Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thoughts on Animal Emotions – A book review of “When Elephants Weep” by Jeffrey Masson

Jeffrey Masson is an interesting fellow who has written a whole slew of books related to animals. “When Elephants Weep” was his first book on animals and their emotional lives, published in 1995, and also the first book I decided to read by him. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals It’s pretty impossible to “prove” that other beings experience feelings and emotions, but that’s just what this book sets out to do. For example, I can look at your face and notice you’re smiling, which is something I do when I’m happy, and then conclude that you’re likely happy – but I can’t prove it. Since it’s impossible to get inside the heads of others, human or otherwise, “proving” feelings is difficult indeed, but it’s also beside the point. Should I assume that you are happy when you smile, or is it best to assume you feel nothing since I can’t prove what you feel one way or another?

It’s a ridiculous idea when the context is human, but science has spent a very long time maintaining that perspective when it comes to other animals. Jeffrey Masson reasons it makes more sense that other animals are like us, instead of unlike us, given that we are, in fact, animals, and we share a great deal of DNA with other creatures on this planet.

He also maintains, and I agree, that most people understand that animals are thinking, feeling beings. Most people will not kick their dog to hear the “machine creak” a la Descartes – nowadays, acts of cruelty against (companion) animals can land someone in prison. Yet somehow this idea that animals don’t suffer (or rather, don’t experience joy, sorrow and other supposed “human” emotions) has persisted in science.

A dog wagging his tail and getting hyper when you say “outside”. A cat curled up in your lap, purring softly. A horse mother nuzzling her little foal. Could these demonstrations of what looks like happiness really just be mechanical, instinctual reactions? Do mothers and fathers just care about propagating their species when they protect their young?

I found myself reading passages from the book (more like stories) aloud to Logan, so entranced was I with animals demonstrating love, anger, jealousy, intelligence, creativity, and so many other feelings us humans have often enjoyed claiming as our own. This book “proves” that animals aren’t perfect, and they are often mysterious, but we still have so much in common with them despite all of our differences.

What I love about this book is that Jeffrey Masson sets out to prove the existence of the emotional lives of animals, and succeeds with a certain degree of conclusiveness that is difficult to dispute. At the same time, despite how well-researched this book is, it lacks jargon and scientific coldness, instead coming across as warm, friendly, and easy to read and understand.

Despite the authors’ natural warmth, this book isn’t remotely close to the territory of being “fluffy”. There’s genuine substance here (the oodles of references can attest to that), not just touchy-feely animal lover stuff. I would definitely lend this book to anyone who enjoys arguing that animals, since they’re incapable of complex language, are also incapable of complex feeling – or even any feeling at all.

Jeffrey does occasionally draw parallels to our behavior toward the animals we eat versus the animals we’re friends with. We understand that animals feel pain, suffering and unhappiness (even fish and chicken), yet we’re eager to turn a blind eye to this when we want to eat them. Most of us wouldn’t dream of hurting our cats and dogs (and as mentioned earlier, we could get arrested for it), but yet we subject cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and fish to all kinds of torture and torment. There is a disparity between how we intuitively feel about animals and our actions toward them.

Instead of morally condemning us for this inconsistent behavior, he simply raises these questions, musing on his own point of view, while allowing us, the readers, to come to our own conclusions.

All in all, When Elephants Weep is a fantastic and engaging read, and one that inspired me to seek out more books by the author, which I’ll inevitably discuss here soon. J


  1. I have just added this book to my must read list! I think many of us live in a false reality, refusing to believe that the meat on the table could have had the same emotions as our beloved cats and dogs.

    So great that you teach piano - I teach 7th grade Social Studies in Tucson, AZ. We're in a year round school - so we end in May and begin again in July. When does school typically start in Canada?

  2. I have a friend who teaches 4th grade - and loves it! They are still sweet and eager to please. So different from 7th graders... they are either laughing or crying...They definitely make each day.... interesting. :)

  3. I couldn't agree more about the animals we house vs the animals we eat. I have done a post about that as well. Im going to look for that book next time Im at the library or bookstore.. Have you read Eating Animals by jonathan saffron foer? Just found your blog through another and have bookmarked :) looking forward to reading more!

  4. Honestly I've enjoyed everything I've read by Jeffrey Masson, but this is definitely up there in my favorites. Though 'Raising the Peaceable Kingdom' is top of the list - I couldn't put that book down!

    I did read Eating Animals, back when it first came out. I appreciated his perspective and lovely use of language, though I didn't agree with him on all fronts. That's pretty typical though :)

  5. Oh, hey, I read this book! A looooong time ago, long before going vegan. What stuck with me the strongest about it was this idea that people KNOW animals have emotion, but they confuse emotion and intellect. What animals lack is intellect. Like, I know that my cat doesn't consider deep thoughts, or wonder if God exists, or understand why I want her to poop in the box. But she certainly has emotion, and, in fact, animals are emotional creatures first and foremost. So, although my cat doesn't understand that 2+2=4, she seeks pleasure, and gets scared, and wants to be around me, and feels wary of strangers, and thinks it would be super-fun if she could get at the birds outside (though she's not hungry). Animals are pure emotion, but not as smart as even a small human child. However, like April in Parks and Recreation says about animals, "They should be rewarded for not being people! I hate people."