As Valentine’s Day approaches I have been thinking about whether animals experience the same emotions that we do. And, in particular, whether they feel love in the same way.
As someone who has spent my life observing animals and birds in the wild, I believe they do, although obviously they are not as intelligent. I think we share all the same emotions – grief, lust, fear and love – and all the subtle feelings in between. This complex range of emotions is a necessary part of survival.
Some species form life-long bonds to raise their young. Their offspring depend on their parents to work together as a pair to defend and feed them.
But it’s not all about finding a mate and a territory. It is well known that elephants, for instance, experience grief and will mourn the loss of one of their herd by visiting their remains in elephant graveyards for years, stroking the bleached bones with their trunks in mournful vigil.
The link between humans and chimpanzees has been well documented. Comparisons of our genetic blueprints show that we share 96 per cent of our DNA sequence with these apes. I have been trekking with chimps in Tanzania and it is amazing to see how similar their actions are to ours.
Closer to home, I’ve seen almost the same range of emotions as humans experience expressed by British wildlife. The animal kingdom spends a great deal of energy and effort in courtship and territorial defence. It is everywhere from bird song, to the roar of a stag or the colourful and elegant plumage of a kingfisher. For evidence of subtler emotional bonding, you only have to watch a clan of badgers on a warm summer’s evening grooming one another while their cubs play about them.
Their social structures are quite complex and depend on the need to form a cohesive group in order to defend their territory from rival clans. So they spend a lot of time grooming and scent marking each other as a way of reaffirming their connections.
I spent a week watching a fox raise her five cubs and witnessed envy and smugness too. The vixen quite clearly had a favourite cub, a female, which she groomed more and spent more time with than the others, and this little cub had grown proud and spoiled as a result.
One day I watched this favourite cub goad and tease a larger male sibling with a pigeon feather which she held in her mouth. The larger male gave chase but he couldn’t quite match her agility and, disgruntled at the fact that he was unable to take her prized feather, slunk off. The little cub gleefully took up her position next to her mother and there’s little doubt she was gloating.
As for love, it’s hard to ignore the vast array of complex courtship rites practised by birds. Great crested grebes have the most elaborate courtship dance of all Britain’s birds. It involves carefully choreographed displays of head shaking, diving, ritualised preening, some serious feather fluffing and a spectacular reed dance finale.
You can see these mating dances right now on lakes and ponds and they are fascinating to watch because, unusually, the females take almost as active a role as the males.
I have been feeding a pair of tawny owls from my garden bird table for some years now and I regularly watch them out of my kitchen window. One night last month I turned my security light on and saw the pair on the garden fence sitting so close to each other they were touching. The male began to lightly preen the female’s facial disc and I could hear her “churring” with pleasure as she moved her face around to make sure he preened just the right spot.
These birds don’t actually start to lay eggs until March, so it was early for pre-nesting courtship. Instead these two were enjoying the simple pleasure of physical contact.
In the spring and summer if I go anywhere near this pair’s nest the male swoops down and attacks me. Twice he has actually knocked a chain saw helmet off my head and once his claws punctured my back in eight places.
This tawny owl clearly has fiercely strong feelings of protection towards his chicks and I’ve learned now to stay well clear. And these little dramas are not limited to courtship rituals, they also involve the more subtle twists of jealousy and betrayal.
Take for instance the day I watched an unfaithful curlew skulk away after his mate caught him playing away from home.
I was in Teesdale at the time watching a black grouse lek, itself an intricate and complex mating dance, when I spotted a female curlew on her nest. There was something about her restless behaviour that caught my eye. It was as though she just couldn’t concentrate on the job of incubating her eggs.
Then I noticed that she was watching her mate closely. She seemed so agitated that she would often leave her eggs and fly over to where he was feeding.
After several days, I realised what all the fuss was about. I spotted the male near my hide feeding with another female. Curlew males are supposed to stand guard while their mates sit on their eggs but he was clearly flirting. He began to show off to the new female. His mate clearly wasn’t going to stand for this and she left her nest and flew across to join them.
He began to look very uncomfortable and started to strut around picking up moss and grass with his long curved beak and flicking it into the air in an attempt to distract the two females. In the end, the girls rounded on him and he fled leaving them to battle it out.
All these little observations make me think that if we have feelings why can’t animals and birds have them too? I don’t accept the argument this is anthropomorphism – the act of people giving animals human qualities. I just think animals and birds need a lot more credit than they get.