Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Jeffrey Masson
Interview by Laura Moretti

"When animals are no longer colonized and appropriated by us, we can reach out to our evolutionary cousins. Perhaps then the ancient hope for a deeper emotional connection across the species barrier, for closeness and participation in a realm of feelings now beyond our imagination, will be realized."

Q: Have you always wondered whether animals have emotions?

A: As a child, when I visited zoos, I felt sad. The animals looked bored and lonely. When I mentioned this to adults, they told me that the animals were "happy" to be there. I wondered how they knew, and why the animals didn't seem happy to me. I thought even then that I would like to know more about how and animals feel.

Q: responses did scientists give you when you asked them about animal emotions?

A: We learned that there was no serious attempt to look at animal emotions since Darwin's book in 1872. Younger scientists learned that there were some questions that would not advance their careers and they turned away from them: animal emotions was one of those questions.

Q: Does your book prove animals have emotions?

A: It is probably impossible to prove that humans have emotions, and, indeed, some scientists probably think they don't. After all, the fact that somebody tells you they are feeling an emotion is no guarantee that they are. They could be deluded; they could be lying; they could be ignorant. Behavior is a more reliable indicator of human emotion than are words. We look at how people behave to find out they are feeling. The same is true of animals.

Q: Do you think animals express emotions humans do not?

A: Humans seem capable of feeling something (anger, for example) and not knowing it; we call this an unconscious emotion. Animals probably do not experience unconscious emotions. Only humans, it would seem, deceive themselves about they feel. Only humans can love and deny it. Animals know it and show it.

Q: Given the obvious biological differences among species, do you think different species experience different emotions?

A: This is particularly true of elephants. does a baby elephant feel when it is caressing with its trunk the jawbone of its own mother? Is it sadness, nostalgia, or some completely unknown elephantine emotion we do not even have a name for? The words for emotions are just approximations, even in the case of humans. For animals, the approximation is even more remote. We will never know exactly how an animal feels, any more than we will ever know exactly how another human feels. We can guess, and our guesses are probably pretty accurate, but the myriad of feelings are probably unique to each person and each animal.

Q: Did your research change your views?

A: I came to feel that even though I enjoy the taste of meat, and it is much easier to be an omnivore in our culture, I could no longer justify eating flesh. So I became a vegetarian. I can no longer appreciate animal theme parks, zoos and other forms of confinement, either.

Q: Would you say knowing animals feel complex and similar emotions as humans has enriched your own life?

A: I would say that my life is richer because I believe animals have emotions, since it allows me to attempt to imagine--and sometimes that requires great flights of fancy and fantasy-- creatures very different from me might feel. And sometimes, when I think I get it, when I can suddenly begin to feel the same as my dogs, I can almost enter another world. I seem to have no control of such moments. I like to believe that at these moments, my dogs and I are feeling something very similar, something that escapes language entirely, and is almost impossible to describe to another person. I feel a bit silly talking about it. Yet it happens. And I cannot help feeling that it happens to my dogs, too. That creates a special and deep bond. We are both creatures of feeling.

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