Nice doggie! Affection in the Animal Kingdom

Advocates of monogamy seem delighted when they learn that certain animal species, such as geese, mate for life. Famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz studied behavior in geese that he believes points to affection. According to Gary Kowalski he says the following on this subject: 'It is truly touching to see how much affection these two wild animals display towards each other. Each tasty morsel the male finds, he gives to his bride and she accepts it displaying the plaintive and begging gestures and sounds which, outside of this context, are characteristic for chicks'. As far as I know, monogamy is an exception in the animal kingdom. Only 3 - 5 % of mammals is said to be (nearly) monogamous. Forming a pair bond seems in many cases primarily or even exclusively to serve procreation and because of this the bond doesn't last very long. But what can we say about the emotional aspect when a bond lasts longer? Is an individual animal actually capable of feeling affection for another animal? Or is it capable of undergoing an emotion that strongly resembles (forms of) human love? These questions are unrelated to the type of pair bonding that occurs naturally in a certain species. A parent animal could for example feel love for its offspring and moreover there could be friendship between animals who are not directly related to each other.

Consciousness, trust and affection

To be able to love someone it is first of all necessary to be aware of the other person as a being with an 'internal' aspect. It is therefore not enough to know that there is body that is recognizable as such and that behaves in a certain manner, but the behavior has to be considered as an expression of an inner life. This generally requires a rather high social intelligence; therefore it is to be expected that feelings of affection are found especially in 'higher' social species, i.e. primarily birds and mammals. This may seem strange because love and affection in humans appear to be so 'basic'. But you can only feel affection for an actual other being if you realize that this other being has an inner life, just like you. Without this realization you can see the other at the most as a source of pleasurable stimuli. Of course this does not preclude attachment, for example the attachment of a young to its mother. Not taking this into account can even lead to psychological disasters. But attachment is not the same as affection, because the latter also includes an interest in the other's well-being and in the connection that is formed with him or her. The same is true for sexuality. It is not necessary to realize that another being has feelings of his or her own in order to be attracted to their appearance or behavior. Wanting to mate with another animal (to 'desire' that animal) is therefore certainly no guarantee that true affection is involved. We only have to look at human sexuality, for that matter, which -in both men and women- does of course not always go hand in hand with much personal sympathy. In order to be able to feel love for a specific other it is not about wanting to mate with them, but you have to understand that the other, like you, is a psychological creature. This is true for a possible partner, but juat as well for friends and other people, like family members, that you take care of or who take care of you.
There is probably great variety among the members of different species in the extent to which they consider other animals to be subjects and also in the extent to which they are able to form a somewhat realistic image of the perceptions others have. As mentioned before, there is a connection between these traits and social intelligence and it is to be expected that they differ within individuals of a species and that there are several phases of development. Besides, social awareness is necessary, but in my opinion insufficient for individual affection. This requires the possibility of sharing. This sharing can take many different forms, such as sharing food, thoughts, playing together, cooperation, emotional intimacy or physical warmth. The affection need, by the way, not be reciprocated to be felt by the animal in question. Presumably affection arises within the framework of social awareness when one trusts the other individual as someone you can mutually share something with or who you can expect to take care of you or who you may take care of. As this trust is not betrayed, but instead deepens by a variety of experiences, it is likely that affection will grow as well.

Feelings of friendship

A brown rat among kittens. Is this friendship, silliness or impertinence? In humans, the trust that has been built, can be betrayed, which may mean the end of the bond between them. This does not mean that there had been no true friendship up until that moment. Something similar is to be expected in animals. Surely other motives, such as tyranny, can end a friendship, but that doesn't mean that the friendship before that was mere show. When two male chimpanzees become friends, they may, according to Frans de Waal, be motivated by the desire for a good social position within the group. In this way their friendship is similar to a political coalition. When the coalition renders only few benefits, it can be ended, but that does not imply that there has never been any true affection. By the way, some chimpanzees can be friends without the presence of such political considerations, in which case they, for example, often groom each other, hunt together, share food and protect each other from danger. Relatively little research has been done into friendship in animals living in nature. The ability to form some kind of friendship in many members of social species can probably be compared to that of young children. Even though toddlers are usually not yet very good at entering into the emotional life of other children, this does not mean that they do not have genuine feelings of friendship. This is a matter of degree rather than all-or-nothing. You can compare this to the general discussion about intelligence in animals. The fact that most animals do not equal the intellectual capacities of humans, does, of course, not mean that they go through life having no thoughts at all. Biologist Marc Bekoff believes that many animals have friends. He mentions many signs of friendship in animals, such as sleeping close together, greeting each other (without this being necessary purely to confirm hierarchical relationships), sharing food, grooming and of course playing together. Frans de Waal sees loyalty as an important characteristic of friendship between animals. He mentions the example of two female chimpanzees who remained friends for over 30 years. The friendship was expressed, among others, in grooming and helping each other in fights with others. Male bottle nose dolphins are also capable of forming strong bonds and can spend a lot of time together for years.

