Animals appreciate life’s pleasures

Rats enjoy being tickled, sheep prefer people to smile and birds are mean music critics. If you have your doubts, just ask Dr Jonathan Balcombe.

The Canadian-Brit is animal behaviour research scientist for the physicians committee for responsible medicine in Washington, DC and author of a book that has been taking the world of science by storm: Pleasurable Kingdom.

He has also published numerous scientific papers and magazine articles on a range of animal behaviour-based topics such as communication in bats, turtle nesting and the breeding habits of birds.

Pleasurable Kingdom takes his extensive research into hedonic ethology — the study of pleasure in animals — to its obvious conclusion and explores new evidence that animals enjoy themselves every bit as thoroughly as humans do, laying to rest the notion that their lives are a constant and grim struggle for survival against the odds.

In its pages, Balcombe suggests that mammals and birds feel fabulous after bouts of play, sex, touch, or food and gain comfort from one another in times of stress, even feeling grief for the loss of a loved one. Yes, loved one. Animals, like us, have emotions.

Balcombe uses hard scientific evidence, eloquent argument and often funny anecdotes to make his case that evolution favours sensory rewards because they drive things to stay alive and reproduce.

Balcombe’s research has enormous ethical ramifications for our interaction and relationships with the creatures we share this planet with. It also turns on its head the widely held scientific belief that anthropomorphism — the transferral of typically human emotions such as love and fear on to animals and inanimate objects — is something only animated movies should do and that we, as humans, should never assume to know what animals think or feel.

This is something Balcombe firmly repudiates.

“The claim that we can never know what animals feel is terribly defeatist and cynical,” he says. “We don’t deny feelings to other humans just because we can’t, in the absolute physical sense, feel what they feel. We know animals can feel because having feelings aids survival, because feelings arise from nervous and sensory systems shared by other creatures and because their emotional and physical responses echo ours in similar situations. Some scientists are now suggesting that certain animals may have more intense feelings than we do. I agree.”

Balcombe says that emotions are an ancient phenomenon and probably evolved before consciousness. Primary emotions — fear, anger, lust, sadness and joy — are often attributed to animals, but Balcombe adds to these jealousy, elation, surprise, embarrassment, disgust, depression, exhilaration, satisfaction and curiosity.

“I have often wondered if a vulture ever feels disgust and would like to bet that if it pecks at an eye and discovers it is a glass eye, it would experience disappointment.”

Balcombe also feels that it is likely animals possess some emotions which are beyond the realm of human experience.

His inspiration for Pleasurable Kingdom was keen observation of emotional displays in everyday animals – among them his dog, Begs.

In an anecdote many of us will identify with, Balcombe tells of how Begs would hate to be bathed, standing in the bathtub with his tail between his legs looking positively miserable while being shampooed and rinsed. But, a transformation would occur when the dog was removed from the bath to be dried.

“He would explode with glee and tear around the house at full speed, excitedly bouncing off furniture,” says Balcombe. “Whether he was happy at being liberated from the bath is a moot point. I like to think he was just feeling fantastic after a good scrub, the way we do when we’ve had a bath and are wonderfully clean again.”

The ethical implications of Balcombe’s research are far-reaching. Put simply, if animals feel good things, they have quality of life — a life worth living. As such humans should not deprive them of their chance to enjoy their time on Earth, particularly for trivial reasons, which Balcombe claims account for more than 99,9% of cases of animal exploitation.

Pleasurable Kingdom has received a largely positive response from the public and the scientific community alike.

“There have been criticisms of my not being scientific and relying too heavily on anecdote,” says Balcombe, adding that the few negative reviews are overshadowed by the positive.

“I think the scientific establishment is beginning to awaken from a prolonged period of agnosticism regarding animal feelings. A week doesn’t pass now without a new study showing starling optimism, orangutan problem solving, or rats knowing what they know,” he says.

Rats, it would seem, know how to party. When they play, their brains release large amounts of the pleasure compound dopamine.

During his studies, Balcombe discovered that they love to be tickled and would run towards his hand, “begging” to have their tummies rubbed. Sound recordings made at the time showed that the rats emitted high-pitched squeaks and titters remarkably similar to giggles, although beyond the range of human hearing.

Balcombe also found that wallabies calibrate the boisterousness of their play to the age of their playing partner and that ravens are noted players.

“Two ravens played ‘rodeo’ on two wind-whipped power lines, taking turns trying to grasp the second wire in their bill and hanging on as long as possible.”

A study on food responses in sheep found that they prefer a photo of the face of a just-fed sheep to that of a hungry one and, amazingly, a smiling human face to an angry-looking one.

When it comes to that most primeval of emotional activities — sex — Balcombe documented widespread non-procreative sexual behaviour in animals including copulating outside the breeding season, homosexual couplings, masturbation and oral stimulation.

“Monkeys exhibit orgasmic responses, including rhythmic vaginal contractions, increased breathing and heart rate, clitoral engorgement and vaginal expansion, and the male red-billed buffalo weaver sports a penis-like appendage, which he massages against a female during 15 minutes of animated foreplay leading to apparent orgasm,” says Balcombe.

And love, it would seem, is equally important in the animal kingdom.

“Love is adaptive for species for which close social bonds aid survival and successful procreation, such as primates, dolphins, parrots and geese. The same applies for species with prolonged offspring dependence, as in many mammal species.”

A sense of humour is also something we share with certain animals. “Dusky dolphins sneak up on gulls resting on the water; they gently grab and briefly dunk the bird before letting go; the bird flutters, kicks, preens frenziedly, then flies off,” explains Balcombe.

When it comes to birds, they are apparently music fans, with trained finches able to assign newly heard pieces of music to familiar composers and pigeons able to generalise Baroque from modern genres.

And finally, words of warning from Balcombe for anyone considering a sojourn in the bush — if you’re off on a game drive, don’t wear Calvin Klein’s fragrance Obsession for Men… it is strongly seductive to female cheetahs!

“When we acknowledge animals as feeling individuals, we realise that while we may have no moral obligation to provide pleasure to others, depriving them of opportunities to seek their own pleasures — as we do when we cage, confine and kill — is a serious moral issue.

“Like us, animals are not just pain-avoiders, but pleasure-seekers, and the world is richer for it.”

Keep the powerful accountable

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Sharon Van Wyk
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