The Emotional Lives of Animals

New World Library, 248 pp., 2007; $23.95
By Mark Derr, November 2008
The Emotional Lives of Animals
New World Library, 248 pp., 2007; $23.95

During a long research trip in the middle of the final decade of the last millennium, I was talking with a wildlife biologist about coyotes and dogs when Marc Bekoff’s name popped up, logically enough, since over the past quarter of a century, he already had contributed significantly to the understanding of both.

“I’ve seen him at meetings,” the biologist said. “He’s a bit out there on the animal emotion and animal rights stuff.” An understated man, the biologist meant the opposite, of course. He was a bit nonplussed when I responded that as nearly as I could tell, Bekoff was a respected scientist who knew from hard research that animals were sentient beings and who believed that they should be treated with respect.

“We must look to our actions and see if they are consistent with our knowledge and beliefs,” Bekoff himself writes in his new book, The Emotional Lives of Animals. “I feel strongly that ethics should always inform science.”

Ethics—and emotion, it appears—have shaped his scientific career since, circa 1970, he quit medical school after being required (as part of a biology experiment) to kill a cat he’d raised and named Speedo. “To this day I remember his unwavering eyes—they told the whole story of the interminable pain and indignity he had endured,” he writes of Speedo on the fatal day.

Bekoff had named Speedo in contravention of the rules against naming research animals, precisely because to do so is to grant them being. He “resolved never to conduct research that involved intentionally inflicting pain or causing the death of another being,” and took up ethology. He started with canids—coyotes, dogs and wolves—using them as his teachers and guides into the world of animal emotion. During his revolutionary career, he’s also looked into the eye of—or at least closely watched the body language of—penguins, western evening grosbeaks, Steller’s jays, and African elephants. In these pages, he also describes magpies mourning one of their own and a fox burying her fallen mate.

Death and play wind through this text, illuminating Bekoff’s central thesis—that “animals do experience rich emotions and do suffer from all sorts of pain, perhaps even to a greater degree than humans.” Play reveals a sense of morality, defined here as “an internalized set of rules for how to act within a community.” Those include “cooperation, reciprocity, empathy and helping.” We understand now what the dog’s play bow communicates because of Bekoff’s pioneering dozen-year study. It seems obvious once you see the bow, but first you have to learn to see.

Bekoff is one of a scant handful of ethologists (now generally called wildlife, or conservation, biologists—including Jane Goodall, who provides a foreword) who for decades have bucked the conventional scientific view of animals as mere stimulus-response machines, beings who feel no pain and certainly don’t think or have emotion. Individual members of that group paid for being out front on this issue with lost grants, professional ostracism and, sometimes, public opprobrium.

What set Bekoff apart from most members of even that group was his willingness to let ethics direct his science and his life, while allowing what he learned through science to shape his ethics. The book reflects the man’s interests and passions. It feels a bit rushed and stuck together, but then he’s always rushing, as the rest of the world catches up with him.

Anyone interested in animal emotion will want a copy of this book. Bekoff speaks with the unique authority of an expert who is experiencing the success of a revolution in science and ethics that he helped make and that will endure (if we endure) as one of the signal achievements—along with the expansion of human rights and environmentalism—of the late 20th century.


Mark Derr is the author of A Dog's History of America, Dog's Best Friend, The Frontiersman: The Real Life and Many Legends of Davy Crockett, Some Kind of Paradise and How The Dog Became the Dog and numerous articles on science, environment and transportation. He blogs for Psychology Today.

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