When Elephants Weep

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 1996-05-02
  • Publisher: Delta

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This national bestseller exploring the complex emotional lives of animals was hailed as "a masterpiece" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and as "marvelous" by Jane Goodall. The popularity ofWhen Elephants Weephas swept the nation, as author Jeffrey Masson appeared onDateline NBC, Good Morning America,and was profiled inPeoplefor his ground-breaking and fascinating study. Not since Darwin'sThe Expression of Emotions in Man and Animalshas a book so thoroughly and effectively explored the full range of emotions that exist throughout the animal kingdom. From dancing squirrels to bashful gorillas to spiteful killer whales, Masson and coauthor Susan McCarthy bring forth fascinating anecdotes and illuminating insights that offer powerful proof of the existence of animal emotion. Chapters on love, joy, anger, fear, shame, compassion, and loneliness are framed by a provocative re-evaluation of how we treat animals, from hunting and eating them to scientific experimentation. Forming a complete and compelling picture of the inner lives of animals,When Elephants Weepassures that we will never look at animals in the same way again.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prologue: Searching the Heart of the Otherp. xiii
In Defense of Emotionsp. 1
Unfeeling Brutesp. 24
Fear, Hope, and the Terrors of Dreamsp. 45
Love and Friendshipp. 64
Grief, Sadness, and the Bones of Elephantsp. 91
A Capacity for Joyp. 111
Rage, Dominance, and Cruelty in Peace and Warp. 133
Compassion, Rescue, and the Altruism Debatep. 154
Shame, Blushing, and Hidden Secretsp. 179
Beauty, the Bears, and the Setting Sunp. 192
The Religious Impulse, Justice, and the Inexpressiblep. 212
Conclusion: Sharing the World with Feeling Creaturesp. 226
Notesp. 237
Bibliographyp. 270
Indexp. 283
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.


Prologue: Searching the Heart of the Other

"The Indian elephant is said sometimes to weep."
--Charles Darwin

Animals cry. At least, they vocalize pain or distress, and in many cases seem to call for help. Most people believe, therefore, that animals can be unhappy and also that they have such primal feelings as happiness, anger, and fear. The ordinary layperson readily believes that his dog, her cat, their parrot or horse, feels. They not only believe it but have constant evidence of it before their eyes. All of us have extraordinary stories of animals we know well. But there is a tremendous gap between the commonsense viewpoint and that of official science on this subject. By dint of rigorous training and great efforts of the mind, most modern scientists--especially those who study the behavior of animals--have succeeded in becoming almost blind to these matters.

I was led to my interest in animal emotions by experiences with animals--some traumatic, some deeply touching--as well as by the seeming opacity and inaccessibility of human feelings compared with their undiluted purity and clarity, at times, in my animal friends, and especially of animals in the wild.

In 1987 I visited a south Indian game reserve known for its wild elephants. Early one morning I set out with a friend to walk in the forest. After a mile or so we came across a herd of about ten elephants, including small calves, peacefully grazing. My friend stopped at a respectful distance, but I walked closer, halting about twenty feet away. One large elephant looked toward me and flapped his ears.

Knowing nothing about elephants, I had no idea this was a warning. Blissfully ignorant, as if I were in a zoo or in the presence of Babar or some other story-book elephant, I felt it was time to commune with the elephants. Remembering a Sanskrit verse for saluting Ganesha, the Hindu god who takes elephant form, I called "Bhoh, gajendra"--Greetings, Lord of the Elephants.

The elephant trumpeted; for a second I thought it was his return greeting. Then his sudden, surprisingly agile turn and thunderous charge in my direction made it all too clear that he did not participate in my elephant fantasies. I was aghast to see a two-ton animal come hurtling toward me. It was not cute and did not resemble Ganesha. I turned and ran wildly.

