by Michele Leavitt and Célie Pierre
In 2012, Zoe Weil visited our campus as the Women’s Environmental Leadership awardee, and so began my interest in humane education. Later that year, with three other faculty members, I participated in IHE’s Teaching for a Positive Future online course, and in 2013, as part of a grant for our Honors Program from The Pollination Project, I was able to participate in Teaching for a Positive Future 2. These courses have helped me infuse humane education into my teaching.
During the Spring 2015 semester, I taught the honors sections of Composition and Communication 1 & 2, which was both a delight and a privilege. In our second semester, we focused on persuasive writing, and my students’ projects ranged from a proposal for a diversity web presence for the college to a proposal for a federal bill to address the suffering of exotic animals held as pets, to a proposal for early childhood education in American Sign Language.
One of our readings was IHE staffer Marsha Rakestraw’s blog post, “Beating the Backfire Effect,” and one of my students in particular made excellent use of what she learned from that article. Célie Pierre’s topic was educating children about animal emotions; she wanted to change commonly-held beliefs that animals are not like humans, but she wanted to be sure to avoid triggering the “backfire effect.” One of Célie’s strategies was to establish common ground with her audience by beginning her argument with a focus on companion animals. From there, she branched out into discussion of animals from different settings and categories, including human animals. Throughout her article, she interweaves science and fact with her appeal. Was Célie successful? Read her article and let us know!
Educating for Empathy
by Célie Pierre
Like us, animals have a variety of emotions. We understand that humans have emotions because of our own personal experiences with emotion, and because of those experiences we can safely assume that other humans also have similar feelings, allowing us to feel empathy for our own kind. But there are millions of species we share this planet with, each having their own experiences, their own emotions. In non-human animals, emotions may be harder for us to recognize, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We can see emotions all around us.
We see emotions in our beloved companion animals. Dr. Gregory Burns has trained dogs to sit still inside an MRI machine in order to study their brain activity. The caudate nucleus, the area of focus in this study, can anticipate things we enjoy and make predictions about human preference; it can even determine what an individual finds beautiful. In dogs, this area lights up when given hand gestures signifying food, at the scent of familiar humans, and at the sight of their human companion.
In another study, animal behaviorist Dr. Takefumi Kikusui examines the human-dog bonding practice of mutual gazing, or staring into each other’s eyes. Dr. Kikusui looks specifically at the changes in oxytocin, a hormone with relation to bonding and trust, and has been referred to as “the love molecule.” We can see this oxytocin display in the mother-child bond. Human mothers bond with their infants through mutual gazing, creating a positive feedback loop where the mother’s stare causes the baby’s oxytocin to rise, and the baby’s stare causes the mother’s oxytocin to rise. Similarly, with dogs and humans, after playing with each other and gazing into each other’s eyes, both the dogs and the humans oxytocin levels increased, suggesting that our dogs really do love us back.
We see emotions in our closest relatives. During her work on the LANA Project, a study designed to test language acquisition and communication in great apes through the introduction of an artificial language system, Shelley Johnson spent every weekend as caretaker and playmate, socializing with Lana, a chimpanzee, over the course of four years. It wasn’t common for Lana to use language spontaneously, “but when she did,” Johnson states in an interview, “it was striking.” Lana was taught the word ‘no’ in the context of true or false, or to negate a sentence. One day, Johnson explains, Lana wasn’t allowed to have a Coca-Cola, something that she enjoyed, and, in a display of anger, “she slammed her fist into the ‘no’ key repeatedly in protest.”
We see emotions in wild animals. Dave Anderson, captain of a whale watching vessel in California, saw a bottlenose dolphin pushing around a lifeless calf for days. The dolphin, presumably the mother, had been carrying the infant for so long that the dead body had started to decompose. Other dolphins surrounded the pair as the mother mourned.
