . . relies on anecdotes, analogy, and anthropomorphism to reach its conclusions. They have traditionally been "dirty words" in science, since they smack of the subjective and the personal . . . . But are people who resist these A words themselves reacting out of personal or professional bias? (113).
  • No longer do researchers have to clean up their language and sanitize their prose by using quotation marks around words such as happy, sad, jealousy or grief. Animals don’t merely act "as if" they have feelings; they have them (120).
  • [W]e all recognize and agree that animals and humans share many traits, including emotions. Thus we’re not inserting something human into animals, but we’re identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe. . . . Claims that anthropomorphism has no place in science or that anthropomorphic predictions and explanations are less accurate than more mechanistic or reductionistic explanations are not supported by any data (125-6).
  • We must not simply continue with the status quo because that is what we’ve always done. What we know has changed, and so should our relationships with animals (133).
  • [T]he precautionary principle . . . maintains that a lack of certainty should not be an excuse to delay taking action. Sometimes we have to act based on our best judgment, because we may never have "all" the facts, and if we wait for absolute certainty, we might never do anything . . . . We may never know everything that goes through an animal’s mind and heart, but we don’t need to (137).
  • I could no longer abide the killing of any animal, no matter how humane the process, simply for it to become my meal (150). Please note that on the same page, Bekoff promotes mitigating the worst abuses on farms and promotes free-range chickens and livestock.
  • [Z]oos operate with two express purposes: one is to educate the public about animals and conservation, and the other is to help preserve species. These are laudable goals, but they rest on two shaky premises. One is that zoos can actually succeed at them, and the other is that zoos can adequately care for their charges. As for their goals, there is insufficient evidence to know the extent to which zoos actually educate visitors or if zoos play any significant role in species protection . . . . So if zoos don’t really educate and aren’t important for species survival, can they at least be trusted to nurture their animals? Unfortunately, too often the answer is no (152-3).
  • If we continue to allow human interests to always trump the interests of other animals, we will never solve the numerous and complex problems we face (162).
  • The separation of "us" (humans) from "them" (other animals) engenders a false dichotomy (162).
  • No one is an object or an other; we are all just us (163).

As you can see, Bekoff walks the line between his personal belief that we shouldn’t be using animals, and his prescription to care more about their welfare when the rest of us use them. I would recommend the book for all animal rights activists to bolster their information regarding the emotional and cognitive capacities of other species, as such ammunition comes in handy, particularly with people who own and claim to love dogs (and that’s a significant part of his argument–that dogs aren’t unlike us in many ways, but likewise other animals aren’t unlike dogs in many ways). However, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone as a way to help them change the way they live their life, as that could easily backfire into the world of humane veal and providing more enrichment to animals being tortured in labs. Though Bekoff does speak of use, he speaks far more of suffering and ways to reduce it, and that concerns me.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Porphyry #

    “Bekoff walks the line between his personal belief that we shouldn't be using animals”

    That is best described not as belief, but as a lack of belief.

    I applaud this approach to understanding our shared relationship with sentient, emotional, loving, caring, hateful, grieving, embarrassed, jealous, altruistic, moral, immoral, political, fallible, beautiful life.

    The bias of othering is still quite prevalent in otherwise self-described science minded individuals. The evidence against this prejudice is overwhelming and growing, and unlike supernatural minded people, it seems that there is a better chance of effacing unsupported beliefs.

    April 29, 2008
  2. I'm assuming Bekoff is familiar with the term speciesism. I wonder, does he view it as a silly/useless/transient neologism? Not a single mention in the book? I am somewhat curious about how and why that is.

    Also, concerning his pro-welfarism, I wonder if he is either unfamiliar with Francione's work, or rejects it.

    Does he never use the word nonhuman? Some of the quotes do kind of flow with the notion that humans are not animals… even if that is not the general message. Saying "other animals" is good too.

    April 30, 2008
  3. Nathan,
    He is familiar with Francione, as his reference section mentions him. And he has a passage at the beginning where he explains that he will use the term animals as a convenience and apologizes if that upsets anyone as he usually uses "nonhuman animal." It could be that he doesn't use the word speciesism because he talks about it without using the word. This book isn't for those well-educated about animals or animal rights. Based on what he writes, I conclude that he is one of the majority or abolitionists who believes that welfare reforms in the interim are helpful, or in fact a moral obligation. I'm aware that some would say he's not a "real" abolitionist, but if he thinks he is, he thinks he is.

    May 1, 2008
  4. I really liked that book, too, for the reasons you mentioned. I just started reading Bekoff's Animals Matter & he says quite early on, "Some of my views may make it seem as if I want to stop all animal research, including my own, and the human use of all animals everywhere, but this is not so" (p. 5 in the paperback). Sigh.

    May 3, 2008

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