Scientists are beginning to explore joy in the animal world

Advances in our knowledge and understanding of animal sentience are compelling us to reconsider our prejudices toward animals

In a freshwater spring in Kenya, hippopotami drift blissfully, splaying their toes, spreading their legs, and opening their mouths as fishes of various species provide a spa treatment by nibbling away bits of food, sloughing skin and parasites…

Chances are that you’ve witnessed expressions of animal pleasure. If you’ve lived with dogs or cats you may have noticed how most of them enjoy being stroked, scratched, or rubbed. Indeed, that we refer to them as pets attests to their love of touch as well as our pleasure in touching them.

One of our cats, Megan, adores a belly rub, which she solicits by making a distinctive chirruping sound and flopping onto her side or back. It’s a cat billboard that says: “Here is my belly. Please start rubbing.” How can one resist an invitation like that? As I rub, she stretches out to her full length, flopping from one side to the other and purring loudly. If I pick up the cat brush and thump it on the floor, Megan doesn’t just walk over, she comes running.

“Evidence is rapidly accumulating that life for animals holds great potential for joy”

As yet, there are few scientific studies on animal pleasure. Some of these, however, are very good and today, evidence is rapidly accumulating that life for animals holds great potential for joy.

I argue throughout my new book, The Exultant Ark: a Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, that pleasure is central to animal existence. Believe it or not, this is a controversial claim. There has been very little discussion of animal pleasure by biologists. Indeed, there is little serious discussion of pleasure in humans, let alone nonhumans. Curiously, animals’ capacity for pain – while no less physically private than their capacity for pleasure – has been extensively studied and is uncontroversial.

Why do we shun pleasure? Part of the reason is that science, by and large, has held and continues to hold a narrow perspective in its scholarly interpretation of animal existence. Published studies of animal behaviour are presented almost exclusively in an ultimate, evolutionary context, without discussion of the animals’ more immediate mental and emotional experiences.

Scientists who study positive experiences in animals are still few and far between, but one of them is the physiologist Michel Cabanac, at Laval University in Quebec. Cabanac coined the term alliesthesia (from the Greek for “other-perception”) to describe the phenomenon whereby an identical stimulus may be perceived as pleasant or unpleasant depending on the physiological state of the subject.

For example, when Cabanac had people dip their hand in a container of cold water, they reported the experience as pleasant if they were feeling hot and unpleasant if they were feeling cold. Animals too show alliesthesia, which also applies to tastes (pleasant when hungry, unpleasant when full).

As Darwin showed, we humans are just one of many wonderful and unique expressions of nature: our differences from other mammals (at least) are in degree, not kind. Crucially, when it comes to sentience, humans may not always be the most endowed.

“We humans are just one of many wonderful and unique expressions of nature”

Some scientists, such as the American neuroscientists Jeffrey Burgdorf and Jaak Panksepp, believe that other lifeforms may experience certain feelings more intensely than humans do.

When my cat Megan receives her belly rubs, she seems totally absorbed in the moment – enwrapped in a pleasure whose pureness may be more difficult to attain for us whose minds become easily preoccupied with our thoughts.

We already know that many animals have keener senses than our own. Owls have better night vision and hearing, sharks have stronger chemical perception, and dogs have a better sense of smell.

In some cases, animals experience physical sensations that are unknown to us. What might it feel like to orient in flight or to identify different types of insect by listening to one’s echoes, as bats do? Or to communicate by means of vibrations, as many burrowing animals do, or to sense the earth’s magnetic field?

Not just a struggle for survival

Advances in our knowledge and understanding of animal sentience are compelling us to reconsider our prejudices toward animals. One such prejudice is the notion that life in the wild is a relentless, earnest struggle. Popular phrases such as “nature red in tooth and claw,” “eat or be eaten,” and “the struggle for survival” reinforce the impression that life for wild creatures is harsh and grim. This is a biased and inaccurate perspective.

Consider that survival behaviours in themselves can be rewarding: just because reindeer have to migrate 1,000 miles to find seasonably available food, or prairie dogs need to dig burrows to avoid predation, doesn’t mean they can’t take pleasure in these tasks. Goal-directed activities, such as important survival behaviours, are desirable for animals, who need to exert some control over their lives.

Finding food is one of the major projects of an animal’s life, and many with the misfortune of being confined have been shown to engage in what is called ‘contrafreeloading’given the opportunity, caged rats will pull a lever to obtain food that is otherwise freely available without having to engage in these activities. Take away life’s significance, and you may be taking away a lot of what pleasure derives from.

“Animals do in fact have leisure time”

Also, animals do in fact have leisure time. Many animals meet their survival needs in a fraction of the time available to them. The primatologist Robert Sapolsky estimates that savannah baboons on the Serengeti plains of Kenya take about four hours to feed themselves in a given day. Flight affords many birds the luxury of meeting their energy needs in a fraction of their waking time. Animals may spend part of the remaining time engaged in such activities as grooming and preening, playing, singing (birds), or resting.

Another common prejudice is that animals raised for food are less worthy of our consideration than wild animals. Pigs are often perceived as filthy, chickens as cowardly and stupid, and sheep as passive followers.

In fact, farmed animals have been well studied, and none of the biases we hold against them stand up to scrutiny. Chickens, for example, have a vocabulary of at least thirty different calls. Some are referential, meaning that the signaller is referring to a specific object in the environment. Studies by Chris Evans and his colleagues at Macquarie University, in Australia, show that a chicken on the receiving end of these calls understands their meaning.

Studies at Cambridge University show that a sheep can remember the faces of fifty of her original flock-mates from single photographs, two years after she was moved into a different flock. Sheep also read emotions on the faces of other sheep: they prefer to access food through a door with a photo of a just-fed (contented) sheep than a door with a hungry (stressed) sheep.

Animals have experiences

The real world runs on experience. For instance, when adding spices to our food I’m not aware that anyone reaches for the oregano or the curry powder with the conscious intent of warding off intestinal microbes. We spice our food because it enhances the taste. Similarly, animals are not mechanical slaves to evolutionary adaptations; they too have experiences.

Happy, healthy animals are beautiful to behold. They make us smile, and there’s value in that. But pleasure has deeper meaning and significant implications for humankind’s relationship with other animals. Pleasure adds intrinsic value to life – that is, value to the individual who feels it regardless of any perceived worth to anyone else. Pleasure seekers have wants, needs, desires, and lives worth living. They can have a good quality of life. If we let them.

As you look at the pictures on these pages, enjoy the pleasure they bring you. Bathe in their beauty and soak in their grace. Reflect on the significance of the fact that animals also experience good feelings. And the next time you see a crow or a cat or a lizard, stop and watch. Try to imagine their experience.

The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure is available now in hardback, published by University of California Press.