Today, I’m musing about emotions. Temple Grandin wrote, “My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal’s emotions right, we will have fewer problem behaviors. … research in neuroscience has been showing that emotions drive behavior, and my own thirty-five years of experience working with animals have shown me that this is true. Emotions come first.” I agree. These 72 words of Dr. Grandin’s are profound. Focusing on an animal’s emotions provides a means to answer the question central to all animal welfare issues, “What does an animal need to be happy?”

What are emotions? The dictionary defines an emotion as “state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” or “Any of the particular feelings that characterize such a state of mind, such as joy, anger, love, hate, horror, etc.” Scientifically, 7 core emotions have been identified by experimental studies performed in animals; rage, fear, panic, seeking, lust, care, and play. Each of these emotions “generate well-organized predicable behavior sequences that can be evoked by localized electrical stimulation of the brain.” Rage, fear, and panic are the “negative emotions”. Seeking, lust, care, and play are the “positive emotions.”

What does Dr. Grandin mean when she wrote “the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible and not activate their negative emotions”? One of the most challenging careers within veterinary medicine is zoo animal medicine. Interesting, the reason being a zoo animal vet is so difficult has less to do with the animals than it has to do with the politics within and between the rich and famous people who serve on the board of directors and the misanthropic people who are drawn to caring for animals—people who love animals but who dislike every and any other human. I digress.  The mark of a good and successful zoo is whether the rare and/or endangered animals are having babies. Successful procreation is totally dependent upon the positive emotions (seeking, lust, care, and play). Rage, fear, and panic will result in various molecules of emotion in the veins of these animals. These molecules will result in a state of mind or a particular set of feelings that will prevent those animals from mating or from properly caring for their offspring.

So if survival of an endangered species depends on baby making and the positive emotions, so also the negative emotions are crucial for survival. It is thought that rage evolved from the experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator. Rage gives a captured animal the explosive energy it needs to struggle violently and maybe startle the predator into loosening its grip long enough to escape. Rage starts at birth. If you hold a human baby’s arms to his or her sides, he will become furiously angry. However, an important distinction is to be made. Each of the negative emotions—Rage, fear, and panic—are “all about me”, i.e. they are necessary for the survival of an individual at that present moment. The positive emotions, the state of mind wherein one feels safe enough to seek, lust, care-for, and to play, are what Charles Darwin called the social emotions; they help animals to survive over time.

In my 31 years as a veterinarian, I have spent a lot of time, wrestling with the question of whether or not an animal is suffering, whether an animal is happy. In this Age of “All About Me”, as I watch the “news” and see how many products are sold by evoking my fear, panic, or rage, I wonder, could us humans learn from and work to apply some of Dr. Temple Grandin’s insights and continued research? I know I, for one, would prefer to live in an environment, in a community, that activates my positive emotions as much as possible, and does not activate my negative emotions any more than necessary.

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 12/8/11.





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