You will probably never in your lifetime a book or magazine article or behavioral study, or see a movie or TV show that does not tell you that that animals are more intelligent than we thought, that they understand our language more than was believed, that they have more and deeper emotions than we ever imagined. In fact, the more we study them, the more we learn about them, the more like us they really are.
I can testify that there is no fame, glory or money in saying otherwise. Just look at the best-selling animal books on Amazon, the movies about dogs and the steady and very profitable stream of reports that the emotional lives of animals are so much deeper than we thought, in fact beyond our imagination or experience.
Marc Bekoff's much publicized new book The Emotional Lives Of Animals, concludes – along with so many other recent authors – that animals have emotional lives that are rich, filled with joy, empathy, grief, embarrassment, anger and love. Small wonder so many people believe the carriage horses of New York are pining for a more meaningful life.
Poor things, we are turning our animals into seers and prophets and sob sisters, we are so disappointed in our own.
Every year or so, National Geographic or some other magazine seems to discover that border collies now know enough words to write a novel. I can't imagine trying to market a book claiming that animals are not learning much more than they already known. I've lived with border collies for 15 years and I'm still trying to teach them these words: "don't try to herd the plow truck!" Mostly they seem excited by the words "get the sheep" and don't seem to really need too many more words than that.
Journalism, academe and culture do not exist apart from the popular will and pocket book. If we want to believe it, somebody out there will sell it to us. We believe what we need to believe. No producer, editor or publisher editor wants to buy anything these days that announces after years of study that are wonderful in their own right just the way they are, and are fairly elemental beings. Nobody wants to pay for that.
I can't imagine any academic seeking a grant to say that animals are simpler than we make them out to be and do not ever feel joy or embarrassment or envy. I had dinner with a famous behaviorist last year on a book tour and as we talked about the emotional lives of animals, she puffed on a thin elegant cigar and said "animals have not changed in many thousands of years, they don't really change. What changes is what we need them to be."
I have seen first hand that animals have emotions as well as instincts, I see curiosity, empathy, a sense of loss and confusion. I seed neediness, affection and an ethereal kind of spirituality. And I see amazing instincts and adaptability. But more than that, I see that the really rich emotions regarding animals are coming from needy and disconnected human beings. We live increasingly live lives that are often llonely, angry, polarized, fearful and fragmented. We are always discovering what we wish animals to be, rather than celebrating what they really are.
This has put many animals – I am thinking today of the New York Carriage Horses, among many others – in an unprecedented position and in a tight spot – in the case of the horses a life-threatening one. If you read through the writings and beliefs of the people who wish to ban the horses from New York, you will see, as I have, that so much of their language and feelings about the horses and their needs are framed in the most intense emotional language and in the most emotional assumptions about their "thoughts". It is not a fact-based movement, it is based on very new and largely unsubstantiated ideas about the emotional lives of animals. You will read that the horses are "depressed," and "dejected," that they are "lonely," and "yearn" for pastures with grass. They are sad and suffering, "unhappy," because they want to "socialize" with other horses, they "dislike" living in the city and are "overworked" and "stressed."
Thus, the horses need to be "rescued" from us, and their homes, "saved" from the cruel deprivations of people.
If you substitute people, or even adult New Yorker for "horses," these emotions are familiar and often expressed. They are what many people feel. If you live with or research the emotional lives of animals, you know, or soon enough learn that these words are simply not relevant to them – they are not applicable to them – at least not in the eyes of almost every reputable veterinarian or behaviorist or trainer, or almost anyone who lives with animals as opposed to only rescuing or personifying them.
The impending and possibly tragic drama of the carriage horses reminds us that we are going over the top in our perceptions about animals, we are losing perspective.
