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Animal Protection > AR Interviews

JEFFREY MASSON: On Science and Animal Emotions
Claudette Vaughan talks to the US author about his latest work.
First published in Vegan Voice.

JEFFREY MASSON began to enjoy real success as a writer with his books about animals. His best-selling book, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, written with Susan McCarthy, has been translated into 20 languages, and sold nearly half a million copies in the US alone.

Jeff's new book about the emotional lives of 'farm' animals is nearly finished. His next two books will be on psychiatry and the holocaust, and the emotional lives of cats.

Q. You have spoken out many times on the emotional lives of animals. Are "scientists" still hostile towards your work?

A. Yes. Very.

Q. Most of us who have companion animals only need to observe them to know that they have rich emotional lives. What in your view is the motive behind denying nonhuman animals an emotional life?

A. It's complicated but right at the top of the list has to be the fact that these animals that are used in research or are extensively farmed are invariably exploited. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that not only do nonhuman animals have a deep, complex emotional life but also they may have more complex emotions than our species does. By this I mean a nonhuman animal may be purer and more powerful in expressing their emotions than we are. This, of course, brings into question our right to treat them as we do. Many scientists want to be able to continue to experiment on them, or else they remain silent in the face of their colleagues experimenting on them. Remember, not all scientists experiment on nonhuman animals but it is very rare that you will find a scientist at a university willing to take a position against his--it's usually his--colleagues. It is not very collegial so he tends to remain silent. When you remain silent for long enough you begin to forget what you originally believed in the first place. You then begin to take up the attitudes that surround you as opposed to thinking for yourself. I think there is a vested interest on the part of almost everybody at a university who has anything to do with animals in remaining ignorant about their true capacity.

Q. Is there any scientific proof you are aware of that states that nonhuman animals don't think or feel?

A. No, there isn't. No scientist in this day and age would claim that, anyway. It would be extremely rare to find a scientist who would say that animals don't feel anything. How they get around it is by saying that it is hard, scientifically, to prove -- and this is perfectly true -- that animals have feelings. It is difficult, but not a lot more difficult, to prove scientifically that you and I have feelings.

Q. This is the root of mechanistic science then, which states that unless it is tangible/physical then it is "difficult" to prove?

A. Right. I mean, if we look at various scientific books now that claim that you can tell what an animal prefers, this gives some in-roads into what an animal is feeling. Those of us that live with companion animals already know you don't need to do that at all -- all you have to do is open your eyes and look. It is the most obvious thing in the world that animals have feelings but some scientists still say, "I won't believe it until there is scientific proof". They are not saying that animals do not have any feelings. What they are saying is this is really a subject that they do not care to think about.

Q. Have you given any thought to how to change the scientific community's attitudes towards emotions in animals?

A. When Elephants Weep first came out it got very, very bad reviews from the scientific community, as you could well imagine, but to my surprise there is now a field of study on the emotions of animals which is becoming more and more legitimate even within a university context. This is because books like mine and others are really prodding scientists into thinking -- not because they think the books themselves are worthwhile -- but they see that the general public is beginning to take a real interest in the subject. I think that's true also in general. Even the most negative people towards animal rights admit that broaching this subject has now been put on the table. It has undoubtedly brought up issues that were formerly ignored. Now because the general public are interested in the questions, scientists feel forced to consider them whereas before they might not have.

I think the way to change scientific attitudes is for there to be a groundswell of public opinion saying, "Hey, look, we are interested in these issues". The more questions that are asked by members of the public, the more scientists feel compelled to start looking at the issues that they didn't look at before.

Q. What was your motivation behind The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals?

A. I mean, hardly anybody is speaking out for these animals because they are not cute and cuddly like nonhuman companions such as cats and dogs.

Actually, that's one of the reasons why I looked into the subject. I didn't have any particular relationship to farm animals myself and I was very curious. What I discovered was very similar to what I found with the emotional life of cats. The more you delve into the question of specific animals and their emotional lives, the more complex it becomes. It is my observation that almost every farm animal has a complex emotional life just as cats and dogs do. This is certainly true of pigs and of chickens. Many people I have met love parrots and many people are besotted with birds in general. I only wish they would remember that a chicken is also a bird. I was recently at a sanctuary where animals had been rescued. There was one particular chicken there that adored human beings. She would jump up on people's laps and just beg to be patted, held and cuddled -- very much like a dog or a cat would. I am convinced that the way we behave towards animals is the way we view them. Pigs, for example, are extraordinarily affectionate so if we treated them from that perspective then they would be just as close to us as our companion animals. What they would do then is open themselves up to us emotionally. I think it is perfectly possible that some of these animals may be our superiors emotionally. I haven't thought about that in detail yet but it wouldn't surprise me that sheep and cows have access to certain emotions that humans are deprived of.

Q. Like what?

A. It seems to me that cows display a certain kind of patience that humans lack, and that almost all of these animals live in the moment. That's generally true of almost all the animals I've looked at over the years. They live for the moment and in the moment much more easily than human beings.

Q. Have you noticed anything about mother animals that cuts across the species barrier?

A. I wrote a book about fatherhood in the animal world (The Emperor's Embrace), because it is so rare to find good fathers in nature. There are very few animals that make wonderful fathers -- yet on the other hand almost every mother in the animal world is a marvellous mother. This is certainly true of chickens and of cows. I go running every day through a cow pasture and I've noticed that when they separate the calves from their mothers they will just bleat for days on end, calling out for their young. They are clearly deeply distressed, much like a human mother would be.

Q. This is a good angle for people who have no understanding of the term "speciesism". Do you agree?

A. Yes. That's exactly what I'm hoping my books will achieve also.

Q. Finally, what is one of the most remarkable farm stories you came across in your research?

A. There are many stories I could convey here but I was very surprised at how frequently the quality of compassion is seen in farm animals I've met. Many people have these stories to tell. I met a quite ordinary farm woman from the Mid-West in the USA, not a veggie or animal rights person at all. She told me about a blind sheep she had who was cared for by a cow. The cow had become extremely close to this blind sheep and would spend all day in her company and would guide the sheep wherever she had to go. They were inseparable. When the blind sheep finally died the cow became so distressed that she absolutely refused to move from the spot and stopped eating. Eventually she too died.

Here was a case of deep friendship across the species barrier for an animal that was handicapped. I think that story is extraordinary.

E-mail jeff@jeffreymasson.com to tell him any animal stories you may have for his next books. Jeffrey Masson's "The Pig Who Sang To The Moon" is out now on farmed animals.

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