The Sunday Magazine

Science is revealing more about animals' rich, complex inner lives

Marc Bekoff says it's not just companion animals like dogs and cats that have real intelligence and emotions. And it has profound importance for humans' relationship with animals.
Expert Marc Bekoff says more animals than we think have emotional consciousness. Take octopi for example, which demonstrate phenomenal creativity and problem-solving acumen.

The depiction of animals as intelligent, thinking beings with emotions has been the stuff of fairy tales, folklore and mythology in Western culture for centuries.

Until relatively recently, though, Western science has been less receptive to the idea that animals have a sophisticated form of consciousness.

We do think of some animals — like dogs, horses, dolphins or chimpanzees — as having superior cognitive capacities, or abilities to connect emotionally with their own kind or with humans.

But most of us wouldn't typically think of a sheep or a crustacean as having a rich inner life.

As science grapples with just how little it knows about the mysteries of human consciousness, it's also reassessing the complexity of animal minds.

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, and whose books include The Emotional Lives of Animals, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, Canine Confidential and Unleashing Your Dog, argues there's very little debate anymore over whether animals have real consciousness.

More cognitive animals

"Some people like to draw some kind of taxonomic line. They'll say, 'Well, mammals have it all, but not birds or fishes or reptiles, amphibians or invertebrates,'" Bekoff told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

"But I don't think that anybody who looks at available data and also just uses common sense would debate that the number of animals in that cognitive, emotional consciousness arena seems to grow every day, actually."

It's a view that runs counter to the more traditional position that animals act primarily out of instinct.

Bekoff said animals are "hardwired" with certain behaviours to aid their survival.

"But what I think is really phenomenally interesting, from ants to wolves and chimpanzees, is the flexibility non-human animals show in different situations," he said.

"They're able to change their behaviour by pondering the situation in which they find themselves and show remarkable flexibility in behaviour to adapt to those situations."

Crows and ravens can differentiate between human faces and remember the ones who mistreated them. (Ben Lovatt)

Examples from the growing body of research on animal cognition are legion.

For example, crows and ravens can differentiate between human faces and remember the ones who mistreated them. Elephants have rituals to pay respects to their dying and grieve their dead.

Octopi demonstrate phenomenal creativity and problem-solving acumen. And city dwellers are all too familiar with the exasperating ability of raccoons to foil every attempt by humans to keep them out of our garbage.

Another indicator that animals don't just act by instinct, but actually learn behaviours and actively solve problems, is their use of tools.

"Some would argue the best data come from great apes," said Bekoff.

"There are populations of chimpanzees where they use a certain tool in a certain way, and it's transmitted through generations there. And then there are other populations where you don't see tool use at all and others where you see a unique form of tool use."

Animals feel fear, embarassment

Not only that, but Bekoff argues that research shows animals feeling a complex range of emotions, from fear and anger to jealousy, anxiety, happiness and even embarrassment.

And his own study of dogs socializing and playing with each other strongly suggests they have codes of ethics and a sense of right and wrong.

A more expansive picture of animal consciousness, moreover, has moral implications for humans' treatment of animals.

"From an ethical point of view, it really raises the bar and means that we just can't go about treating non-human animals as second-class citizens," said Bekoff.

"In our book, The Animals Agenda, we develop what we call the science of animal well-being, because the science of animal welfare, in the end, assumes it's OK to use animals for human ends if we're doing the best we can and treating them the best we can. It's too bad if they suffer some, but we're doing the best we can.

"The science of animal well-being says that the interests of every single individual matters. It's saying that each and every individual counts and doing the best we can is not good enough if they still suffer [or] die at the hands of humans for basically human ends."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.