Nov 1, 2006

those happy, happy crows

Do animals have "higher" emotions? Dr. Jonathan Balcombe thinks they might.
Five years ago behaviorist and animal-rights activist Dr. Jonathan Balcombe stood on a Virginia hotel balcony watching two crows intimately groom each other in the comfort of an abandoned billboard. He felt that the birds liked what they were doing, even if engaged in a natural, beneficial act, such as picking parasites off the other's feathers. That moment changed the way he would view animals forever.

"I watched the crows enraptured and had an epiphany," Balcombe says. "I thought, 'Aha! Pleasure,' then started recording observations through pleasure contexts." That led to a book, "Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good" (MacMillan, 2006; $24.95), which is filled with hundreds of examples of animals living it up, thanks to developed senses of touch, taste, sight, sound and smell.

Balcombe recounts a favorite example of Kenyan hippos receiving the hippopotamus equivalent of a high-end spa treatment in a freshwater spring. They splay their toes, open their mouths wide and wait for a school of cleaner fish to remove parasites and slough off dead skin, he recalls. Balcombe knows that the hippos and the fish both benefit from this arrangement. "My interpretation is that it is also enjoyable for them," he says.

The first to admit his premise is hardly unique, Balcombe thinks his work merits a broader look. "Science has neglected this issue," he said. Identifying positive affect has been a part of animal-behavior studies since the 1930s, when Donald Griffin, the noted biologist who discovered that some bats use echolocation to see in the dark, founded the field of animal thinking called cognitive ethology. Balcombe, who believes nature rewards behaviors that promote evolution, wants to take it a step further.
There's reason for skepticism; UW researcher Jim Ha warns of the ever-present danger of anthropomorphism. But the simplistic notion that animals are instinct-driven idiots is more and more untenable by the day.

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