Creature Thoughts, April 2015

Animal Emotions

Pree-DancerDo animals have feelings? Do they experience joy, love, grief, fear?

Those of us who have shared our lives with animals, if our eyes are open and our hearts honest, will say, “Yes”. The purr of a cat, the wag of a dog’s tail are, of course, instinctual behaviors based on physical comfort levels and social responses. However, if we are even remotely open to receiving the heart-to-heart communication we share with our animal companions, we believe that these instincts go hand in hand with happiness, contentment, and feelings of safety and (yes, even) love.

Still, there are those who argue that animals have no emotions, that they simply exhibit instinct-driven autonomic responses to stimuli. Extensive scientific research into neurobiology and social structure among animals, which has been ongoing now for decades, disagrees. It’s no longer just a matter of feel-good opinion that animals do experience many of the emotions humans do. Yes, they experience those emotions in their own way, which is absolutely key to understanding our co-travelers of other species. However, they do experience them. Modern neuroscience has known for a long time now that specific areas of the brain (notably, the limbic system, located in the temporal lobe) control, filter, and respond to emotions. Many studies have proven that other mammals and birds (some research has shown analogies in certain fish and even octopuses), have these same areas of the brain, and they emit identical responses, in regards to emotions, as our human brains do.

If the animals have the same or analogous neurological structures, which respond in the same way, it would be denying the scientific evidence of the modern age to try to claim that our dogs, cats, horses, and birds don’t have feelings.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m just a crazy old woman who talks to animals. Here is the opinion of some of the world’s top experts on the subject:

“…people don’t have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world. […] This doesn’t imply that animals think about their feelings like people do,” said Panksepp, “but they do experience them in similar ways.” [Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University]

On July 7th, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference at the University of Cambridge, a gathering of many of the era’s top scientists signed a document officially declaring non-human animals sentient. This document, called the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, states in part:

“The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals.”

“Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).”

“Evidence that human and non-human animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia(*).”

Present at the conference were the following noted scientists, including experts on human and animal behavior and neuroscience: Christof Koch, Steven Hawking, Philip Low, Irene Pepperberg, Bruno van Swinderen, David B. Edelman, Edward Boyden, Diana Reiss, Donald Pfaff, Ryan Remedios, Harvey Karten, Franz X. Vollenweider, Naotsugu Tsuchiya, Melanie Boly, Steven Laureys. You can read more about these experts and their credentials on the Francis Crick Conference website:
Footnote from the document: *The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch. The Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Low, Edelman and Koch. The Declaration was signed by the conference participants that very evening, in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK. The signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes.

The full text of the Declaration can be found here:

(* qualia = individual instances of subjective, conscious experience)


Helping The Animals

If would like to support a not-for-profit organization that does a great deal to help animals, please consider making a donation to New York Wildlife Rescue/Northeast Llama Rescue. Wes Laraway and his family and volunteers help hundreds of animals every year, with no funding except your donations and what comes out of their own pockets. You can support their efforts by visiting their website and clicking the “Donate” button. You can also look at their “Other Ways To Help” page (found under several of the top level drop-down menus) for more ideas. They can’t do it without the support of friends like you!

Creature Thoughts, March 2015

Winter’s Tough On Them, Too

“Brutal”, this winter has been called — at least here in the northeastern United States. The Boston area has seen multiple snowstorms that measured in feet instead of inches. Apparently, New York has declared February 2015, officially, “the second-coldest February on record”. We have suffered extended periods of below zero temperatures and negative double-digit wind chills. Those of us with outdoor animals have had to keep them in barn-lockdown for days on end so the wind doesn’t freeze little ears.

Other areas of the country are also suffering more winter-related problems than ever before. Kentucky is still trying to dig out from a major snow storm that made roads impassable for a long stretch of time, collapsed roofs, fractured water mains, and caused entire sections of roads to disappear into sinkholes. I have one Kentucky friend who has not been able to get out of her driveway for nearly two weeks.

I know that many of you can relay stories of this winter’s hardships in your own areas.

You and I, and others who are sensitive to the needs of the animals, also feel deep concern for the wildlife. The deer and turkeys have been scrounging spilled seed around my bird feeders all winter. There has been continual deep snow cover for months — there is just nothing else for them to eat. Although we are not really supposed to “feed wildlife” (other than keeping bird feeders — as with many other areas in the US), my heart breaks for them, so I have not been discouraging them. They need to eat something while we hope and pray for those new spring shoots and leaves to start appearing through the melting snow.

If it ever melts, that is.

Little birds even have trouble flying when the air is so bitterly cold. We had one little Tufted Titmouse who lost her life in our driveway because she could not get off the ground after she landed. Sadly, I found her too late to help her, and could only pray that her little spirit has found warmth and sunshine on the other side.

