June 27, 2009

From Edward N. Haas:

Re: “Guilty look” in dogs mostly owners’ fantasy, study finds (June 15): 50 years ago, when I was a teenager, I had a pet hamster which I kept in a cage in the basement of my family’s house. One day, I went down to feed the hamster and discovered it was not in its cage. Immediately, I went searching around the basement for it. As I did so, I called it by name. Finding no trace of the hamster for quite some time, I decided to end the search. As I was about to climb the steps leading up from the basement, the family dog came to me and laid the dead hamster at my feet. He then backed up a bit and, with his tail between his legs and a slightly crouching position in his legs, he looked up at me. From the position of his tail and legs and the look in his eye, I had no doubt he was acknowledging his guilt and begging forgiveness for what he had done to the hamster. It was an experience which, to this day, leaves no doubt in my mind that at least some dogs are indeed capable of feeling guilt and remorse.

Let me tell you another story only vaguely connected with the above, but which illustrates clearly that animals have emotions. I live in the middle of several acres of land, and that entails the need to spend much time on the back of a large farm tractor bushhogging. At one time, I ran goats on my property, because, they do so good a job keeping the underbrush down, it left me with little need to spend time bushhogging. As you would expect, the goats reproduced. The mortality rate among the baby goats was abominable. Then, too, the mother goats would sometimes abandon their babies. From time to time, that meant I would have to bottle feed a goat or two for several weeks. There was one I called “Hoppy”. I fed him until I thought he could survive on his own on plants and then ceased bottle feeding him. A day or two later, I found him lying on the ground and, in his hair, I found a huge quantity of insects which numbered 3 or 4 per square inch of the goats pelt. I thought to myself: “Maybe this is an emotional reaction to my refusal to bottle feed him any further. In his animal mind, his mother has rejected him, and that has so depressed him, he’s decided to lie down and die.” So, I brought him a bottle of “milk”, and he immediately grabbed it and sucked it dry, got up, and, the next day, was free of insects. I continued to feed him for another week or two and, after that, he remained healthy until some dogs got him perhaps a year later. My experience with Hoppy was and is one which leaves me with no doubt that animals are very capable of some emotions we all too frequently imagine are limited to ourselves.


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