Book Post: When Elephants Weep – The Emotional Lives of Animals

Dear Guys and Ladies,

Whenever I read something that is thought-provoking, unique, or just downright entertaining, I’ll create a small post about it to (a) let you all know it’s out there, and (b) create something of a catalogue of resources on this site.

The book I’ve been reading lately is “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals,” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy.


Let me preface this by saying that this guy, Mr. Masson, is real smart. He wrote several books before this one, and caused some controversy in the psychoanalysis community, which is always fun.

The book’s basic premise is that animals lead complex emotional lives. Scientists have always refused to identify emotions in non-humans, for fear of committing the “sin” of anthropomorphism – assigning human traits to something that is not human. Mr. Masson suggests that animals may not experience human emotions, but they do experience their own emotions. He tells stories about all sorts of animals that he got from his scientist friends, stories that suggest the characters in them are experiencing more than just robotic animal behavior.

If you want a more intellectual, critical review of this book in comparison to Mr. Masson’s other works, this NYT review was written around the time the book was published, in 1995.

I’m just going to

  1. list some quotes I like from the book by topic, then after that,
  2. talk about the point I think Mr. Masson was trying to make with this book, and also
  3. what I personally am gaining from reading When Elephants Weep.



“We need not be limited by ourselves as the reference point…”

Another idea in the book is that humans/scientists view animals in terms of what they can teach us about humans. And we think, for example, that if animals cannot speak like we do, then they cannot explain their emotions. And if they cannot explain their emotions, like we do (sometimes), then they are not experiencing any emotions.

But that thought process is faulty because it uses humans as a reference point for non-humans. We’ve always known animals can communicate among themselves, without using human words. Because they communicate in a different way, why could they not express emotion in a different way? I mean, heck, even humans have a hard time expressing emotions using words.

So Mr. Masson suggests we use animals as a reference point for animals, which is nearly insulting in its logic. But he’s right to do so, because humans have always viewed animals in terms of what they can do for humans, and its time we start thinking of animals as being valuable in their own right. And we should study them to learn more about them, not to find more ways to exploit them.


“How can we be gods if animals are like us?”

Ho ho ho do I love this phrase. Think about it – let’s say the situation is that a cow is separated from her calf soon after birth. The calf is shipped off to be veal and the cow is milked to death. That’s the way things are, and we don’t think too much about the actual cow or calf going through this. I mean, cows don’t have feelings, they just stand around in the grass all day, staring and mooing. Moo is not a word, cows don’t talk to each other, mama cows don’t love their calves, etc. So, we can exploit them and it’s fine if we don’t think too much about it.

But what if we studied cows for a few days? What if (and this is hypothetical, I don’t have time to study cows right now) we found out that mama cows form serious attachments to  their new babies, similar to human mothers? What if we found out that mama cows mope around or act erratically when their babies are taken away, similar to how a human would act? What if we found out that a cow that is constantly hooked up to one of those metal milking torture devices actually hated it and made weird sounds and jumped all over trying to get away from it? A human would do that to avoid being tortured, right?

Well, if we think about it that way, it makes us uncomfortable. And then we can’t use the cow purely as a tool for human consumption without thinking about it. It’s harder to exploit something if you kind of identify with it.

So, we can’t play gods if we identify with and relate to our underlings. That’s the danger of studying animal emotions.



Yes, he uses this word on page 146.

Proof: IMG_7790

Thou canst not hideth, Jeffrey! You’ve been foundeth out.


“The concept of funktionslust, the enjoyment of one’s abilities, also suggests its opposite, the feeling of frustration and misery that overtakes an animal when its capacities cannot be expressed.”

He discusses this German word, funktionslust, throughout the book, and what it basically means is that you want to use your natural abilities. You’re happy and proud when you use them, and you feel sad when you can’t use them.

The human version goes sort of like, oh, I don’t know, you’re looking for a job? Annnnnd you have so much to offer, but no one will hire you because you don’t have 24 years of experience for an entry-level position. And you think, my talents are going to waste away while I’m writing cover letters 13 hours a day. And you feel very sad, because no one wants to give you money to do what you’re good at doing, and you are trapped in a cover letter zoo cage and the whole employed world is laughing at you. HYPOTHETICALLY.

So, animals in zoos, they can’t run around and do wild animal things. They don’t have space; their meals are brought to them; and they have grubby kids tapping on their cages all day long. They can’t exhibit natural behaviors, and they might feel sad about this. Most large species, while in captivity, exhibit pretty stressful behaviors like pacing, gnawing, refusing food, refusing to breed, and other stuff.

This applies to animals in other situations, too, but the example Mr. Masson uses is captivity. And he thinks, among other animal-specific emotions, animals experience this funktionslust. And I super agree.


“This sort of behavior is so reminiscent of human actions that strong scientists feel compelled to take a deep breath and start numbering the animals they observe instead of naming them.”

In this part, he’s talking about something heart-wrenching that a baby elephant does, and I don’t have time to cry right now so I’m not going to write it. Anyway, this hypothetical behavior is most applicable to the scientific community, specifically animal experimentation. Mr. Masson suggests that one of the reasons scientists refuse to assign emotions or feelings to animals is because if they do, then they have to deal with the fact that they are performing painful and invasive experiments on animals that can feel and suffer. And that means they are holding in captivity animals that miss their families and natural habitats. And that is relatable, and might disrupt the smooth flow of animal exploitation in the name of science.

He talks about how naming animals used for experimentation or scientific study is frowned upon, because the scientist might form an emotional attachment. That emotional attachment would make it harder for the scientist to remain objective and perform his science tasks to the fullest extent. But it really just ignores what scientists, deep down, know is true. Animals are complex – it’s why we study them. Duh, we know they feel and suffer and all that. We just don’t want to think about it when it isn’t beneficial to us.

The Point


Animals lead complex lives, and experience complex emotions. But, to further their own interests, scientists only identify animal behavior, and not the emotions or motivations behind the behavior. One very interesting suggestion from Mr. Masson is that, by not being more open to emotional descriptions, scientists are actually missing some information about animals that is right in front of them.

And he also asks, what is the harm in opening ourselves up to the possibility of complex emotions in animals? It may disrupt our way of life? Worth it, I think.

What I’m Learning


I think it’s interesting to consider that animals experience their own emotions, not just the animal equivalent of human emotions. We think in terms of the animal equivalent of our sadness, or the animal equivalent of our jealousy, etc. But animals’ lives are structured differently than ours. It may be that we never learn the full range of emotions animals can experience unless we learn to speak their language.


**This post was longer than intended. Thanks for reading!

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