I knew I was in real danger and could feel the elephant gaining on me. (Elephants, I later learned in horror, can run faster than people, up to twenty-eight miles an hour.) Deciding I would be safest in a tree, I ran to an overhanging branch and leapt up. It was too high. I ran around the tree and raced into tall grass. Still trumpeting menacingly, the elephant came running around the tree in close pursuit. He clearly meant to see me dead, to knock me down with his trunk and trample me. I thought I had only a few seconds to live and was nearly delirious with fear. I remember thinking, "How could you have been so stupid as to approach a wild elephant?" I tripped and fell in the high grass.

The elephant stopped, having lost sight of me. He raised his trunk and sniffed the air, searching out my scent. Fortunately for me they have rather poor vision. I realized I had better not move. After a few long moments he turned away and raced off in another direction, looking for me. Soon I quietly picked myself up and, trembling, made my way slowly back to where my terrified friend had stood watching the whole episode, convinced she would witness my death.

Rudimentary knowledge of elephants would have kept me safe: a herd with small calves is particularly alert to danger; elephants don't like their space invaded; flapping ears are a direct warning. The encounter itself was nothing but a projection of my own wish that a wild elephant would want to meet me.

It was wrong to think that I could communicate with a strange elephant under these circumstances. Yet he communicated very clearly to me: he was angry and I should leave. I believe this is a realistic description.

By contrast with animals, people's emotions are often distanced. For example, I experience heightened emotions in dreams--anger, love, jealousy, relief, curiosity, compassion--to a degree of intensity that is not paralleled in waking life. To whom do those emotions belong? Are they mine? Are they what I imagine a feeling to be like? In the dream there is nothing abstract about them: I feel extraordinary love, always for people for whom, in fact, I do feel love, just not to that degree. As a former psychoanalyst, I thought that these were feelings I had somehow repressed in my day life, and only had access to the real feelings in my night life. I theorized that the feelings were real, only access to them was barred. The feelings were always there, but could only become conscious at certain moments when some part of me was off guard--asleep, as it were. Somehow my ego had to be circumvented, an end run needed to be made, and they were there waiting, pure, unsullied, ready. Might animals have the more ready access to this feeling world that was largely denied my waking self?

Then there is the question of the feelings of others. What could be more interesting than what others feel? Do they feel the same things I do? I have found it hard to find out by talking, or even by reading. Songs, poems, literature, walking in the woods, evoke certain feelings. Sometimes they are strange, complex, inexplicable, even bizarre, often intense beyond comprehension. Where does this come from? I have long wondered. Why am I feeling this? What am I feeling? How could I name this?

In my training as a psychoanalyst, I discovered that analysts were not really all that interested in emotions. Or rather, they confined their interest to interpreting an emotion's meaning to the psyche or discussing whether an emotion was appropriate or inappropriate. I thought appropriateness was a ridiculous category. Emotions simply were. Moreover, they seemed to come unbidden. They were mysterious guests, hard to capture. Sometimes I thought I could feel something for only a brief second, or fraction of a second, but then it was gone and could not be recalled. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and remember a feeling I had once had and experience a kind of loss.

Psychoanalysis purports to be about feelings, especially deep feelings. For psychoanalysts the essence of a person is not what is thought or achieved, but what is felt. The standard, almost humorous, therapist question, "How do you feel about that?" turned out to be quintessential and hard to answer. We do not always know--hence the notion, early in Freud's work, of unconscious emotions, ones to which we are denied access. The early goal of psychoanalysis to make the unconscious conscious was directed toward bringing feelings into awareness, raising submerged emotions to the surface. Yet the question of emotions in dreams was and is barely touched in the psychological literature.

What fascinated me about animals was the ready access they seemed to have to their emotions. No animal, it seemed to me, needed to dream to feel. They demonstrated their feelings constantly. Annoy them, they have no hesitation in showing it. Please a cat, it purrs and rubs itself against you. What could appear as contented as a cat? A dog wags its tail and looks more genuinely pleased to see you than any human. What could appear as happy as a dog? Could anything seem as peaceful as a cow? Or are these merely human projections?

As a child, I had a duck that seemed to think I was its mother. It followed me everywhere. When we went on vacation, a neighbor offered to care for it. On our return, I eagerly asked how my duck was and he replied, "Delicious." I became a vegetarian that day. I still cannot bear to eat anything with eyes. The reproach is too deep.

