“Can Animals Have Wives, Husbands, Children, and Orgasms?”

In response to an interview with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) called “Science is revealing more about animals’ rich, complex inner lives” that’s available online, I received a good number of very motivated emails containing extremely interesting observations and, in some instances, even more interesting and “deep” questions about nonhuman animals (animals). The fifth question I received from Ann-Marie was, “Can animals have wives, husbands, children, and dare I ask, orgasms?” Hence, the title of my brief essay. The interview began, “Some people like to draw some kind of taxonomic line. They’ll say, ‘Well, mammals have it all, but not birds or fishes or reptiles, amphibians or invertebrates,’ Bekoff told The Sunday Edition’s host Michael Enright. But I don’t think that anybody who looks at available data and also just uses common sense would debate that the number of animals in that cognitive, emotional consciousness arena seems to grow every day, actually.” Numerous references can be found here, here, and here

I begin with Ann-Marie’s question because it raises a number of questions about the words we use to describe what animals do and feel. Simply put, words matter. My answer to Ann-Marie was, “Yes they can. Many animals form relationships for the purposes of making children, often referred to as ‘offspring’ or ‘young’ in scientific literature, but there’s no reason not to call them ‘children,’ because that’s who they are. And there’s a lot of research on various mating systems that have been observed in other animals and they’re often referred to as being monogamous, polygamous, or polyandrous. If we can use those words we surely can use wives, husbands, and children. In fact, right now, I’ve been observing a House Finch near my home I named Mabel who is waiting to have children and whose husband seems to have gone missing. And yes, there are many observations and ample data suggesting that some nonhumans experience orgasms. Thanks for asking.” One person who read this essay before I posted it jokingly asked, “Maybe animals don’t fake them?” I feel safe in saying that no one really knows. When I talk about Mabel with neighbors and friends, not a single one flinched when I used the words “children” and “husband.”

Another email I received from Celeste read, “I listened to your interview with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition this morning with great delight. I thought you might be interested to hear another real life skill of a raven. It was 18 years ago that I rescued a baby raven, that had fallen out of the nest before fledging, and broken its leg. Living on tiny Pender Island I sent it to a wildlife rescue centre, where it recovered and also learned to fly. I released it right where I’d found it a month later and it flew away with its apparent family.  In the years ever since, this same raven — I think a female — who’s voice I recognize, has been building a nest and raising some babies in the forest right behind our house. Last year, in the middle of the night, our neighbour (a doctor of ornithology) was wakened by the distressing “shouts” of ravens, went outside and discovered a raccoon had grabbed one of the fledglings. She scared it off, and we buried the dead baby in the forest just behind our place. I put a cement flagstone on top and painted a raven feather to identify it. 

A baby raven grave

Source: Celeste V.

A couple of days later, this is what I found — a moulted raven feather lying just as it still is (now wet) a year later.  My partner rolls his eyes at this, but my neighbour and I both ‘get the message’.” I quote it in full because it shows just how important “citizen science” can be and how interested many non-scientists are in the behavior of diverse nonhumans. 

I thanked Celeste for writing to me and for sharing her very interesting observations and referred her to an essay called “Grieving Animals: Saying Goodbye to Friends and Family” I wrote about a wonderful book by John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s called Gifts of the Crow in which they discuss grieving behavior and many other fascinating aspects of bird behavior. 

Here are a few other questions and observations I received. David asked, “Why is it that so many people are afraid to pay attention to ‘the science’ of what we know about how smart and emotional other animals are?” I wrote that while I really don’t know, it’s likely they believe humans are superior and radically different from other animals, but human exceptionalism really doesn’t work in numerous situations. Or it’s possible they deny what we know because it enables them or us to use animals for in ways that cause pain, suffering and death. (See “Animal Emotions: What Must We Do With What We Know?,” “The Rich and Deep Emotional Lives of Dogs in 226 Seconds,” and “Stripping Animals of Emotions is ‘Anti-Scientific & Dumb.’“) How some deal with the cognitive dissonance they feel also is mysterious to me. 

