The Truth About Animal Emotions

It is time, as our collective philosophies and cultures mature, to once and forever acknowledge what all individuals in the animal-related fields who work with animals know without doubt. Not only the professional keepers at zoos and institutions, but individuals that love and cherish their individual domestic animals know equally well. What is this vague and illusive truth? 


Aren’t we all a bit weary and tired of having even the hint of a serious debate on a subject that really is as evident to anyone—professional or layman—that spends any degree of time really getting to know an animal, that to deny animals’ complex range of feelings and emotions should have gone by the wayside at the same time we realized the Earth is not flat?

The view of animals as non-feeling creatures of reflex was made popular by Descartes’ philosophy of science in the 1600’s. Four hundred years ago! Not too long after the concept of a flat Earth was debunked. Yet, with the tremendous strides that have been made in understanding of feelings and emotions, Descartes’ approach is still followed by a surprising group of well-educated scientists and institutions. 

Why does this foolish myth continue to be seriously debated? A cynical person might recognize that there are many industries that rely upon animals for such commercial activities as animal testing and medical research that would face great moral outrage and a conscientious dilemma if they allowed themselves to recognize the emotional comparisons to the human species. Yet, they continue to experiment with animals such as social primates who have over 98% of the same DNA as do humans. Of course, DNA and genealogical comparisons were not even understood when this sort of research was initially condoned.

There are also a large number of individuals who were raised with a tradition of hunting for pleasure and who continue to practice this form of “recreation” who would really have to examine their souls and character if they were to recognize that the sources of their “recreation” were sentient beings with strong emotions, love of family, and able to feel the same degree of fear and pain as do the perpetrators of this “sport.” Yet the same people frequently go home and relate anecdotes about their dog/s’ and/or cats’ individual emotional traits in the same vein as a human friends’ identical traits. We all know people that fall into that category. 

Another factor that contributes to the concealment and attempt to deny what all common sense and objective observation by caring individuals know to be true is the fact that uniquely, most all animal-related institutions are managed and run by scientists. What other field, other than medical research, is run and managed by scientists? Science has a vital function in our society, but how many people would choose a scientist to make a determination about the emotional well-being—or the existence of any emotional trait—in themselves or any of one’s loved ones?

We quite properly are very careful in selecting someone with impeccable psychiatric/psychological education, training, and experience for any opinions that we would take any action upon, whose opinions we would give credence, or accept as any authoritative viewpoint on the subject of the emotional makeup of anyone close to us, or of our own emotional characteristics. 

Yet, in a charade synonymous with the old fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” we accept as fact so many concepts about “generic” animals’ feelings and emotions that we would never accept for any animals we have raised and know well. Just like the fable, everyone accepts what has been articulated by authoritative figures with the “cloak of authority,” just like the citizens in the fable accepted that their naked Emperor in fact had on lovely, stylish garb because they were told that by people that had similar “cloaks of authority.”

These scientists, who learned their field of expertise by experimenting with animals for the “good of knowledge and science” now dictate to a gullible public the concepts their culture must perpetuate in order to justify its methods and practices.

Also, scientists want proof to a scientific certainty about any subject they address. Think about it: how would you prove that you were happy? That you were depressed? That you needed to be alone one day? Is there any way you could prove—or expect others to prove—to a scientific certainty about any emotions you or they had?

I am reminded of a farce carried out for a national television audience not too many years ago. Before a Congressional Committee, all the chief executives of all the major tobacco companies—in sworn testimony—spoke one after another stating with a straight face that there was no scientific proof that tobacco caused addiction. At the same time, scientists with lots of initials behind their name made the talk show circuit articulating the same message. And, even though these positions flew in the face of what all intelligent citizens knew to be the real truth, there was a somewhat serious discussion and controversy at the time about the subject! The analogy is unmistakable. 

At this point, I must state that my experience is that most keepers at zoos and other facilities—even circuses—that house animals genuinely care for the animals under their care, and the animals would be much better off if those keepers had more authority and decision-making responsibility for the animals’ welfare, training, interaction with humans, and habitat construction. I have been pleasantly surprised in almost all my visits with keeper staff, observing that they have a great fondness and interest in the best interests of the animals under their care. The real problem is obviously the people in authority that obtain their position due to management skills, budget-cutting expertise, scientific achievements, or the ability to navigate the diplomatic “mine field.” Somehow, having achieved those positions, they become the recognized authorities on everything having to do with animals by the media and hence the public, without careful examination of their real experience and expertise base in those areas.

My experience is with a vast variety of animals, both wild and domestic. While I spend most of my time with wild animals, I have—and have always had—a large number of domestic animals as well. At the time of this writing I have 15 domestic animals. 

Having had over 40,000 individual unprotected contacts with large cats alone, I feel I know something about their emotional makeup. I could give anecdote after anecdote to reinforce my assurance that they have emotional ranges and characteristics that rival that of humans. Certainly they are different: the large cats and most predators are also a combination of strong instincts together with a total lack of inhibitions, which means that sometimes “in the moment” they will act upon an instinctual stimulus without hesitation. This event gives rise to the attitude that a wild animal has “turned on” some human. Actually, it is a momentary event from the animal’s viewpoint, and an hour earlier or an hour later the animal would doubtless be affectionate and gentle with the same human.