The big birds are suffering, also. Wildlife rehabbers in New York received the following request from the Department of Environmental Conservation. If you live in NY, I include it here, in case you wish to pass it along to your own veterinarian:

Wildlife Health Team,

We are starting to get increasing numbers of calls about dead owls and hawks. We suspect that this is due to the deep snow cover and below normal temperatures. We are interested in documenting these mortalities and would like to examine as many as possible to confirm cause of death. If you cannot collect and submit the carcasses, please compile a list of calls and the species (which can be tough with phone calls) so we can get a rough idea of the number of raptors involved over the next few months Thanks -Kevin”

Kevin Hynes
Wildlife Health Unit
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
108 Game Farm Road
Delmar, NY 12054

What can you do to help your wild neighbors get through these last few weeks of winter? I’m sure many of you already have been doing much of this all winter long, but right now, after having suffered for so long, it’s important to continue to provide. I know that getting out to change water and fill bird feeders when the temps drop below zero can be a pain (in more ways than one), but the birds (and their occasional dinner guests) will truly appreciate it.

Be sure your bird-feeding stations include higher protein and higher fat foods, particularly for our bug-eating friends when there are no real buggies to be found. These may include:

  • seed mixes that contain peanuts, cracked corn and sunflower seed
  • suet and suet-mix products
  • peanut butter makes a great high-energy binder for cakes of bird seed and cracked corn
  • left-over cat and dog food, scattered on the ground beneath feeders for insectivores such as Blue Jays, Starlings and Crows, will be beneficial after a protein-scarce winter

Try to provide liquid water for the birds each day, as well. Although they will eat snow for water, they really do appreciate being able to get a real drink once in a while. Plus, the water actually helps them metabolize their food.

Are your feeders located close to shelter from the wind? If not, you might want to scatter some of the food in and under the branches of nearby bushes and trees.

Keep an eye out for spring, too. It’s coming soon. The little birds and other critters will shift their focus from the struggle for survival to bringing a new generation into the world. It’s time to think about cleaning out your nest boxes and providing nesting material for the prospective parents.

This morning, for the first time, I heard a Chickadee across the lane singing his spring song. That sweet handful of high-pitched notes did more to lift my spirits than anything else could have done. It said, “I’m here! I’m happy! I survived! Come on, spring!”

Helping The Animals

If would like to support a not-for-profit organization that does a great deal to help animals, please consider making a donation to New York Wildlife Rescue/Northeast Llama Rescue. Wes Laraway and his family and volunteers help hundreds of animals every year, with no funding except your donations and what comes out of their own pockets. You can support their efforts by visiting their website and clicking the “Donate” button. You can also look at their “Other Ways To Help” page (found under several of the top level drop-down menus) for more ideas. They can’t do it without the support of friends like you!

Creature Thoughts, February 2015

Human, Know Thy Pet



The main reason for adopting a pet, of course, is that we simply love animals. Whether they are dogs, cats, birds, horses, or a variety of little cage-critters, love is our primary motivation for sharing our lives with them.

I find it somewhat startling, though, how little many people know about the animals they have brought into their lives. Startling shifts swiftly toward alarming, when it dawns on me that not only do these people not know anything about their pets … a percentage have no intention to learn.

How many times have vets, behaviorists and trainers heard the line, “He just bit without warning!” about a dog or cat? The experts know (or they darned well should!) that the animal was probably sending out warnings aplenty, possibly for quite a long period of time. The problem was not that the pet wasn’t talking … it was that the human didn’t know how to speak the language.

Loving one’s pets is great, but it’s never enough. Caring for our animal friends is a huge responsibility, and one we cannot carry out properly unless we are willing to educate ourselves as to the needs, the behavior, the health and the inner nature of those species with whom we share our lives.

Knowing what a dog who is fearful looks and acts like could easily prevent so many of the bites that occur in pet-owning homes. Knowing when a cat is saying “back out of my space” would save us a fortune in doctor visits and band-aids — not to mention save the lives of so many pets turned in to shelters for “aggression”. Being able to read the horse who is fearful and thinking about protecting itself with a kick, or knowing that a rabbit who feels threatened will growl, would come in real handy for the owner who doesn’t want to get himself injured.

When we bring pets into our lives, it’s our responsibility to learn not only about their behavior, but their care. You may have seen a viral video of a rabbit on its back in a sink while the owners fill the sink with warm water. It certainly looks like bunny is laid back and relaxed. Every time I see that video, I want to scream. Bunny is not relaxed … he has lapsed into a state of helpless terror, and gone limp. This is an instinctive posture that many prey animals adopt when they are in the jaws of a predator. Their survival instinct tells them to play dead on the off chance that the predator will drop them and they can make a mad dash for it. Bunny isn’t trusting his humans and allowing them to bathe him. Bunny is terrified and quite certain, on his deepest prey-animal level, that those people are about to kill him. (Not to mention that submerging a rabbit in water is never a good idea — sometimes spot-baths are necessary, but soaking a bunny like that can lead to all kinds of health problems.)

One of the great joys we receive when we adopt a pet is the incredible privilege of learning all about another species. By educating ourselves as to their needs and behavior, we learn to see the world, just a little bit, though eyes that are not restricted to a human point of view. It is both our job, and our blessing, to learn as much as we can about the animals who share our world.

Open hearts are made so much sweeter when we open our minds along with them.

To Help Your Learning Adventure: Feel free to browse through the book shop linked to for a selection of many of my favorite books on animal care, behavior and training.

Gayle Nastasi, animal consultant and author