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May 15, 2019

Frans de Waal’s Case for Animal Emotions


By Duncan Strauss


For decades, Frans de Waal has been forging a path far out front of those who study animal behavior—ethologists, if you want to get fancy.

But just as scientists and others appeared to be catching up, de Waal has written a new book that seriously shakes things up again, cementing his position as ethologists’ guardian of the vanguard. That book is Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves.

As one measure of its trailblazing importance, The New York Times ran an extended, rapturous review—which began on the front page of the Book Review section—written by Sy Montgomery, herself a revered author about animal matters, who called it “de Waal’s game-changing new book.”

In a Talking Animals conversation on April 3—about three weeks after Mama’s Last Hug was published—de Waal responded to a hypothetical question, inquiring what story he would share with someone who had heard about his latest work, hadn’t yet read it, but was deeply skeptical about its core premise that animals experience an array of emotions just as humans do.

“Well,” de Waal replied, “there’s something you can also do to a young chimp that you can also do to a child: You can tickle them, they have tickling spots and they will laugh.

“They will produce laughing sounds ‘ha, ha, ha,’ and they will have a laugh expression on their face. It’s basically indistinguishable, I think. It’s less loud. It’s softer than in the human, but other than that, it’s very similar.

“And their reactions are similar. They try to push your hands away, but if you move them away, they want them to come back. The interesting thing is that someone has tried the same thing with rats, and that’s Jaak Panksepp, who did neuroscience on rat’s emotions.

“And he started doing the same thing as rats and he found that they also vocalize. So, he brought the vocalizations down to human levels so that we could hear them. And he did the same sort of game with them. And basically, this laugh reaction in a playful context is probably universal—in the mammals, at least.”

This would seem to raise (or re-raise) the question of why many people are still skeptical about the notion of fauna feeling emotions? Oh, sure, folks can recognize anger or aggression in animals. But posit that animals may also experience, let’s say, shame or empathy, and those same folks might well suggest you’ve been spending too much time in the cannabis dispensary.

Frans de Waal: ‘…one of the things I would want to see is that we consume a bit less meat, and that we treat the animals that we do keep in a much better way. That’s certainly the goal that I would have.’

Yet, de Waal argues, this notion is far from outlandish—or even new.

“There was a time in Darwin’s days that you could talk openly about animal emotions,” he said. “Darwin wrote a whole book about it, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

“Then we got a whole century, which I called The Dark Century, dealing with Skinner and his followers—they didn’t want to talk about inner states at all. That’s why they’re called behaviorists.

“They wanted us to pay attention to behavior, and you would not talk about emotions or feelings or thoughts or whatever happens at the interior. And not even just for animals. They also applied this for humans.

“And during that time, there was a big taboo on the emotions. I was taught as a student, you never use the word ’emotion.’ And, yes, you can talk about aggressive behavior—you’re not going to talk about anger. You can talk about escape behavior–you’re not going to talk about fear. So, the emotional terminology became taboo.

“Now, we’re finally living in a [different] time—the last 20 years, I would say—especially because of the neuroscientists, who study fear in the lab rats, and then they put humans in a brain scanner, and showed them scary images, and what lights up in the middle are just the same as in the rat.

“And so, the neuroscientists tell us that a lot of these emotions have things in common between us and other species, and I think they are breaking open that box, and that’s why we are now in a time when we can talk about the emotions again.”

A noted primatologist, de Waal hardly needed that sort of go ahead to talk about animal emotions. He’s been doing that for years, as part of a lengthy, storied career marked by asserting that apes and other animals have greater intelligence and more sophisticated feelings than conventional wisdom suggests.


‘Why humans may have more in common with chimps than we thought’ From PBS Newshour: What can humans learn about ourselves from studying chimpanzees? Primatologist Frans de Waal has spent almost three decades studying the behavior and intelligence of chimpanzees. Now, he’s focused on their emotional lives—and he’s found primates and people aren’t so different in how they react to circumstances

He’s written numerous books, often espousing those positions, including his previous one, the bestseller from 2016, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

In the new book, Mama’s Last Hug, de Waal, drawing on research that he and an array of international colleagues have conducted, unfurls a comprehensive treatise that provides stories about rats, horses, dogs, dolphins, elephants, great apes and other animals, clearly establishing that humans are not the only species with the capacity for love, hate, fear shame, joy, generosity and empathy.

But, really, you could make the case that the premise of Mama’s Last Hug is fully executed in just the opening pages, as de Waal describes a farewell encounter between the titular chimpanzee—the matriarch of the chimp community at the Royal Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands—on her deathbed, and an old friend, the biologist Jan Van Hooff.

“Normally, we never go into the same space where a chimpanzee is, an adult chimpanzee, because that’s far too dangerous to do,” he said. “But in this case, since she was so weakened, and since he had known her for 40 years, had visits with her regularly, they know each other very well, so he went in with her.”

Here’s what happened next, as captured on a video clip that’s gone viral. Mama, clearly frail, declines offers of food and drink, and appears to be resting or napping-until she recognizes Van Hooff. Then, Mama blossoms, her face revealing great joy at seeing her old friend, and reaches out to embrace Van Hooff.

You can observe both of them reacting to the situation, and where it turned powerful and poignant is when it quickly became clear Mama was enormously happy to see Van Hooff—and that she was comforting him.

“That was typically Mama,” de Waal said. “She was the mediator in the group. She was also the one who comforted everyone after fights, and consoled individuals.

“In this case, my guess is that she sensed from the behavior of Jan Van Hooff that he was nervous about it, because, again, he never goes in with the chimps.  So she didn’t just greet him, but also calmed him down. And that is typically her behavior, had been her behavior all the time.”

Mama passed away soon after this encounter, on April 5, 2016, at age 59, old for a captive chimp.

Mama, the 59-year-old chimpanzee who inspired Mama’s Last Hug, lay dying when she was visited by her old friend, the biologist Jan Van Hooff, and proceeded to comfort him.

Toward the end of the Talking Animals conversation with de Waal, a listener called in, posing a big-picture question, lamenting that it may be “a thousand years before animals get any kind of rights” and wondering if de Waal thinks his research may help in that regard, while also noting he has two wonderful cats with definite personalities “and I just love them, but yet, there I am on a Friday afternoon, barbecuing nice big steaks on the grill. So where’s all this going?”

De Waal paused for a moment, then replied: “Yeah, I don’t know where all this is going. I wonder. We are putting an enormous pressure now on animal life in the wild. Of course, there’s many species disappearing, and we have these billions and billions of animals that we keep in the agricultural industry. And I think both cases represent the crisis. I think the way we treat animals in the farm industry is a crisis in a way, and the ecological disaster is looming over our heads.

“So I think it’s not going in the right direction. Let me say it that way. And I think one of the things I would want to see is that we consume a bit less meat, and that we treat the animals that we do keep in a much better way. That’s certainly the goal that I would have.”

Click here to listen to the Frans de Waal interview on Talking Animals


About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.

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