Let’s DEWEY This! – the 500’s


I don’t know about your pets, but my dog lives a rich and varied emotional life. Such feelings include:

  • Joy from gnawing on her favorite bone.
  • Mega joy from having her head patted.
  • Ultra mega joy from eating food.
  • And SUPERSONIC ULTRA MEGA JOY(!!) from going for a walk.

See? Rich and varied.

But seriously, anyone with a dog would nod vigorously at the proposal that they have emotions. Mostly I have seen my dog joyful, but I have also seen her disappointed. Guilty. Nervous. Irritated. I have seen my boyfriend’s parents’ dogs lie morosely at the front door when we pet-sit them, whimpering and shunning food until their caretakers return.

Perhaps canines are a special example – they are certainly one of the most intelligent of the non-human species. But how special, really? Could other critters have such emotions?

That is what Dr. Jeffrey Masson set out to discover in his book When Elephants Weep, Dewey Decimal # 591.51, which was this month’s nonfiction pick for the 500’s: the section for natural science. The book covers a range of feelings, from the basic (fear, maternal protection) to the lofty (compassion, justice), and all in between. I’m going to share some tidbits I found most interesting.


Let’s start with grief, as these were the most moving to me. I’m a sucker for a good heart-wrench.


An elephant was observed carrying a dead calf on her head for many days. She set the calf down whenever she stopped to eat, and moved very slowly – a safety hazard for her and thus not an advantageous instinct. The rest of the herd waited up for her, which is another disadvantage to themselves, which “suggests that animals, like people, act on feelings as such, rather than solely for purposes of survival” (page 78).

Two peregrine falcons and their nest of hatchlings were watched by biologist Marcy Cottrell Houle. When the female did not return to the nest after hunting one day, the male called out repeatedly, waiting for her echo. This continued for three days, after which the male sounded a cry described by Houle as “the screeching moan of a wounded animal, the cry of a creature in suffering… I will never doubt that an animal can suffer emotions that we humans think belong to our species alone” (page 91).

A chimpanzee was observed by Jane Goodall mourning the death of his mother. For hours after her passing the chimp tugged at the body until he finally grew weary. Three days later, he was found staring at his mother’s nest. A month later, the young chimp died as well, which Goodall did not shy from saying was a death from grief.

A young elk guarded the body of another elk after it had been killed by coyotes. The rest of the herd continued on while the one remaining elk spent two days chasing predators away and nuzzling its fallen friend. This was highly disadvantageous for the elk, yet it did it anyway. It only rejoined the herd after it was unable to stop the coyotes from eating the body.


Now, some uplifting stories!

An elephant encountered a baby rhino stuck in deep mud. The mother rhino had been unable to save it, yet she remained nearby. The elephant attempted to wedge his tusks under the rhino, but mama rhino charged him. This continued for hours, the elephant attempting to lift the rhino out of the mud while dodging the mother’s attacks. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes no sense, as saving a rhino does nothing for the elephant, his herd, or his species. In fact, he was risking his own safety. Yet he tried to help anyway. Eventually the elephant had to give up, and the baby managed to free itself the next day, but the intention was there.

Koko, a gorilla trained in sign language, was asked by a trainer what to do for a sick stomach. Since Koko loved orange juice, she signed that the trainer should drink OJ. More than a week later when the trainer came back, Koko refused to drink any OJ until the trainer assured her that she was no longer sick and didn’t need the juice for herself. Only then did Koko accept the drink. She was willing to sacrifice something she enjoyed for the betterment of another. How sweet is that?

Dolphins, chimps, and elephants have all shown creative impulses. When a dolphin trainer ran out of tricks, she decided to give them treats only when they created something brand-new. The dolphins figured out that they were getting rewarded for their novelty, and so became more and more so. One dolphin, who had been passive and listless before, suddenly became energetic with these new imaginative exercises, which shows that he was not merely excited about treats (something trainers tried giving him before) – he was excited about being creative. There are chimps and elephants at zoos who have been given art supplies, and eagerly take to it without any rewards – it’s not something they’re trained into. In fact, one painting chimp ignored food in favor of painting, and a painting elephant got visibly excited when the word “paint” was even spoken.

Side note: It’s stated that the emotions of captive animals don’t count, since they are in unnatural environments. But Masson argues that humans live just as unnaturally as zoo animals: “We did not evolve in the world in which we now live either, with its deferred rewards and strange demands (sitting in classrooms or punching time clocks). All the same, we do not dismiss our emotions as not existing or inauthentic simply because they don’t take place in small groups of hunter-gatherers on an African savanna…” (page 6).

This last one is not about emotion, but it’s such a fascinating example of gorilla intelligence that I had to tack it on. Remember Koko? When a trainer was slow at making lunch, Koko signed that if her food didn’t come faster then an alligator would chase the trainer down. This sentence demonstrates imaginative thinking, a comprehension of if/then correlation, and a sense of the future (which some scientists have deemed is a human-only trait). ISN’T THAT AMAZING??

Yes. The answer is yes.


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