Expressions of affection

The fact that feelings of affection exist naturally can be deduced form certain species-specific physical expressions. We humans use for example natural, inborn expressions such as patting each other on the shoulder, hugging each other, caressing and warm-hearted smiling. Something that has been annoying me personally for some time now is how the well-known way cats rub their heads against objects or people’s bodies is often reduced to the need to mark their territories. This is not merely contra-intuitive but is also plausible only when cats know no feelings of affection at all. It is comparable to the (fictitious) theory that people kiss each other from a primitive urge to share food with each other through their mouths. Although it is possible that kissing on the lips, particularly, has a background in natural history, this does not mean that people don't do this -with the exception of purely sexual motives- as an expression of affection and instinctive intimacy. None other than the founder of the biological theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, in his book The expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals, just considered certain types of licking in dogs and the rubbing of heads of cats to be ‘affectionate’ in nature. That some people have such strong doubts about the emotional background of these types of behavior, makes me question the motives of these people themselves.

Excessive skepticism

In the Western scientific tradition in general there is a disproportionally strong skepticism against the existence of animal consciousness in general and emotions in animals in particular. This is caused by people having a materialistic world view in which subjective experiences do not easily fit in. Moreover it is a direct consequence of the Cartesian concept of animals as emotionless 'automatons'. According to René Descartes animals aren't even able to feel pain, let alone harbor feelings of affection. Behaviorism, which strove to be a science of behavior, later removed as many of their references to consciousness as possible. This traditional Western body of thought still has considerable influence. Jeffry Moussaieff Masson states on this subject: 'Whether it is an emotion or an instinct, in most scientific circles it is forbidden to say that animals feel love'. He himself mentions cases in which, were they to concern humans, we would speak of love. He describes a family of six wolves, two parents and four young. 'The wolves howled. One of the young was stuck in a trap in a cone-shaped heap of rocks on top of a place where food had been hidden. The other wolves, in their efforts to free the young, had knocked down many of the large rocks and had scraped away much of the frozen earth around the rock the trap was attached to'. A little later Masson adds: To argue that this cannot be compared to human love, as many theorists do, is a classic example of what Roger Fout (a well-known researcher of sign language in apes) calls the 'rubber ruler', where the criteria change according to whether it concerns human or non-human behavior'. He points out, moreover, that a possible biological background of the behavior that points towards affection, does not imply that it concerns anything other than true affection. It is heart-warming to see that authors like Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, and with him Mark Bekoff , Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall, do not agree with him on the strange issue of rejecting emotions in animals and make a stand for (morally sound) research into this phenomenon. Of course they recognize that knowledge of the ethology of an animal is essential to the interpretation of their behavior. The painful misunderstanding between a visitor of Blijdorp Zoo and gorilla Bokito made this clear in 2007. (A gorilla escaped from his cage and wounded a woman, after a regular visitor misinterpreted the gorilla's signals.) The woman in question said from her hospital bed: 'He is and will always be my darling. Ever since he has lived in Blijdorp, I have communicated with him. When I put my hand on the glass, so did he. When I smiled at him, he smiled back'. A Blijdorp zookeeper had warned the woman several days prior to the attack and asked her to keep her distance and not look the ape in the eye because he could interpret this as a threat. There are, moreover, real urban legends about animal affection. There is a series of photographs on YouTube of a shark which has supposedly been saved from a net by a fisherman. The animal was supposed to be so thankful for this that he has followed the fisherman everywhere since that day. The man is supposedly allowed to pet the frightful shark as if it were an innocent lamb. However much fun the video is, the entire story has been made up and the photographs that have been used are of several different sharks and have nothing at all to do with warm feelings. As far as this subject is concerned the well-known story from antiquity about the slave and the lion is much more plausible. Slave Androcles (or Androclus) healed a lion's painfully swollen leg by removing a long thorn. He dressed the wound and they formed a tight friendship. Years later, this lion is supposed to have recognized Androcles, then condemned to death, in the Roman arena and spared his life. For this reason the emperor eventually pardoned Androcles. Cynical versions of this story exist as well, by the way, in which the lion does indeed recognize Androcles, but still eats him. When we learn to take affection in animals more seriously it will certainly become easier to separate the wheat from the chaff.
This article was published in Vega! magazine 'Lief dier! Genegenheid in de dierenwereld' In: Vega! (Summer 2008) nr 77 (p22-24).
  • Bekoff, M. Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Goodal, J. In the Shadow of Man Orion.
  • Kowalski, G.A. The Souls of Animals Novato: New World Library, 1999.
  • Moussaief Masson, J. & S. McCarthy Wanneer olifanten huilen: het gevoelsleven van dieren. Amsterdam: Vassalucci, 1997. (When Elephants Weep. The Emotional Life of Animals)
  • Waal, F. de Chimpanseepolitiek: macht en seks bij mensapen Amsterdam: Becht, 1982. (Chimpanzee Politics. Power and Seks among Apes)
  • Waal, F de Verzoening: vrede stichten onder mensen en apen Utrecht: Het Spectrum 1988. (Peacemaking among Primates)

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