Do Animals Have Emotions?

Do Animals Have Emotions?

This may seem like a rather philosophical title for a textile blog but please bear with me, I wanted to share a new direction and body of work with you.

Image result for animal emotion

These thoughts and ideas have been slowly percolating through the recesses of my mind for about 20 years, since a fairly heated debate with a psychology teacher on whether humans are the only animals who possess cognitive abilities (perception, attention, memory, motor skills, language/communication and visual/spatial processing). She quite vehemently argued that only humans possess all of these skills, I was a veterinary nurse at the time and forcefully argued the opposite, taking it further and arguing that animals also feel emotions too.

Image result for jain temple

This debate was recalled during a trip to India in January 2018 and a visit to a Jain temple. The Jains have an intriguing philosophy and what struck me most about the monks was the extreme lengths they go to in order to preserve and protect all life, they believe every animal is sentient and as such, must not be harmed by their actions (either directly or indirectly). Their vows of non-violence make them the ultimate pacifists, a stance which I thoroughly admire but have to admit, have no hope of ever attaining. They are strict vegetarians and do not eat after sunset for fear of accidentally eating an insect on their food, and the monks pluck out all their head hair rather than shaving it so as not to harm any lice that might be residing there.

While sentience is essentially another word for consciousness and it is relatively easy to argue that most animals, even the smallest, are “conscious” on at least some level, even if it is just awareness of food sources and potential mates. The idea that all creatures are sentient rekindled my thoughts about the cognitive processes and expression of emotions in animals.

Paramecia – are they conscious?

I knew I wanted to explore this idea from a creative perspective but was unsure where to start. Researching colour theory revealed a wealth of information about our emotional responses to different colours and this led me to play a game of “abstract word-association”; starting with a one or two words that described an emotion I worked on small squares of water colour paper, trying to express that emotion with just colour and mark making, these are some of the results:

Joy / happy
Eager / enthusiastic
Calm / relaxed
Vulnerable / intimidated
Afraid / Scared

These little sketches were surprisingly cathartic to make, if you or someone you know is going through a challenging time and finding it difficult to talk about how they are feeling, asking them to illustrate, in an abstract way, a series of emotions (both positive and negative) from a list of words may be helpful.

Taking Gladys Paulus’ mask workshop earlier this year has given this topic, and my approach to it, a whole new lease of life, no longer confined to 2D work I have been having a ball making various animal sculptures, each expressing their own emotion. As each new personality takes shape on my work bench I am finding myself creating whole backstories for them.

I am thrilled to introduce you to 2 new, very special friends:

“Laughing Lionel”

While the king of the beasts has a fearsome reputation, Lionel is really a very gentle, affable soul who likes nothing more than a good chortle at the ridiculous things humans do.

“Indignant Margo”

She isn’t quite finished, but will be a wall-mounted sculpture like Lionel when she is.

Margo is an old soul in a young body, she takes offence at almost everything and wears a permanent look of indignation on her face. She believes her purple spots are a sign that she is descended from aristocracy and therefore everyone is beneath her; if anyone is going to look down their nose at you, it should be the tallest of the beasts!

These two sculptures (and hopefully one or two more if can finish them in time) will be on display at the Art Box exhibition, at Denbies Wine Estate, Dorking RH5 6AA, UK, between September 23rd and 29th. If you are in the area please pop in and say hello, it is a beautiful place to visit and entry to the exhibition (with artworks in a range of media from 8 independent artists) is free.

Which animal and emotion would you like to see paired together?

Do you think I am anthropomorphising (applying human characteristics) the animal kingdom, or do you agree, animals do feel and express emotions, and perhaps some humans are too ignorant to understand when the animals around us try to communicate these emotions?

22 thoughts on “Do Animals Have Emotions?

  1. I like them. Interesting color choice on the lion. Love the purple spots. I am not sure what emotion to pair it with, but perhaps a dolphin would fit somewhere. Thinking of stories of them rescuing humans.

    1. Thank you Jackie, Lionel’s colour was partly dictated by the colour of the Gotland locks I wanted to use but I have been deliberately trying to avoid the traditional colours you might associate with each animal. Dolphins? I confess I hadn’t considered aquatic animals, I think I should! Thank you! 🙂

  2. I believe animals are far more emotionally intelligent than some people give them credit for. We used to have a cat who always curled up on me in bed after I’d had a bad day, her purring relaxed me and she never moved until I fell asleep. Then just a few weeks ago I had a panic attack while visiting a friend, and his dog came running and leaned against me until it was over. They’re happy when we’re happy, comforting when we’re upset, and sad when we leave. I firmly believe animals feel emotions just as much as we do.

    1. Very well said, many of our pets not only feel and express their own emotions but are sensitive to our emotions too, it is well documented how canine behaviour changes when they are presented with a distressed human. They really are man’s best friend (often better than the human best friends!).

