Andrew Sydlik's Reviews > When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals

When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
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Jul 06, 10

bookshelves: nonfiction-science, nonfiction-philosophy, nonfiction-social-issues
Read in June, 2010

- A mother giraffe fends off a lion for an hour to defend her child.
- A male chimpanzee dies shortly after his mother.
- Koko the gorilla cares for a “pet” kitten she names “All Ball.”
- A male falcon displays uncharacteristic behavior, including sounds that sound like cries of anguish, when his mate is killed.
- A gorilla who is given orange juice as a treat, gives it instead one day to a researcher who complains of a stomach ache. When she returns ten days later, the gorilla insists on the researcher drinking her juice until reassured that the stomach ache is gone.
- And of course, the thing that gives this book its title: elephants have been seen to cry on numerous occasions.

Is this definitive proof that animals show emotions? Not necessarily, but they are characteristic of the examples given in this book, which is more of a challenge to our attitudes toward animals, and our reluctance to explore the whole question of emotion in animals. The authors point out that seals have been seen to shed tears while watching their children being clubbed to death, but since seals frequently shed tears, this isn’t conclusive proof of emotion. However, this doesn’t mean that the seals don’t feel sad. I’m sure there are more compelling examples in the book than the ones I have listed.

I think that the reader should keep in mind that, despite the enormous amount of data we have about other animals, there is still much mystery to their behavior and cognitive functions. These things, particularly emotion, are so little well-understood in humans, that our knowledge is woefully lacking when it comes to non-human animals. However, this book reinforces that point while also pointing to documentation that challenges the preconceptions that tend to be voiced in academia, especially in the biological sciences.

After looking at some negative reviews, I feel I ought to add in my thoughts of why I think some of the negative criticism is unfair.

The most overwhelming criticism I am seeing is that the authors criticize scientists to the point of hostility and denigration. It is true that the tone does border on the antagonistic when it comes to certain dismissals of animal emotion, or in cruelty to animals justified by science. However, I heartily enjoy science books and am, usually a defender of scientific pursuit in general, and I was not bothered by this. To me, there is a much needed confrontation of the dismissive attitudes of many scientists regarding animal emotion. The issue of the ethics of animal experimentation for scientific research is, I think, one of the most pressing and complex ethical issues facing scientists today; and one’s beliefs regarding animal emotion will figure significantly into one’s attitude toward animal experimentation. I don’t think a watered down tone is appropriate here; the authors are challenging intractable and, it is hard to put this in a way that won’t be considered an ad hominem attack, insensitive behavior.

The second complaint I see is that the authors are dogmatic and unequivocally accept animals display emotions in situations that are ambiguous at best. While at times I did think that the authors were reading an emotional motive where there was none, I always stopped to reflect on the fact that 1) they almost always use tentative language—could, maybe, perhaps, etc., rather than giving statements such as “this is obviously an example of animal emotion, which the evil scientists have denied against all reason and compassion,” which is what many of the negative reviews seem to imply; 2) even in someone who is very sympathetic to this viewpoint such as myself, I find myself resisting the idea of emotion in animals, because truly acknowledging such would lead to a radical change in many societal attitudes and behaviors that we take for granted, even in those of us who think we are kind to animals. If we, as a society, were confident in the truth of the premise of this book, we would be beating down the doors of the slaughterhouses, animal testing labs, and circuses of the world.

There isn’t a large amount of literature on this subject, but some have recommended other books over this one that sound intriguing.

The value I see in this book is not solid, scientific proof of emotions in animals, but a much-needed challenge to our assumptions. In situations that may seem unclear, I think it’s perfectly justified to ask, “Did the animal feel emotion when doing that, or was it simply an unfeeling act of instinct?” The problem is, we are so inured to assuming the latter, that one may not even consider the possibility that both instinct and emotion are acting. One interesting example from the book: an elephant tries to rescue a baby rhino stuck in the mud, even when the mother rhino attacks the elephant, in defense of her baby. Rhinos have bad eyesight, so the mother did not realize the baby was stuck, even though it heard it and knew it was in trouble. Was the mother acting out of love in defending her child (even though it was misguided), or was this simply a biological imperative to protect one’s genes? Can’t both be true? And for the elephant, was its rescue attempt true altruism, trying to help a completely unrelated animal, even after being attacked by the mother? Or had the baby’s distress activated a “protect the child” instinct, even when not related (it seems that animals will often have protective and nurturing behavior towards children even of completely unrelated species)?

My only complaint is that the majority of the instances of possible animal emotions are in mammals. This is understandable given that other mammals are the most likely to behave like humans, and they do give some cases of birds, and even briefly touch on insects and arachnids, but I think that some more examples among reptiles, amphibians, and fish could have been given. But this is a small caveat, since data on those groups is probably much rarer.

The instances given, while often open to interpretation, do provide situations, of which at least some, cannot fail to startle the reader, and challenge some preconception about what animals (or at least that kind of animal) are capable. I would also think the authors make a good point in turning the charge of anthropomorphism on its head: is it necessarily anthropomorphic to ascribe emotions to non-human animals if these emotions, like physical characteristics, can be demonstrated to be shared with non-humans? Also, they do well in pointing out that allowing the possibility of emotions in animals does not only mean giving them emotions we want, saying that they are only loving and kind, or only cruel and aggressive; we should not also assume they have only primitive emotions, or can experience the same emotions human have, or in the same way. The authors make the case that clearly more investigation and open-mindedness is needed, and that emotion even among humans is not well understood, especially scientifically. After more reflection and investigation, we need to face our own attitudes and behavior towards animals and adjust them accordingly.
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message 4: by Tressa (new)

Tressa I saw some footage of a herd of elephants that stopped when they saw one of their own had gotten its foot stuck in a tire swing. They gathered around the stuck elephant and worked together to pull its foot out. I thought that was amazing.


message 3: by Andrew (last edited Jul 08, 2010 08:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Andrew Sydlik Elephants are definitely amazing creatures, with complex social dynamics and emotional lives. For some reason, they aren't usually mentioned with non-primate animals of high intelligence (whales, dolphins, crows, parrots, even pigs, dogs, and cats). I'm not sure how high their cognitive functioning is supposed to be, but they're definitely complex creatures.

If you enjoy learning about such things, I recommend this book. Some great stories in here. Gorillas aren't the only animals who "draw"; elephants draw in the dirt with sticks, and when given a pen or pencil, many will draw on paper. There are some samples in the book.


Andrew Sydlik Also, the instance you described seems pretty typical. They seem to be very caring toward each other. The herd will slow down if an animal is injured, or lagging behind after a relative has been killed.


message 1: by N (new)

N Hi people - I just 'registered' so I could comment... I hate websites that require one to register or join to comment - like YT.
Anyway, somewhere (I'm sorry I can't remember where) I saw a dog sitting on a corner of a bed, looking away from his owner; ears not back (not listening to owner at all).
The owner was doing an observation/experiment. The dog was being scolded for something that another dog had done. The picture and 'caption' was really amazing.
I have two cats - one gets very jealous when I pay attention to the other more or first.

A baby elephant died of a broken heart because some a$$hole 'culler' shot it's Mom right in front of him.
He was seen from the helicopter camera, frantically racing around his now lifeless Mom, confused. A
(Mom, get up!!!) kind of thing.
No amount of consoling got it to feed, or even get up, when tenderly attended to. It died a few days later. I cried like a baby when I saw that film.
I hope there's no limit on characters...


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