Elephants, both Indian and African, are particularly playful. A traveling circus once pitched its tents next to a schoolyard with a set of swings. The older elephants were chained, but Norma, a young elephant, was left loose. When Norma saw children swinging she was greatly intrigued. Before long she went over, waved the children away with her trunk, backed up to a swing, and attempted to sit on it. She was notably unsuccessful, even using her tail to hold the swing in place. Finally she flung the swing about irritably and returned to her companions. The children began to swing again, and Norma had to try again. Despite trying periodically for an hour, she was never able to swing. (p. 125)
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.
In a related vein is the story of Charles, a small octopus who was the subject of an experiment to see whether invertebrates could learn conditioned tasks as vertebrates do. With two others, Albert and Bertram, each housed in a small tank, Charles was to be trained to pull a switch so that a light went on, and then swim over to the light to be rewarded with a minute piece of fish. Albert and Bertram learned to perform this task and Charles seemed at first to be doing the same. But then Charles rebelled. He began anchoring himself to the side of the tank and yanking on the lever so fiercely that he eventually broke it. Instead of waiting under the light to receive his smidgen of fish, Charles reached out of the water, grabbed the light, and dragged it into the tank. Finally, he took to floating at the top of the tank, with his eyes above the surface, accurately squirting water at the experimenters. “The variables responsible for the maintenance and strengthening of the lamp-pulling and squirting behavior in this animal were not apparent,” the experimenter noted primly. (p. 121)
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.
One has to sympathize with Jane Goodall’s reaction to some chimpanzees’ treatment of one old animal, his legs wholly paralyzed by polio, who was lonely, shunned, and sometimes attacked by those who were still healthy. In the hope of inducing companions who were grooming each other to groom him as well, he dragged himself up into a tree:
“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.
Compassion can occur by omission also. In one grim and inexcusable experiment, fifteen rhesus monkeys were trained to pull either of two chains to get food. After a while a new aspect was introduced: if they pulled one of the chains a monkey in an adjacent compartment would receive a powerful electric shock. Two thirds of the monkeys preferred to pull the chain that gave them food without shocking the other monkey. Two other monkeys, after seeing shock administered, refused to pull either chain. Monkeys were less likely to shock other monkeys if they knew those monkeys, and were less likely to shock other monkeys if they had been shocked themselves. (p. 162)
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.
I had a referee go ballistic on me. And yet, you’ve watched the bird, he looks at you, he says “I’m gonna go away.” And he walks! The referee said that was an anthropomorphic term that had no business being in a scientific journal.... I can talk in as many stimulus-response type terms as you want. It turns out, though, that a lot of his behaviors are very difficult to describe in ways that are not anthropomorphic. (p. 35)
The cost of resistance to new ideas might be greater than we realize.
It has always been comforting to the dominant group to assume that those in subservient positions do not suffer or feel pain as keenly, or at all, so they can be abused or exploited without guilt and with impunity. The history of prejudice is notable for assertions that lower classes and other races are relatively insensitive. Similarly, until the 1980s, it was routine for surgery on human infants to be performed with paralytic agents but without anesthesia, in the long-held belief that babies are incapable of feeling pain. It was believed, without evidence, that their nervous systems were immature. The notion that babies do not feel pain is directly counter to their screams and can only be classified as scientific myth. Yet it has been a tenet of human medicine, only recently acknowledged to be false in the wake of studies showing that infants who do not get pain medication take longer to recover from surgery. (p. 29)