I love dogs; it has always been clear to me that they lead extremely intense emotional lives. "No, Misha, no walk just now." What? The ears would cock. Can I have heard right? "Sorry, Misha, but no." Unmistakable. The ears flop. Misha would throw himself onto the floor. There was no mistaking the pure disappointment he was feeling. Just as unmistakable was his intense joy when I would say, "Okay, get your leash, we're going for a walk" and the sheer pleasure Misha felt on his walks, his delight at racing ahead, chasing leaves, doubling back, tearing off into the forest and returning behind and ahead of me. The contentment when we got home, built a fire, and I sat down to read, he to rest next to me, his face on my knee, was equally apparent. As he grew old, and could no longer walk as well, I could almost see him visit the scenes of his earlier life in his imagination. Nostalgia, in a dog? Well, why not? Darwin thought it possible.

In his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin had dared to imagine a dog's conscious life: "But can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory and some power of imagination, as strewn by his dreams, never reflects on his past pleasures in the chase? and this would be a form of selfconsciousness." Even more evocatively, he asked: "Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion?" He was unafraid to speculate about areas that seemed to require further investigation.

Another reason I began thinking in some depth about animal emotions was the common experience of going to a zoo. We have all seen the look of forlorn sadness on the face of an orangutan, wolves pacing nervously up and down, gorillas sitting motionless, seemingly in despair, or perhaps having abandoned all hope of ever being free.

A pivotal book in my thinking about animal emotions was Donald Griffin's The Question of Animal Awareness. Attacked in many quarters upon its publication in 1976, it discussed the possible intellectual lives of animals and asked whether science was examining issues of their cognition and consciousness fairly. While Griffin did not explore emotion, he pointed to it as an area that needed investigation. Convincing and intellectually exciting, it made me want to read a comparable work on animal emotions, but I learned that there was almost no investigation of the emotional lives of animals in the modern scientific literature.

Why should this be so? One reason is that scientists, animal behaviorists, zoologists, and ethologists are fearful of being accused of anthropomorphism, a form of scientific blasphemy. Not only are the emotions of animals not a respectable field of study, the words associated with emotions are not supposed to be applied to them. Why is it controversial to discuss the inner lives of animals, their emotional capacities, their feelings of joy, disappointment, nostalgia, and sadness? Jane Goodall has recently written of her work with chimpanzees: "When, in the early 1960s, I brazenly used such words as 'childhood,' 'adolescence,' 'motivation,' 'excitement,' and 'mood,' I was much criticized. Even worse was my crime of suggesting that chimpanzees had 'personalities.' I was ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman animals and was thus guilty of that worst of ethological sins--anthropomorphism."

Hungry to learn more systematically about animal emotions, I found that the book I wanted to read was yet to be written. So I started researching accounts of specific animals.

Among the first people I asked about the emotional lives of animals were researchers working with dolphins. Dolphins show such delight in performing, even in creating new performances of their own, that an elaborate emotional component seems obvious. I visited Marine World Africa USA, near Berkeley, California, to meet Diana Reiss, a leading dolphin researcher. She showed me "her" four dolphins in their large, clean tank, all clearly eyeing her, watching her movements, eager for her to come into the water and play with them. I wanted to think they were happy that they liked being there. I asked her. Oh, yes, she said, they feed, they mate, they are physically healthy, they enjoy the games she invents as part of her research. I nodded in agreement. But is that enough to count as happiness? I remembered what George Adamson, the husband of Joy Adamson of Born Free fame, said in his autobiography: "A lion is not a lion if it is only free to eat, to sleep and to copulate. It deserves to be free to hunt and to choose its own prey; to look for and find its own mate; to fight for and hold its own territory; and to die where it was born--in the wild. It should have the same rights as we have."

Thinking that experts who work with and study animals might offer observations in person that they would be reluctant to put into a scientific article, I asked other renowned scholars of dolphin behavior about their experience with the emotions their dolphins expressed. They were unwilling to speculate or even to offer observations. One said, "I don't know what emotion means." Another referred the matter to his female graduate students, implying that the subject was somehow beneath his scientific (or male?) dignity.

