How did a Professor of Sanskrit and a Freudian psychoanalyst
come to write about the emotional lives of animals? I grew up as
a vegetarian. When I went off to Harvard to study Sanskrit however,
I found it too difficult to stay vegetarian, and for years I ate
meat, always with some qualms and a kind of moral self-disgust.
I knew it was wrong, but I was not sure why.
After many years at the University of Toronto, where I was Professor
of Indian Studies and where I trained, for eight years as a psychoanalyst,
I discovered that I did not like psychoanalysis and I was no longer
interested in academics. So I renounced my members in Sanskrit,
and my membership of the analytic establishment and turned to my
earliest love, animals. I had seen that we really knew very little
about the emotional lives of humans. Could the reason possibly be
that we had neglected to study the lives of our evolutionary cousins,
animals? I began doing research about the emotional lives of animals
in the wild, especially elephants. I learned that almost all animals
had complex and deep emotions. Elephants, for example, feel grief
for the death of other elephants as deep as our own, and mourn
them in particularly poignant ways. There have been reports of
elephants refusing to leave the body of a dead relative, with some
elephants removing the tusks, and hiding them in the jungle, as
if they somehow knew that humans were hunting elephants for their
ivory. Young elephants who had seen their mothers killed in front
of them, would often wake up in the night screaming, evidently
from nightmares in which they relived the trauma they had been
through as witnesses of mass murder.
The more I researched the topic, the more clear it became to me
that we had been remarkably short-sighted when we thought we were
the only species to have profound feelings. I wrote up my research
in a book called When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.
To my surprise, this book became a New York Times best seller,
and was translated into more than twenty languages. The more I thought
about the implications of my own study, the more I realized I could
no longer go on eating meat, and I became a vegetarian again. My
next book was about dogs, animals I had always loved and shared
my home with. I soon realized that when it came to purity and intensity
of emotions, especially positive emotions like love, loyalty, compassion,
generosity and joy, dogs were probably our superior, that is, they
felt some of these emotions more purely and more intensely than
did most humans. The book I wrote, Dogs Never Lie About Love, also
became an international best seller.
I turned my attention to fatherhood: were there lessons to be
learned in the animal world about how to father children? There
were, and I drew them in a book, not quite so popular (human fathers
don't care that much about animals, and animal lovers don't care
that much about fathers, so I did not have a captive audience!)
called The Emperors Embrace: The Evolution of Fatherhood. I called
it that because of the remarkable paternal abilities of the Emperor
Penguin, who holds his egg on his foot for several months of the
bitterest Antarctic winter, all the time fasting, while the female
is hundreds of miles away. What paternal devotion! It was a true
model, though obviously one men would rather not imitate. Humans
love to see themselves as superior to animals in all possible respects.
Of course when it comes to physical characteristics we have no
choice but to concede that most animals are our superiors; they
are stronger: they can fly, run faster, climb better, dive deeper
and dig further than any human. It is a frightening thought for
most humans to think that some animals may be our superiors when
it comes to feelings. Could a cat, for example, have a greater
sense of contentment than any person, or a dog a greater joie de
vivre? I find this possibility exhilarating rather than depressing.
It shows how much we can learn and benefit from living with animals.
It became clear to me, though, after I had finished these books,
that there was one area of animal feeling that I had not yet thought
about in any depth, and that was the lives and especially the feelings
of farm animals. The reason was obvious: I was a vegetarian, true,
but I ate eggs and drank milk and wore leather. I knew, vaguely,
about how these animal products came to us, but I was not thrilled
with the idea of learning the real details. Yet I could not allow
personal cowardice and an attachment to an old lifestyle get in
the way of learning the truth, so I set about writing my next book,
about the emotional lives of farm animals. Sure enough, the more
I learned, the more appalled I was at how eggs were produced, and
how milk was taken from the animal to whom it belonged, the calf,
to feed to humans. We were, I soon realised, the only species that
drinks the milk of another species, (with the possible exception
of ants who, like us, enslave other species), even though that
milk was not designed for us and was possibly toxic. It was strange,
since human babies had a drink specifically designed for them that
is superior to any other product available, mother's milk. How
could I continue to eat eggs once I had been inside an American
chicken farm and seen the appalling conditions under which these
poor birds must live ('even the word is wrong - it is no life)?
I could not. So I became, reluctantly, a vegan, and gave up eating
or using all products that came from an animal.
Becoming a vegan was no easy matter, Society does not cater to
vegans, even less in New Zealand than in Europe and the United
States (where there are delicious alternatives to cheese and yogurt,
for example), and yet I found I simply could not justify continuing
to use animal products once I knew something about the inner lives
of farm animals. It would be like using the products of concentration
camp survivors. I just could not live with myself. These farm animals,
I soon discovered, had every bit as much feeling as their wild
counterparts, if not more (since they were in constant contact
with another species, humans, even if that contact was from both
points of view highly unsatisfactory). A pig could be as devoted,
as affectionate, as good a companion, as a dog, given half a chance.
Chickens, like many birds, could form close bonds with a human
who took the time to get to know these fascinating animals. Sheep,
who had been dismissed as stupid animals, turned out to have remarkable
discriminating powers, allowing them to recognise, know and have
feelings about two hundred other sheep. Goats were as individualistic
and as mysterious and complex as cats, and when permitted could
live in delightful harmony with humans. Yet this topic had been
completely ignored by animal scientists. Why? The only reason I
could think of was that delving into the emotional complexity of
farm animals is bound to give us a moral headache. How could we
justify the cruelty we inflict on these uncomplaining beings at
the rate of many billion a year?
We slaughter and torture them and treat these living beings as
if they were no different than pieces of tin, yet they have families,
form friendships, love and yearn every bit as much as we do, in
some cases even more. It is high time that humans gave up our sense
that we are a unique species, with unique abilities, except in
the sense that every animal is unique and does some things that
other animals can not do or do not want todo. We have a unique
opportunity, and that is to learn to live with other animals in
a kind of harmony that has never been possible in the past, but
could well be the one and only way we can continue to live on this
planet. Since we share so much of our genetic heritage with other
animals, it is high time we realised how much we share emotional
capacities as well, and once that is realised perhaps we can begin
to share the earth, which has been given to all animals, human
and otherwise, in common.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson moved to New Zealand from California.
He is now living in Auckland with his two children, Ilan and Manu,
his wife, Leila, a German pediatrician, and five cats, (Miki, Moko,
Minna, Megala and Yossie) about whom he is writing a book, to be
published in autumn, called The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A
Journey into the Feline Heart.
Ed note: Sanskrit is the language of ancient India in which most
of its sacred texts are written.
A Freudian psychoanalyst is the graduate of an 8-year training
programme using Sigmund Freud's methods, which means that every
analyst (generally a psychiatrist first) must undergo a long personal
analysis (five times a week for at least five years) before he
can treat others with the same couch-based psychoanalysis.
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