Do animals have emotions?

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Look deep into her eyes ... Is she sad or do we just think so? Many scientists now believe that animals feel emotions too

John-Paul Flintoff

A three-month-old baby died in its mother’s arms earlier this month. For hours the mother, Gana, gently shook and stroked her son Claudio, apparently trying to restore movement to his lolling head and limp arms. People who watched were moved to tears — unfazed by the fact that Gana and Claudio were “only” gorillas in Münster zoo, northern Germany.

It wasn’t just witnesses who were moved. A British woman who read about Gana’s loss online posted this comment: “From one bereaved mother to another — Gana, you are in my thoughts. My baby boy died last June and you wouldn’t wish it on any form of life.”

Some, to be fair, reacted differently. One newspaper writer asked bluntly whether we are “ too quick to project human feelings onto animals”. However, Dr Bill Sellers, a primatologist at Manchester University, believes gorillas experience pain and loss in a similar way to humans, “but of course it’s extremely difficult to prove scientifically”.

As Einstein said: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” Only a few years ago doctors did not give anaesthetics to tiny babies, believing they did not feel pain. By focusing narrowly on specifics — in this case, the emotional capacity of animals — scientists may fail to take account of what seems obvious and meaningful to the rest of us. The scientific experience of the world must seem a bit like watching a football match at night, with a single spotlight instead of floodlights.