What these scholars said was undermined by what they did. One hugged his prize dolphin in a clearly emotional moment, at least for the researcher. The other could hardly leave at night, so attached had he become to what he called his "subjects." The female graduate students had many stories to tell about mutual affection between researchers and dolphins, even some free-living dolphins. It is hard to believe that these scientists would express intense feelings toward creatures they genuinely felt were emotionally insensate and could not return them or respond to them in any way.

In any event, how can anyone know that an animal feels nothing if the question has never been investigated? To conclude without study that it has no feelings or cannot feel is to proceed on a prejudice, an unscientific bias, in the name of science. This is not the only area in which scientists cling to unscientific dogma. Consider how long psychoanalysts denied the reality of child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse of children occurred long before Freud became interested in it, but his conclusion, without evidence, that it largely did not happen kept it hidden until the women's movement exposed its true prevalence.

Looking for information about how trainers worked with the emotions of the animals they used in their shows, I approached the public relations director at Sea World in San Diego. He told me bluntly that he disapproved of the notion of animal emotions and would not permit Sea World to be associated with my research because it "smacked of anthropomorphism." I was therefore astonished to see the shows there in which the killer whale and the dolphins were trained to wave, shake hands, and splash water at the spectators. They had been trained to behave like people--more precisely, like people who had been bent and formed into amusing slaves in the service of commercial exploitation.

Comparative psychology to this day discusses observable behavior and physical states of animals, and evolutionary explanations for their existence, but shies away from the mental states that are inextricably involved in that behavior. When such states are examined, the focus is on cognition, not emotion. The more recent discipline of ethology, the science of animal behavior, with its insistence on distinctions between species, also seeks functional and causal, rather than emotive, explanations for behavior. The causal explanations center on theories of "ultimate causation"--the animal pairs because this increases reproductive success--as distinguished from "proximate causation"--the animal pairs because it has fallen in love. Although the two explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive--one of the best-known figures of ethology, Konrad Lorenz, spoke confidently of animals falling in love, becoming demoralized, or mourning--the field as a whole has continued to treat emotions as unworthy of scientific attention.

With the advent of laboratory studies of animals, especially in the 1960s, the distance maintained from the world of animal feelings became even greater. This distance supported scientists who do painful experiments on animals in believing that animals feel no pain or suffering, or at least that the pain animals feel is removed enough from the pain humans feel that one need not take it into account in devising experiments. The professional and financial interests in continuing animal experimentation help to explain at least some resistance to the notion that animals have a complex emotional life and are capable of experiencing not only pain but the higher emotions such as love, compassion, altruism, disappointment, and nostalgia. To acknowledge such a possibility implies certain moral obligations. If chimpanzees can experience loneliness and mental anguish, it is obviously wrong to use them for experiments in which they are isolated and anticipate daily pain. At the very least, this poses a matter for serious debate--a debate that has scarcely begun.

Some of the most innovative work being done with animals today is directed at language use, self-awareness, and other cognitive abilities, so that the willful blindness of science to the world of animal emotions seems on the verge of crumbling. The enticing subjects of cognition and consciousness are both easier to test and more respectable than that of emotion. Intelligence is certainly fascinating, but an animal, like a human, need not be intelligent to have feelings. What data there is on animal emotions comes not from laboratory work but from field studies. Some of the most esteemed animal researchers of our day, from Jane Goodall to Frans de Waal, from time to time defy orthodoxy and from their position of eminence within their fields use words like love and suffering to describe animals. Yet these aspects of their work are virtually ignored, and it remains professionally risky for less well established scientists to use such terms.

