Book Review: Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What they Tell Us about Ourselves

July 2019—If you think of people as distinct from other animals, this book will be unsettling. The author, Frans de Waal, has researched animal behavior, especially primates, for decades. This book reviews the state of the science through telling stories.

As any pet owner can tell you, we share a lot of emotions and abilities with other animals. That is inadequate for science, of course, where de Waal explains the distinctions between other animals having emotions (which we can see and measure: barred teeth, cortisol, smiles, ears pricked.) and feelings (the internal experience) which we cannot for certain determine. But through research, scientists have shown that our facial expressions, sense of fairness, and altruistic behaviors are not unique to us.

We share a lot not just with other mammals but also fish. He explains how fish get depressed, “have an adrenaline response to sudden events, and high cortisol levels when crowded or harassed…Fish also have dopamine, serotonin and isotocin” (equivalent to oxytocin).

What does any of this have to do with sustainability, you may wonder. I have two answers. During a volunteer vacation at a reserve in South Africa, the owner said, “There are no more wild animals.” Basically we have hemmed in, taken habitat, and affected all other species on the globe. So ready or not, we are responsible for their care. We can’t properly care for animals that we think of as ‘things.’ Yes, we need to be careful not to anthropomorphize—porpoises aren’t smiling—but we should extend empathy beyond our own species. And second, when we bring harm to another, it harms us as well. Deadening our mirror neurons to boil lobsters alive, witness bull/dog/cock fights or permit inhumane conditions in animal ag operations, just because of past cultural norms, makes us less human.

In his conclusion, the author calls on us to let go of antiquated assumptions about our fellow travelers on this planet.

For the remaining animals in research and the agricultural industry, I place my hopes on transparency. It’s up to society to decide what kind of relations we’ll have with animals, and what kind of uses we’ll permit, but it is absolutely essential to bring animals out of the shadows. We barely know what’s going on at many places, which makes it easy to act as if nothing is the matter. We need research facilities with open-door policies and farms with an obligation to show how they keep their animals. Ideally, meat packages in the supermarket would feature a scan bar that allows us to call up pictures (taken by an independent agency) on our smartphones so that we can judge the animal’s living conditions for ourselves. If we made all locations with captive animals as public as zoos, matters would improve in a hurry. Public pressure and consumer preferences would do the job.’

Relative to primates in medical research, he says, “I think the biggest step forward there would be a law that says we can’t keep any primates unless we house all of them socially.”

We might wonder about our use of solitary confinement in prisons at the same time.

(The photo is one my husband, Dale Graham, took of a silverback gorilla in Uganda that had come out of the jungle, saw us, and was wondering how to get by our group. He sat down and scratched his face just as we do when in contemplation.)