The very interesting thing to me about the emotional lives of animals, something I have been watching, studying and thinking about for many years, is not how much we know about the interior lives of animals, but how little we still know. It is not how much they are changing, but how little they change. Dog training is a catastrophe in America, only a handful of dogs are trained at all, let alone well, surprising given how much we think we know about what they are thinking and how many experts there are selling us books about them. Instead of seeking to understand how animals like dogs and horses really do think, we continuously – and arrogantly – insist on telling them what they think. This is called projection, and it has become epidemic in the way Americans are coming to see animals.
I've lived with animals for decades now, studied them every day, and I generally do well by avoiding too many books, behavioral studies and training manuals about them. I do read a lot, and books are often useful, but I prefer to rely on what I see, not on what I am told to see or what people think the animal must see.
I love the animals I live with – dogs, donkeys, sheep, cats and chickens now, cows and goats and a horse at other times – and I greatly respect their instincts, traditions and adaptability. I cannot say I have seem them evolve in these years, certainly not in the ways I keep reading about and hearing about. I find the donkeys and the dogs to be profoundly intuitive, I am in awe of their instincts, many of which are often confused with emotions. I find the sheep and chickens to be pretty much what they appear to be – efficient eating machines.
In the case of the New York horses, I am sorry to see them personified and emotionalized in such an extreme way. Animals tend to accept where they are, they love traditional and familiarity, their adaptability is their most visible, continuous and remarkable trait. They need to be fed and sheltered, they need activity and attention, they need vigilant and responsive health care. They need attention. The animals I have known need to be around other animals of their kinds, I don't permit any of my animals to be one of a kind. They are intensely aware of one another, but they adapt quickly to loss, I have never seen an animal grieve for a substantial period of time. Not for people, not for other animals. I often see arousal, I would never call it joy. In the case of the donkeys especially, I see both intuition and empathy for one another, sometimes even for me.
I have never seen a shred of evidence from anyone who knows animals that they yearn for places other than which they live, or other kinds. They do not experience fantasies or nostalgia. Socializing for them is not like socializing for us, they don't need to hold hands, play cards, have long talks or snuggle in bed. They just need to be aware of one another, in sight of each other.
Every animal I have known, and I have been around domesticated ones, has needed focus, work, a purpose in their lives, I do believe animals have a sort of instinctual ego, a sense of being noticed and appreciated, of doing work well, of being spoken to in upbeat and approving and positive ways, they do pick up those cues from the people around them, I see that every day. When I praise my dogs or donkeys, their ears go up, they light up, puff up, get a bit aroused. It's nice. I imagine the loss of it would be very real for a dog or a working horse.
I cannot imagine an animal caring whether he or she is in the city or the country. Just look at the happy dogs in New York City play groups, they are not yearning for the primal woods, they are happy to be with their people, to go to the same place every day, find the same tree every day, see other dogs and get fed and given attention. Can one imagine anybody telling the dog owners of New York that they must give their dogs away and sell them only to people in the country who must promise not to let them work? That only this would make them "happy?" The emotional lives of animals are not complex, it does not take a lot to please them, they do not envy other animals the lives they have.
I remember every single day that animals do not have words or language, they do not have the narratives of life that we humans carry in our heads, the stories of security, contentment, happiness and longing. Animals do not fear what they do not know, they have no concept of death, they feel everything but do not experience suffering consciously, as in the language of pity or lament. They experience it through their exquisite feelings, their suffering is no less than ours, but so different. I learn something every day from being around my animals, and one of the most elemental things I have learned is that I can't learn anything from them if I am telling them what they think, rather than listening and observing. And respecting their animalness, for lack of a better term.
Animals don't need for us to pile our neuroses onto them, they emotional lives often seem to me to be far superior to ours.
In the coming days I'm going to write more about animals here on the blog, it's an important subject for me, one I've written a bunch of books about, and am soon to begin on another one.
We can learn so much from animals, but we can't learn a thing from our animal partners in the world if they are taken away from us, if we are not around them and can never see them. What a loss for them, and for us. There is little point to the lives of domesticated animals who work with people if they are no longer to be domesticated, working, or with people. They are simply consumers of hay and grass, just like humans given no role but to eat or eliminate.
They call that prison.