The Emotional Lives of Animals

There’s something so magnificent about these creatures and I think Megan’s painting captures that mystique in the animal’s eyes.

Years ago, I remember reading When Elephants Weep: the Emotional Lives of Animals.   Published in 1996, the book became a national bestseller and parts of it stick with me even today, more than two decades later. For instance, when an elephant is injured or sick and dying, the herd forms a circle around it, all of them facing outward, as if to say, We’re with you, we have your back.

Any pet owner will tell you about incidents when their dog or cat or bird does something that underscores the premise of this book: that animals feel the same way humans do. They mourn, feel happiness, disappointment, triumph, sadness, joy. They aren’t living separately from these emotions; they are immersed in their emotions. Feelings are a sea in which they swim, float, drown.

Some years ago when our Golden Retriever, Jessie, was on her last legs, our cat, Powder, curled up next to her and spent that night – Jessie’s last – next to her, cuddling with her, comforting her. And when we left the next day to have Jessie put down, Powder seemed to understand what had happened when we returned.

In the late 1980s, Rob and I led tours for writers to the Amazon between Leticia, Colombia, and Iquitos, Peru. On one of those trips, we pulled in at an Indian village and I traded several tubes of lipstick and insect repellent for this beautiful Amazonian owl tethered to a young man’s shoulder.

The owl spent the next two days perched on a wooden bar on the main deck of our boat, watching all of us, eating the tidbits of fish we fed him. I was fascinated with this owl, talked to him, and made sure that when we arrived at our destination he would be set free on the animal preserve that was part of where we were staying. I remember that one of the writes, a young guy from New York, laughed at my preoccupation with the owl, and told me I was anthropomorphizing.

“It’s just an owl, Trish. It doesn’t feel anything. No soul there. No comprehension of anything other than anticipation of its next meal.”

“Dude, you need to go live in Central Park. Or in the middle of this jungle.”

Elephants, owls, dogs, cats, birds, any creature great or small, possesses an emotional life. And people who tell you otherwise, who dismiss animals as incapable of anything other than their roles as cogs in a food chain, are to be avoided.

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13 Responses to The Emotional Lives of Animals

  1. Vicki DeLaurentis-momwithwings says:

    Beautiful post. CJ your post had me weeping. I’ve seen so often how emotional pets are. One example was when I was first pregnant my Tabby, Laurence, was all over me. He wouldn’t leave my side almost to the point of being annoying. He would lie on me, lick me etc. to the point I asked him “what is going on with you?” Well, I miscarried at 4 months. I think he could smell that was something was wrong.
    When I got pregnant again the first thing my OB asked was “how’s your cat?”
    During that pregnancy he was his normal loving self. After birth he watched over me and the baby. He would alert me that she was waking up from her nap among other things.
    He was such a special guy.

    • Rob and Trish says:

      What an intriguing experience with the cat, Vicki! And how incredible that your OB recognized the connection!

  2. lauren raine says:

    So true, thank you for this post! The guy from New York is exactly what is wrong with our world. Anyone with a tiny bit of sensitivity knows that animals are intelligent, responsive, emotional, and, well, just like us in different ways. We would all do a lot better if we understood that we’re animals too, privileged to live on this beautiful living planet with All Our Relations.

  3. Vivian Ortiz says:

    Thank you my friend for freeing that owl…thats why I love you

  4. Darren says:

    Your words “feelings are a sea in which they swim, float, drown” above made me think of a poor whale that washed up on a beach last month, a beach that I walked along last year and wrote a post about climbing a hill on that beach and the feelings I had when I was at the top of that hill, which overlooks a sad stretch of beach through time (the same beach this whale washed up on last month) and I also mentioned the residual wave painting of Megan’s –
    I mentioned the whale washing up on that beach in my post about going out whale watching the week the whale washed up on that beach –
    The odds of that whale washing up on that particular stretch of beach that I wrote about last year and the same week I booked for my first ever whale watch is personally astronomical to me.

    • Rob and Trish says:

      Incredibly astronomical! Can’t wait to read about your whale watch! What a cool thing to do.

    • Rob and Trish says:

      Just took a look at your two links. Wow to the whale watching! And thank you for using Megan’s wave painting!

  5. C.J. says:

    I’m with you, DJan. I would weep my way thru it! When our first Yellow Lab, LabyGirl, began to have major seizures at age eleven, our compassionate vet correctly diagnosed a brain tumor. Of course we had to have her laid to rest. We also had a gray female Tabby who was LadyGirl’s best friend. Before we had KittyKitty spayed, and prior to LadyGirl’s illness, KittyKitty had one small litter of babies. Whenever she went outside, she would carry each baby in her gentle mouth and leave it with LadyGirl. Once all the babies were safely in the canine “babysitter’s” care, she went outside. Those tiny kittens played all over LadyGirl; they crawled on her back, turned upside down on her face, did all the happy things kittens do. LadyGirl adored them. When her seizures began, KittyKitty would jump up on the arm of the sofa, not moving a hair, and never let her eyes leave LadyGirl. When the seizure passed, she would then jump down and go directly to her best friend, nudging her, licking her, loving her, then would lay down cuddled between LadyGirl’s paws. This is the most difficult part….
    two days after LadyGirl was put to rest, KittyKitty simply lay down in her bed that she had shared with her friend, and she died. Our vet found nothing amiss with KittyKitty.
    The diagnosis was a broken heart. No one will ever, ever make me believe that animals don’t have souls. I often think they are more highly evolved than humans. Thank you, MacGregors, for this beautiful post.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I have so many stories about animal emotions – mostly from my cats. A book’s worth, am sure. As do you. Maybe that could be your next book. All the animal lovers would buy it – an instant best seller.

    I don’t like or trust people who don’t like animals. They don’t really like people either.

  7. DJan says:

    I totally agree with you, Trish, on all these points. Of course animals weep and laugh and cry, just as we do. And I do avoid those people. Hope your owl was set free without incident. I couldn’t read that book because I would be weeping throughout. I already know that elephants weep, and why. 🙁