In his book, “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” Dr. Marc Bekoff recalls a caring friendship between elephants that he observed during his trip to the Samburu Reserve in Northern Kenya. Among the herd was Babyl, a crippled elephant who had trouble keeping up with the others. Rather than abandoning Babyl for slowing them down, the elephants always waited for her, sometimes walking ahead then stopping, allowing her time to catch up. Occasionally, the matriarch would even feed her.
We see emotions in farm animals. When humans become depressed or anxious, we tend to display a negative judgement bias, where we view things in an unfavorable manner. Animal biologist Dr. Daniel Weary has conducted a study to test this bias in dairy cows. His team started by conditioning calves to associate different colored LCD screens with either good or bad; they received an award for white and a time-out for red; there were also neutral blends of pinkish colors. After the calves were dehorned and separated from their mothers, they were less likely to approach the neutral colors, consistent with a negative judgment bias. In other words, these calves, after experiencing trauma, showed signs of depression.
We see emotions in laboratory animals. Neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp found that rats laugh when tickled. When playing with each other, rats emit an ultrasonic chirping sound that indicates happiness; this same chirp occurs when rats are tickled by humans. Researchers also found that laughing rats are optimistic; similarly to the cows, the rats were tested for their judgment bias with neutral stimuli after being tickled, which produced positive, or optimistic, results.
We see emotions in zoo animals. The Brookfield Zoo in Illinois allowed their gorillas to grieve during a “gorilla wake” after Babs, an influential gorilla in the group, was euthanized due to a failing battle with kidney disease. Bana, Babs’ daughter, approached first. She sat next to her mother, held her hand and stroked her stomach. She lay down beside Babs, tucking her head under her mother’s lifeless arm. The other gorillas came to see Babs, some touching her gently. After about a half hour, the gorillas started to leave her; Bana was the last to go. On her way out, she stopped, turned around and stared, took a few steps forward and then turned to stare again.
We see emotions in species all across the animal kingdom. But we humans naturally differ from non-human animals, as all species differ from each other. Which brings us to this all-important question: What if? What if we’re wrong? What if these aren’t emotions? What if these are just animals reacting to stimuli or displaying instinctual behavior ingrained into them over countless generations of evolution? What if we’re just projecting human characteristics onto animals? What if we’re anthropomorphizing?
But what if we’re right? What if science doesn’t have all of the answers yet? What if animals really are feeling, conscious, emotional beings? What if they are, and we’re killing them, and keeping them in confinement for our entertainment, and performing unnecessary experiments on them, and destroying their natural habitats, and contributing to their extinction?
If we change our behaviors towards animals under the assumption that animals are emotional beings, what harm would come of it? If anything, we would’ve needlessly exhibited kindness, compassion, and empathy towards a non-feeling creature; but the benefits of empathy, whoever the recipient, are incredibly valuable.
If we’re right about animal emotions, then it’s important that we acknowledge those emotions and take steps to improve the well-being of all animals. One way of doing that is by teaching children. Kids have a natural affection for animals and recognize that they are living, feeling beings who deserve our kindness and respect. We adults know this too; but we’ve learned to suppress that knowledge, to fight that intuitive feeling, to embrace ignorance in order to more easily eat our meat, wear our leather, and take our drugs.
But, borrowing from the wisdom of Maya Angelou: when you know better, do better. We need to keep the sense of compassion towards animals alive in children. We can eat and clothe ourselves without taking lives, and we can advance science without cruelty. These alternatives exist. And raising a generation of compassionate and empathetic future farmers and scientists is important to the lives of these feeling, conscious, emotional animals. Understanding and respect for species other than our own leads to understanding and respect for other human beings and all of creation.
Encouraging and nurturing a loving, caring, peaceful heart can give this troubled world a hopeful future.
Célie Pierre is a non-traditional honors student majoring in Environmental Writing and Media Studies at Unity College. A Floridian who currently resides in Maine, she has a fondness for the natural world and enjoys photography while spending time in the great outdoors.
A poet and essayist, Michele Leavitt teaches writing and co-directs the Honors Program at Unity College.