By Judy Ramsey
While the answer to the title question may seem obvious to anyone who has ever lived with an animal, it has flummoxed and evaded scientists for centuries. Why?
According to Dr. Jaak Panksepp, Emeritus Professor of the Department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University, there are a number of reasons. Most of them have to do with the science community’s reluctance to investigate the source of feelings in animals, not just the outward appearance of subjective expressions and conditioned responses. In his comprehensive studies, Panksepp has challenged scientists in neurobehavioral research to identify more viable parameters of research with animals, including definitions of ‘emotion and feelings’, acceptance of a broader range of consciousness levels, and a role for informed speculation. Basically, to answer the question of how animals are similar to humans, science has been looking from the outside in, not from the inside out, to find out what causes feelings in animals and how human neurological patterns are similar to animals'. Dr. Panksepp’s research summary, is worth the time to read (bring your dictionary) at www.sciencedirect.com.
Why is it important to know if animals have genuine feelings, and that we aren’t just superimposing our human characteristics on them? There are several important aspects to emotions in animals that I come across frequently in my communication practice: animals’ gifts to us, their levels of consciousness, and our treatment of our animal friends.
In nearly every conversation that I facilitate, I ask the animal, “What is your sacred purpose in your person’s life?” Answers range from the ridiculous “...to make him laugh. He’s too serious!” to the sublime “..to open her heart and to help her soften.” It often surprises the person that the animal has such an intentionally specific purpose that reaches deeply into who they are. People are not often aware of the gifts, because our attention parameters miss sublteties unless we’re living in our hearts. Animals operate primarily from the heart as their central intelligence. Native Americans knew this, looked for the gifts, and celebrated them.
Panksepp, along with other neurobehavioral scientists, like Dr. Mark Bekoff of The University of Colorado in Boulder, have asked the question: “Can animals be moral beings?” My conversational experience concurs loudly with theirs in the laboratory -- “YES!” Every animal I have experienced communication with is unconditional in their love and nonjudgmental in their estimation of who humans are. I worked with a rescue agency for a Labrador retriever who had been living in a car with an alcoholic man who was homeless. The dog meant everything to the man, who was put in jail. The dog was on ‘death row’ at a shelter across the state when the agency contacted me to speak with him for last-minute placement. In spite of everything he had been through, the dog never condemned the man who kept him. He simply described him as “..a person not capable of taking proper care of him.” He showed me the compassion and care he gave this man to keep him connected with life.
The borders between “them” and “us” are becoming less clear with additional research. The study of animal emotions may help us understand who we are. The scientists dedicated to these studies acknowledge that an understanding of affect in the lives of other animals may be critical for making informed choices on how we ethically treat other creatures, as well as how we treat each other. Fortunately, those in the field who claim that animals do not have emotions or do not even experience pain, are becoming more and more a minority. Imagine how your own experience with animals might shift if you knew the emotional consequences for an animal that your actions might have. I question myself every time I think of swatting a mosquito or trapping a mouse. Consequently, at our house, we use repellent and live traps.
What could we gain if we knew more about the nature of anger, a state which affects all of us individually, as well as society as a whole? How about the affective experience of PTSD, drug addiction, mental disorders? By studying similar brain functions in animals, could science find ways to help people at the source of these experiences, instead of just treating the symptoms? What if we discovered that we could be part of that heart-centered community that other mammals live in? What kind of awareness and vibration could we raise in the world if this were so? Imagine the considerable risk of admitting that humans are animals, too -- that our animal nature might even be the better part of us.
Judy Ramsey has been an interspecies counselor for nine years. For 25 years, she has been a translator, social work counselor, educator, and mediator. She is a craniosacral therapist in Ann Arbor at Head To Toe Therapies. She teaches basic and advanced animal communication, and also provides shamanic animal healing. Visit hearttoheartanimalcommunication.net, or contact Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org.