But there are signs of significant change. Recently Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a scientist at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote in the preface to her book Ape Language:

It is possible, if one looks beyond the slightly differently shaped face, to read the emotions of apes as easily and as accurately as one reads the emotions and feelings of other human beings. There are few feelings that apes do not share with us, except perhaps self-hatred. They certainly experience and express exuberance, joy, guilt, remorse, disdain, disbelief, awe, sadness, wonder, tenderness, loyalty, anger, distrust, and love. Someday, perhaps, we will be able to demonstrate the existence of such emotions at a neurological level. Until then, only those who live and interact with apes as closely as they do with members of their own species will be able to understand the immense depth of the behavioral similarities between ape and man.
Knowing what we feel is one way to judge whether an animal feels something similar, but may not be the only, or even the best way. Are animals' similarities or differences from humans the only, or even the most important, issue? Surely we can train ourselves to an empathic imaginative sympathy for another species. Taught what to look for in facial features, gestures, postures, behavior, we could learn to be more open and more sensitive. We need to exercise our imaginative faculties, stretch them beyond where they have already taken us, and observe things we have never been able to see before. We need not be limited by ourselves as the reference point, by what has already been written, by the existing consensus among scientists. What do we have to lose in taking the imaginative leap to broaden our sympathies and our horizons? I decided to explore what had been written about animals in scientific studies to see whether they contained buried information about their emotions, even if they did not contain explicit discussions of such matters. As yet no prominent scientist has undertaken a sustained treatment of animal emotions. It is to be hoped, for the sake of animals as well as humans, that scientists will be persuaded to look more seriously at the feelings of the animals who share the world with us.

In this book I try to show that animals of all kinds lead complex emotional lives. Although many scientists have believed that the animals they observed had emotions, few have written about it. This is why my co-author and I have sifted a large body of scientific literature, looking for the unacknowledged evidence. I have drawn on a long list of expert witnesses, in particular scientists who have studied wild animals in the field. I have kept largely to work by recognized scientists, so that even skeptics will see that evidence comes from a wide range of careful studies of animals in different environments.

These field studies show what most laypeople have always believed: that animals love and suffer, cry and laugh; their hearts rise up in anticipation and fall in despair. They are lonely, in love, disappointed, or curious; they look back with nostalgia and anticipate future happiness. They feel.

No one who has lived with an animal would deny this. But many scientists do just that, which is why I have tried to address their worries in more detail than might be necessary for the ordinary person. "It's obvious," says the pet owner; "It's an enormous claim," says the scientist. This book attempts to bridge the gap between the knowledge of the person who has always observed animals without prejudice, and the scientific mind that does not want to venture into such emotional territory.

Many scientists have avoided thinking about the feelings of animals because they have been frightened--and realistically so--of being accused of anthropomorphism. That is why I have looked carefully at the issue of anthropomorphism. If it can be disposed of as a false criticism, then the study of animal emotions can proceed on a scientific basis, freed from a bogus fear.

I have also tried to look objectively at the arguments of evolutionary biology and ask, when do they help explain the real emotional lives that animals display and when are they used to dismiss that reality?

As you read you may be surprised by the unexpected emotional behavior of some animals: an elephant who keeps a pet mouse; a chimpanzee awaiting the return of her dead baby; a bear lost in rapture as it watches the sunset; ice-skating buffalo; a parrot who means what he says; a dolphin inventing her own games--and through it all, scientists who refuse to acknowledge what will probably seem obvious to you.

In the conclusion I will discuss some of the moral choices that flow from an accurate understanding of animal emotions. We will have seen that animals feel anger, fear, love, joy, shame, compassion, and loneliness to a degree that you will not find outside the pages of fiction or fable. Perhaps this will affect not only the way you think about animals, but how you treat them. The clearer it became to me that animals have deep feelings, the more outraged I grew at the thought of any kind of animal experimentation. Can we justify these experiments when we know what animals feel as they undergo these tortures? Is it possible to go on eating animals when we know how they suffer? We are horrified when we read, even in fiction, of people who kill other people in order to sell parts of their bodies. But every day elephants are slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos for their horns, gorillas for their hands. My hope is that as it begins to dawn on people what feeling creatures these animals are, it will be increasingly difficult to justify these cruel acts.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Half Moon Bay, April 1995

Excerpted from When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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