In When Elephants Weep, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy argue that humans are not the only animals that feel emotions. Citing a longstanding bias against any appearance of anthropomorphism in research, they say that there is little scientific investigation into how animals feel, therefore the book is largely a collection of anecdotes demonstrating the possibility of moods, creativity, and playfulness.
Many people who live with pets will need no convincing that a dog is capable of feeling joy, or a cat anger. But some of the stories were surprising.
“With a loud grunt of pleasure he reached a hand towards them in greeting—but even before he made contact they both swung quickly away and, without a backward glance, started grooming on the far side of the tree. For a full two minutes, old Gregor sat motionless, staring after them. And then he laboriously lowered himself to the ground. As I watched him sitting there alone, my vision blurred, and when I looked up at the groomers in the tree I came nearer to hating a chimpanzee than I have ever done before or since.” (p. 43)
My vision blurred while reading descriptions of experiments performed on primates by other, possibly less evolved primates.
The authors don’t miss an opportunity to express a low opinion of the “naked ape” and its cruelty toward both conspecifics and other species. (Another frequent refrain was in response to arguments that behaviors which suggest altruism or love or compassion could in fact be based on selfish motives—that the same is true of human behavior.)
Humans do not have a monopoly on evil, however. Animal lovers have often promoted slogans saying that humans are the only creatures that wage war, but ants and chimpanzees do as well, along with other horrors. The chapter on “Rage, Dominance, and Cruelty in Peace and War” was as revealing as those on fear, hope, love and grief.
The title refers to one of many complex behaviors among elephants, surrounded by as much myth as science. Victor Hugo made a diary entry on January 2, 1871: “On a abbabut l’éléphant du Jardin des Plantes. Il a pleuré. On va le manger.” [“The elephant in the Jardin des Plantes was slaughtered. He wept. He will be eaten.”] (p. 107)
Stories of weeping might be mistaken due to secretion from the temporal glands. The elephant graveyard is a myth, but elephants do take interest in elephant bones (but not other bones), and seem more interested in the bones of relatives than unrelated elephants.
Resistance to anthropomorphism leaves us with a poorer understanding of animal behavior. When Irene Pepperberg tried to publish observations on Alex, “the first and only non-human animal to have ever asked a question,” describing him as “bored,” she faced opposition.
The cost of resistance to new ideas might be greater than we realize.
It isn't the happiness or anger of pets that makes me anthropomorphize them. I think I could probably consider that an evolutionary survival response if I had to. My cat waits for me many days, sitting right by the door when I get home. I know he isn't there all day; I can snoop on them with my cat cam. One day recently he was planted about an inch back from the swing of the door. He's smart. But that, too, could be considered waiting for dinner, as could either of my cats trotting to the door to meet me (if not already waiting).
My cats are Max and Tess. When I adopted Max, I also adopted his brother Samson. They were litter mates and 6.5 years old. I don't know how they ended up in a shelter, but they'd been there six months. They'd only be adopted out together. Samson died a year later, unexpectedly. Through at least three different homes (original home, shelter, my home), Samson was the only unchanging part of Max's life. With his brother suddenly missing, Max would stand in the kitchen and meow at the cabinets, seemingly asking for his brother to come out (Max knows how cabinets work). This was totally new behavior, and I have to assume it was a direct response to missing his brother. Describing his meows as sorrowful might be too much anthropomorphism, but why was he doing it in the first place? What use did it have other than as part of a grief emotion?