The Emotions Of Animals, Human and Otherwise

The media was recently abuzz over the pathetic (in the classic, rather than the modern, sense) behavior of the dog Hawkeye at the funeral of his master, Navy SEAL Petty Officer Jon Tumilson, captured in photo and video.

Experts apparently disagree over whether Hawkeye might really have experienced grief comparable to that of humans. “Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist and senior director of counseling at the A.S.P.C.A.”, as cited by The New York Times’s Well Blog, apparently believes that he could have:

[W]hile no one can know for sure simply by looking at the image, she believed that the dog was aware that his owner was in the casket. Many dogs go through a grieving process similar to what humans experience after the death of a spouse or friend but with some differences, she said. Some dogs have been known, for example, to stay near or return to the places where they last saw their owners, in many cases their grave sites.

“There are famous stories of dogs returning to a grave site every day for five years, and you can’t account for that by saying he can smell the body there,” she said. “In fact, dogs return to the grave sites of their companion dogs and animals that they grow up with.”

Anthrozoologist Dr. John Bradshaw and cognitive scientist Prof. Alexandra Horowitz seem to disagree, declaring that “non-human animals” have no concept of death, and that their cognitive experience is fundamentally different from that of humans (from about 29:40 into the audio):

[Horowitz:] To me, it does look like a kind of grieving. I mean, we have to realize that dogs are extremely tightly attached to their owners – to use a psychological term, they form a strong bond with the people with whom they live, and it’s not surprising at all to me that a dog would go to the odor1 of even a non-living person who had been in their family, and they’ll notice an absence of somebody. Now, is the experience identical to that of a child, who might have a now absent parent? I don’t think it is identical to that of a child, because the cognitive experience is different from humans to dogs. That’s my impression, and John might have another take on it.

[Bradshaw:] No, I think I would tend to agree with that. We don’t think dogs have a concept of death – I mean, that’s a clear distinction to be made. The finality of death is something that doesn’t really appear in the human repertoire perhaps until a child is four or five years old, and there’s no evidence that any animal has an idea of death, as a concept, but of course what they can do, and what they do do, is .. the attachment figure. It’s just like a dog that’s been left alone in the house, the dog wants to reattach itself, find its owner, if you like, and can’t do that because the door is closed. Likewise, if somebody’s died, then that person’s dog will seek to, and try to, reattach themselves to that person. There was a case over here where a mountain rescue dog was with somebody doing mountain rescue, that person had a heart attack and died on the mountain, wasn’t found for about a day, and the dog was still lying beside him. I don’t think the dog knew that the person was dead, his handler was dead, but he did know that that was where he needed to be, because that that was where all good things came from.

Rambam, however, agrees with LaFarge, flatly insisting that with regard to emotions such as maternal feeling “[t]here is no difference … between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings”, as such emotions are rooted not in reason, but in the imaginative faculty, which is shared by “most living things”:

וכן נאסר לשחוט אותו ואת בנו ביום אחד, סייג והרחקה, שמא ישחט מהם הבן לפני האם, כי צער בעלי חיים בכך גדול מאוד, כי אין הבדל בין צער האדם בכך וצער שאר בעלי חיים, כי אהבת האם וחנינתה על הבן אינו תוצאה של ההגיון, אלא פעולת הכוח המדמה המצוי ברוב בעלי החיים כמציאותו באדם.2

It is also prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day (Lev. xxii. 28), in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.3

See also Rav Michael Dov (Ber) Weissmandel’s incredible hypothesis that the increase in depression in contemporary times may be attributable to the consumption of milk from cows that are uneasy and depressed due to the frustration of their mating urges.

  1. The implication that dogs’ attraction to the bodies of their deceased “family” members can only be explained via odor is what LaFarge attempts to refute by adducing “famous stories of dogs returning to a grave site every day for five years”, which we cannot account for “by saying he can smell the body there”, but she unfortunately does not document these tales. []
  2. מורה נבוכים (תרגומו של ר’ יוסף קאפח), חלק שלישי פרק מ”ח – קשר []
  3. Translation of Michael Friedländer – link.