Chimpanzees, and other animals, have a richer emotional life than we thinkby Frans De Waal / December 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Pondering what needs to change in the coming decade, I become depressed. Normally, I am an optimist, but so much seems to be going wrong in today’s world, from its ugly politics to the ecological mess we have created, and the way we treat those who look different from us. I have no authority to speak on these issues, except when it comes to one category of creature that looks even more different and is treated even more shabbily. Pope Francis hinted at the connection when he said: “Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings.”
Changes in our attitude towards animals are long overdue. This applies equally to certain academic disciplines, which still place our species closer to the gods than to the rest of the animal kingdom, as well as to how we treat the animals in our care. The only possible exception is those we keep at home. They often lead pampered lives, whereas all other animals are left out in the cold.
On old-fashioned farms, animals had names, pastures to graze in, mud to wallow in, or sand to dust-bathe in. Life was far from idyllic, but it was appreciably better than it is nowadays when we lock up calves and pigs in narrow crates of stainless steel, cram chickens by the thousands into sunless sheds, and often don’t even let cows graze outside anymore. Instead, we keep them standing in their own waste. Since these animals are mostly kept out of sight, people rarely get to see their miserable conditions.
There are continuities between the emotional lives of humans and other animals. Take the video clip of Mama, the alpha female of the large chimpanzee colony at Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands, and her embrace with my professor, Jan van Hooff. From the public reaction to this encounter, I learned that many people were both intensely moved and surprised that apes express themselves the same way we do. While I fully understood the first reaction, the second took me by surprise. Science has been saying for 50 years that chimps are our closest relatives, so why wouldn’t this include their emotional lives?