Jean’s email also was very interesting. She asked, “Why don’t people who live with dogs use what they know about them and extend this to other animals?” Once again, I couldn’t really answer her question other than to say that I hope that people would look toward dogs and other companion animals as “gateway species” who could help them bridge the “empathy gap” and apply what they know to a broad spectrum of species. (See “‘Everyone Wants a Lost Dog Found,’ Bridging the Empathy Gap,” Canine Confidential, and Unleashing Your Dog.)

Three more notes are worth mentioning and I hope they and the other emails I received get you thinking more about all that we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. Jim wrote, “My dog, Gus, did something very interesting a few days ago. He was running around in our yard and got a yellow flower petal stuck on his head. We don’t think he knew it was there and he paid it no attention until he walked into the house, passed by a mirror that’s been there for years, stopped, looked into the mirror, and swatted at it with a front paw. My wife and I were shocked. After I heard your interview I figured I’d ask if you had any idea what he was doing?” I wrote back, “Among the many interesting questions in which people who study animal minds are interested is what do they know about themselves.” I went on to explain what the “mirror test” is and how it’s used to study self-awareness in animals, and also referred him to an essay called “Dogs, Mirrors, and Purple Fuzz: Did Honey Know That’s Honey?” and references therein in which I wrote about the mirror test, a similar observation of a dog named Honey, and covered some of what we know about self-awareness in nonhumans. I really wish I knew for sure what Gus and Honey were thinking and knew. 

Alisa wrote, “What about fish?” I wrote that there are a lot of data about the cognitive and emotional lives of fishes and that there is no reason to exclude them from the cognitive, emotional, or consciousness arenas. I also mentioned what we also know about other vertebrates and insects and other invertebrates that should give us pause in writing them off as unthinking or unfeeling beings.

Lastly, Maria wrote, “I’ve always felt animals have feelings, are smarter, and are better ‘people’ than most people I know. I give the example of my cat, Mika, who found my cancer months before the doctors found it. Note – I am fine, no worries, healthy now.  When I came home from the first surgery, the cat hopped up on the bed and sniffed the area, and hasn’t bothered with it again. Thankfully my doctors are animal people too and said if my cat ever gets obsessive about any other part of my body, call and they’ll get me in for an MRI immediately. Would he have been as obsessive over this tumour had it been on someone else?  But at least he caught it for me.” Lucky Maria. There are many observations of dogs and cats being good at detecting various medical conditions and illnesses. 

As I’m writing this essay a few other emails came in with very interesting observations and questions. These included a number of observations of Jon’s dogs using tools to get what he thought was inaccessible food (I suggested he read “Can Dogs Make and Use Tools?” and do a web search), fishes who seem to recognize the humans with whom they live (there’s evidence fishes can recognize human faces), and a question from Erwin whose cats seems to be able to count food items. He wanted to know if cats can count and I wrote it’s possible they can

There’s no reason for humans to be anthropocentrically possessive about certain traits or the use of certain words

 Stay tuned for further discussions of the fascinating cognitive and emotional lives of other animals. I hope these questions and observations get you to think more about what we know about animal minds from scientific research and what you observe and what you know about your companion or other animals. I hope you’re motivate to write down your observations and questions and share them with researchers and with people who simply are interested in what animals think, know, and feel.

All of this information is important in helping us to learn more about the other animals with whom we share our magnificent planet. And, there still is much to learn and we should keep the door open to possibilities that seem unlikely or that some people write off as being “impossible.” Much of what we’ve learned in the past two or so decades was previously written off by a good number of researchers in the past who were anthropocentrically possessive of traits we now know are widespread among diverse nonhumans or who were anthropocentrically possessive and had strong reservations about the use of certain words that truly explain what other animals are doing, thinking, and feeling. Anna-Marie’s question is right on the mark. 

We should all be very glad that narrow views about animal cognition, emotions, and sentience didn’t predominate and a cadre of researchers and other people didn’t submit to some very strong personalities who said, with great authority, something like, “This or that is impossible and uniquely human” or “It’s a waste of time to pursue certain questions about the minds of other animals.”

Clearly, these humancentric views, often made despite what we already knew, were incorrect and are rapidly disappearing as more and more data clearly show that numerous nonhumans are capable of amazing feats of mind and heart. What an exciting time it is to study the lives of other animals.

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Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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