Marc Bekoff recently wrote on his blog that his 2000 book The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions is now banned in a number of schools and libraries in Texas.
Bekoff speculates on his blog that it may have been banned because it contains sex and violence (although of the animal sort), two of the issues that Texas school board officials tend to find problematic in books that their students read, although clearly, as Bekoff points out, one issue is that it gives an evolutionary argument for animal emotions. (Other issues that they don’t want students reading about include religion, race, and politics, which explains why To Kill a Mockingbird is among those restricted to many Texas students.)
For me, the book is problematic in a state like Texas because of its claim-apparently still controversial to many-that animals do in fact have emotions. Until recently (or apparently, even today), if a scientist like Bekoff attempted to describe the behavior of an animal with terms like “sadness,” “jealousy,” “grief” or “joy,” they would quickly be accused of that most dreaded (and unscientific) of terms: anthropomorphism.
It is true that no human can ever truly get inside the mind or heart of an animal-without dissecting it-and animals have a difficult time answering our questions if we ask them how they feel, which forces us to interpret their behaviors. But the belief that animals have no emotions, or that emotions are “human” capacities that we can only inscribe to animals, has certainly-and this is no coincidence-benefited those who exploit animals. As Jeffrey Masson wrote in his 1995 book When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, granting animals the ability to think, to reason and-perhaps most importantly of all-to feel, opens up a Pandora’s box of issues regarding how we, as a society, should treat animals:
The professional and financial interests in continuing animal experimentation help to explain at least some resistance to the notion that animals have a complex emotional life and are capable of experiencing not only pain but the higher emotions such as love, compassion, altruism, disappointment and nostalgia. To acknowledge such a possibility implies certain moral obligations. If chimpanzees can experience loneliness and mental anguish, it is obviously wrong to use them for experiments in which they are isolated and anticipate daily pain. At the very least, this poises a matter for serious debate-a debate that has scarcely begun (p. xx).
In Susan Davis and my 2003 book, Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, we outlined many of the ways in which the rabbits with whom we shared (and still share) our homes expressed their emotions:
Most house rabbit people have seen their rabbits “binky” or dance as an expression of joy, as well as execute a not-very-graceful “flop,” in which they fall to their sides in a gesture of deep contentment. When Margo first introduced her rabbit Helga to Chester, he would leap, hop and skip when she was first placed (angrily) into the living room every day. Never mind that she was repelled by him; he was so thrilled to have a potential new playmate that he could not contain his joy. For weeks, Chester would lie as close to Helga as he could, staring amorously at her; once she finally agreed to let him touch her, he began to spend as much time as possible scrunched up against her.
Puddles and Muddles, Margo’s angora rabbits, also binky, but for a different reason. Every morning, Margo opens their gate so they can come out to exercise, but one of the first things they do is go to the living room to eat Chester’s food and mess up his things. Upon catching them in the act, Margo chases them back out of the living room and watches as they race, skipping and jumping across the house, back into their room. These rabbits seem overjoyed at the fact they once again got away with something funny. Their actions, in fact, look much like a full-body laugh.
Many rabbits will lick their paws or wash their faces when they are complimented, as if they are very pleased or slightly embarrassed. House Rabbit Society founder Marinell Harriman’s first rabbit, Herman, also once saved a mouse. When Herman found a cat torturing the mouse, she thumped her foot in protest. When that failed to deter the cat, she attacked her, allowing the mouse to escape (Harriman 1991). Other rabbits show an amazing amount of compassion towards members of their own species, such as the examples we have cited of healthy rabbits acting as support (both physical and emotional) for their disabled friends.
Many rabbits, demonstrate an amazing spirit when confronting adversity. We have already written about rabbits like Hopper, Pippin and Mrs. Bean-all injured by people and left without the ability to walk. Both Pippin and Mrs. Bean learned to use a custom-built cart to get around, and their personalities blossomed. Mrs. Bean savored her new freedom, using the cart to create a new, independent life for herself, while Pippin used his to get attention and to interact with people.
Even before using the cart, Pippin seemed happy to join Margo’s household after what he had been through, executing a flop on his first day without the use of his rear legs. Hopper never did learn to use the cart well, but like the others, he adapted to his altered condition with grace and dignity, and charmed everyone who met him with his peaceful, gentle, and loving personality.
Some rabbits who have suffered abuse, injury or illness have responded to human kindness and care with what can only be described as gratitude. Many of our own rabbits have lost their aggressive or terrified tendencies after being nursed through serious illnesses or injuries and given kind, consistent treatment. Mr. Bop, for instance, was so ill and so depressed when Susan first brought him home that he barely hopped-he would follow her around the house by taking a few steps and then lying down and staring up at her. After about a month of good food, plenty of water, medication, and many kind words and pats, his depression lifted, only to reveal an alarmingly spastic skittishness. Bop would dive under the bed or behind a chair whenever someone walked into the room; loud noises sent him nearly to the ceiling. It was only after six months that his fearfulness-no doubt a product of his having been attacked by some kind of predator while a stray on the streets of San Francisco-eased. Today, he can pop binkys and spin wheelies with the best of them. He can doze through the roar of a vacuum cleaner, the shriek of a smoke detector and the wails of a baby. He once even sprawled out on his belly, with his hind legs stretched out behind him, smack dab in the middle of a party of shrieking four-year-old girls dressed like princesses. That’s confidence (pp. 343-346).
Why does it matter that rabbits-or any of the hundreds or thousands of other species of animals-possess, and demonstrate, such emotions? Or maybe the more important question, in light of the banning of The Smile of a Dolphin is why is it deemed so dangerous that our students find out this information?
If we knew about their ability to feel love, joy, sorrow and pain, we could not bear to treat them the way that we do now. So it’s simply better to live in ignorance, and to force our school children to do so as well.