I currently work, in my capacity as Animal Behaviorist at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, with 30 different exotic cats that had previously had adversarial experiences with humans and had learned to hate, resent, or be agitated by humans’ presence. I find that, in all of these cats, a huge range of emotions and deep sensitivity is present that would rival any human’s capacity to express emotions.

 The females flirt, they become irritable before coming in heat, they play flirtatious games such as moving away from me and waiting for me to follow them, then occasionally duplicating the action to see if I will continuously follow them; if I don’t, they will understand they’ve gone too far and come back to me, lying across my legs or beside me and end the flirtation. The females have quite different moods day-to-day, ranging from aloof indifference, to unbelievable affection, to irritation with any close contact. These moods depend on many internal and external causes, most of which I can identify. Each, of course, is an individual with her own personality characteristics.

The males, on the other hand, tend to be much more consistent, ranging from macho indifference, to aloof acceptance of affection, to playful testing of whether I deserve their respect. Again, it depends on the individual personality of the specific cat. Each cat is quite different, and unlike conventional thinking, the differences are more pronounced cat-to-cat, rather than species-to-species.

With other wild animals, I have experienced many deep and complex emotions, far beyond what I have experienced with humans, actually. As an example, I lived with a Canadian timber wolf for 17 years. When her German shepherd playmate died, she sniffed him, then sat back and gave the most soulful and heart-wrenching howl I’ve ever heard! It lasted quite a while. She’d never howled in that manner before, nor did she ever again afterwards. She was also quite a female. She would flirt, tease, be as loving and gentle as a lamb, and she was quite sensitive to my moods and would respond appropriately to whatever I was feeling with great care and thought. When she became quite ill, could not even lift her head, and compassion dictated I take her to the veterinarian and say “Goodbye,” as I was holding her head in my arms at the last minute while the veterinarian was preparing, she looked deeply into my eyes and, with great effort, lifted her head to lick my face one last time. I will never in my life forget that last effort; a desire to let me know I was doing the right thing and she loved me for it!

Recently, the female half of my North American river otter pair died. Penny had been with me for 12 years, and her mate, Petey, had been with me for 14 years. Petey cried out loud for over a week after her death, and his mood became so depressed I worried that he would die himself. He would lie in my arms for hours, and then he would want me to carry him about when I got up. Even swimming was devoid of any excitement, play, or activity. He would simply float about in the water for a while before getting out and going to sleep. For those that know anything about river otters, this is quite abnormal behavior. 

I initiated a nationwide search for a mate for Petey. A few months later I found Lulu in Montana. She is 3 years old. Within days after Lulu arrived, Petey became animated, and his old loving and playful personality emerged. But, he is different. He will now lie in my lap for long periods and look up at me with the softest, most loving look in his eyes. There is no question what he is saying. He’s saying, “I understand what you did for me, and believe me I appreciate it,” or something like that. He is so gentle and loving with me now, beyond anything that he exhibited for 14 years! He also plays with Lulu with increased gentleness and care, obviously exhibiting the fact that he has learned not to take his mate’s presence or love for granted. It makes me smile and feel great warmth inside every day when I’m watching them interact. Lulu had also lost her mate, and while I didn’t know her before, I gather that she also appreciates the relationship a great deal. She is unbelievably gentle with Petey, and she seems mindful of the fact he is quite a bit older and needs his rest. She then looks to me to substitute as a playmate, and she is quite loving and affectionate with me as well. 

I could write a book on anecdotes such as these. Perhaps one day I will. However, they only represent an infinitesimal view of the emotional ranges and intensity I have found with animals. I didn’t give any anecdotes on similar experiences with domestic animals. Without doubt, the readers have many similar stories just as intense that they could contribute in the domestic animal area. 

If you agree with the truths I have articulated in this article, there are many things that individuals can do to help shape future treatment and attitudes. For one thing, make sure the facilities that harbor animals in your area treat their animals with dignity and respect. Did you know that many facilities refer to their animals as “exhibits,” rather than giving them the dignity of individual names and the respect that would follow? Did you know that many facilities routinely break up family units and send a loving mate to another facility for breeding purposes without consideration to the relationship that is being shattered? Did you know that the documentation of most facilities refers to an animal in such ways as “specimen 1022,” or something to that effect? Not even the care and consideration of referring to their name? For identification, of course, a number could easily be inserted after their name. The mindset that perpetuates these procedures as acceptable reflects an attitude that needs to be changed. Only if the organization/facility harboring animals has an attitude of respect, dignity, and compassion towards their charges will they be able to educate the public properly and foster an appropriate concern for the future conservation, respect, and well-being of animals on this Earth heading into the future.

I hope I have given some voice to the thoughts shared by so many millions of people that hesitate to think they have the knowledge and expertise to contradict seemingly knowledgeable and experienced “experts” that question the emotional complexity and character of our animal friends. When you find someone that questions these self-evident truths, delve further into their background, actual experience, and motivation.

About Louis Dorfman

He has worked with many species of wild animals for over 60 years, both in protected and unprotected contact. At IEAS he rehabilitates exotic cats that have been abandoned, abused, and/or confiscated and in most cases changes the reactions of the cats to humans from one of fear and hate to an attitude that the humans are there for security and support for the resident cats. Over the years, he has worked with over 150 exotic cats at the sanctuary alone.