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Q & A: Minds of Their Own

Exploring the emotional and moral lives of animals

Humans have long tried to imagine what other species think and how they may feel, projecting our own perspectives and emotions onto the animal experience. The sight of a hawk spiraling effortlessly on an updraft or horses cantering side by side in a field is enough to inspire wonder about the inner lives of other creatures. And to people who observe their pets’ activities and moods, the existence of cat and dog emotions—in the form of joy, grief, even jealousy—seems beyond question.

What seems blatantly apparent to many animal lovers, however, is challenged by some scientists as nothing more than sentimental anthropomorphism. Portrayal of animals as lesser beings without thought or emotion dates at least as far back as the days of Aristotle, who believed that animals existed solely for the benefit of humans and were incapable of feeling beyond mere sensation and appetite.

But ethologists engaged in the study of animal behavior are drawing from a growing body of evidence to build a case to the contrary. On the forefront of the burgeoning field are renowned scientists Jonathan Balcombe and Marc Bekoff. After years of researching the emotions of animals, Bekoff began exploring the concepts of morality and justice in their societies, basing his work on animals’ adherence to their own sets of rules and the application of punishment in their play. Balcombe studies pleasure in animals—a concept rarely considered within the scientific community—and what it means for our treatment of them.

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