Emotions are what makes life worth living. We cherish the sparkle, the sweetness, the tenderness.
But what if it’s the same for animals? What if they also can feel joy and sadness, affection and unhappiness? How would that change the way we perceive them? And how differently would we treat them?
The question crystallized for me when our mare, Misty, died. She was 32 years old, quite elderly for a horse, and for a year and a half she’d had a tumour on her forehead. The vet said the tumour was inoperable, and that as long as she wasn’t in pain, or off her feed, we should just let her be. Let her live out the rest of her life quietly.
The day came, however, when the pain arrived, and we called in the vet. First he gave her a sedative, a needle to make her sleepy, and led her to the lane outside the paddock area. She dozed on her feet, and he gave her a lethal injection.
He recommended that we keep the other two horses in their stalls, « because you never know that they’ll do.’’ But one of those horses was Molly, Misty’s daughter. The two had never been separated, and we felt it would be wrong if Molly were never to know why her mother had disappeared.
So we let both horses out. Lightfoot, the dominant mare, made a cursory inspection of Misty, and returned to the barn. But Molly walked around her, sniffing, and nuzzling, and nickering softly.
Then she, too, returned to the barn, but instead of entering her stall, she turned and stood in the doorway of the barn, ears pointing toward her mother, staring intently. Again, she went to Misty, repeating the process. And again she returned to the barn to stand in the doorway staring at her mother.
She kept repeating this pattern for more than an hour, and she was so attentive and so gentle that we wept, convinced that this was her way of grieving.
Toward the end, we began closing the barn door, a little at a time, until finally, after her last trip to nuzzle Misty, she was content to let us close it for good. Then we opened the other door, that led to the paddock area, and Molly went straight to the fence nearest Misty to stare at her, ears pointing, one last time. At last, she and Lightfoot left, following the fence toward the lower pasture.
Since Misty died, I’ve read Why Elephants Weep (Dell Publishing, $19.95), which argues persuasively that animals do, indeed, have emotions, and that it’s not scientific blasphemy to think so.
In addition, there are the wonderful books of Monty Roberts (The Man Who Listens To Horses, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, $16.95, and Shy Boy, Random House of Canada, $29.95), describing how horses communicate, and how, by conversing with them in their own body language, they can be « gentled’’ for the saddle, without physically breaking their will.
As Roberts says in Shy Boy, « …if you treat an animal well, and feel something for that animal, the affection works both ways.’’
If we were right about Molly, and she was displaying emotion over the death of her mother, then what about other animals? All have the same DNA ingredients. All function according to similar physiological principles. Isn’t fear an emotion? And anger? If animals can feel them, why not gladness? And shame?
We seem to readily accept that dogs and cats have emotions. But moose, and groundhogs, and mice? And, if them, what about spiders, and snakes, and fish? Or partridges and wild turkeys?
I warn you, once you start down this path, and begin thinking about the consequences of deprivation, emotional pain, and loneliness that we are capable of inflicting on other creatures, you’ll begin seeing all life in a different way. You’ll begin feeling a lot less separate and imperial, and lot more like a partner in a community of living things.