  3. Yes – animals have emotions! Really love both your new creations and Margo has our hearts already.
    Your paintings are amazing.

    1. Thank you so much ladies, that means so much given the all the wonderful work you both produce 🙂

  4. Love the paintings! I can see that they would be cathartic. Great work on your sculptures, purple was a perfect choice of colour for the emotion/ personality of your giraffe.
    Yes, I strongly agree animals are far more advanced that we as humans can measure. We have only our own knowledge with which to measure so it is limited to what we know. Maybe they do the same to us?

    1. Thank you Deb, I couldn’t agree more, I wish we were so much better at communicating with other species, it would be fascinating to know what they really think of us…. 🙂

  5. Anthropomorphising is one of those things I struggle with. While I can see that we shouldn’t impose our values on other creatures (like dressing dogs up in human clothes for instance), I think it’s high-handed of us to assume that other creatures don’t have feelings/the ability to learn etc. For instance, it’s been proven in fact that some corvids, such as ravens have intelligence equivalent to an 8 year old human. You only have to look at some of the memes and videos wandering around Facebook of otters holding hands, or cats cuddling their kittens to question the assumption. Heck, we now know that trees communicate with each other across the Wood Wide Web, and protect each other when facing droughts and so forth! My personal feeling is that in some respects NOT anthropomorphising leads us to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom and indeed Nature herself, and leads us to think we are better than the other living creatures we share the planet with. Makes enjoying a burger far easier, but also leads us to cage animals, and choke the oceans with plastic etc.

    1. Oh yes, those images of otters holding hands while they sleep melt my heart too, although the scientist in me insists there is a practical reason (forming rafts so the group does not drift apart while they sleep) as much as a social reinforcement / emotional reason for this behaviour. We should start and anthropomorphising revolution! 🙂

    1. Thank you Ruth, I have loved every minute of watching their personalities take shape and loving the discussion with the FFS members, you are such a bright and well-informed collection of textile artists.

  6. Wow, this is so profound and beautiful. I am a veterinary technician (veterinary nurse!–they don’t allow us to call ourselves nurses in the US yet) and find it a miracle of existence that we can relate to other species so profoundly. As for emotion and animal pairings, I just thought of something–which I remember imperfectly It goes something like this in Native American culture–“Which wolf will you feed?” It has something to do with inner impulses and the energy we give to them. I believe there is a Buddhist concept which is similar–when the demon comes to the door: “I see you.” And you invite the demon in for tea, acknowledge the demon, and then, “Time for you to go.” And that is simply that, until of course the next demon knocks on your door! You take conscious mindful time, rather than fight and give more power to the demon. Does any of this make sense????

    1. Thank you Merielk, I had not heard the wolf parable before but it is very apt, for those that don’t know it, this is what I found from Googling:
      One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.
      One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
      The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’
      The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, ‘Grandpa, which wolf wins?’
      The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one that you feed.’

      Wise words we should all live by if we wish to find contentment, it is all too easy to focus on the negative emotions.

  7. Beautiful sketches and fabulous masks – well done Terri!

    I am sure that animals do feel emotions, and can be better than some humans at communicating and responding to them! However, I do think that there is a danger of projecting our own human neuroses and fetishes onto pets and other creatures that is not going to do them much good in the long run.

    1. Thank you Kim, I am intrigued by your comment about projecting our neuroses onto our pets, did you have an example in mind?

    2. Can’t name names, but I know a couple of dog owners whose, um, highly strung behaviour is perfectly reflected in the way their pets behave. 🤔

    3. Haha, so true! I can think of some parents who fit in the same category too 🙂

  8. I love your emails.
    And I think your regal looking giraffe is Devine.I read about her after coming to the conclusion she is royalty.
    You have got the to give them personality and you go it well

  9. Awesome! Anyone who has had a dog or cat can attest to their emotions! They be scared, sad, happy, depressed, etc. your emotional interpretations are wonderful. I’d like to see a mindful panda. Not isolated, depressed but appreciative of its surroundings and taking life a day at a time. I can’t wait to see more of your work, it’s awesome!

  10. Terri you,ve certainly triggered an interesting discussion. Having a dog, I for one know he feels emotions and is at his happiest when his family unit is together in one place.
    I hadn’t thought of mark making with colour to express emotion, but I wonder if many of us ‘arty’ folk would overthink it. Those less familiar with colour/marking might react more instinctively.
    Your sculptures are great and I love the back stories you’ve given them. Denbies is a perfect location to exhibit them.
    With regard to other animal and their characters….hippos I see as being very horizontal (laid back), laissez faire, monkeys to me would simply be cheeky every time, whilst the owl I could see with one eye open discreetly watchful having seen it all so often before.

  11. I absolutely believe animals have the ability to feel emotions like fear, love, happy and sad. Anyone with a pet can recognize the different behaviors and the connections we share with individual animals. I have two dogs and they are both very different.

    I love your interpretation of feelings in your art.

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